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Within Temptation - The Unforgiving Review

Within Temptation have managed to carve out a healthy reputation for themselves despite the fact that they’re often thought of as “that other band that’s kind of like Nightwish”. Such a categorization is blatantly unfair, of course, as it’s an injustice to the talent of the lead singer and the power of some of the melodies the band has created, but it is at least understandable.

Symphonic metal is a crowded genre. It seems especially popular in a few strange European lands where so many imitators have sprung up all over the place that one imagines the want ads simply overflowing with requests for violinists and choir singers. 

Unfortunately, most of these bands seem to have no idea what makes this style of music compelling in the first place, content to stick with the formula of “big ass choir + big ass string section + repetitive metal music + dumb, melodramatic lyrics = symphonic metal”. There’s precious few unique ideas out there and even fewer bands that get the mix right. It’s not a matter of simply mashing the component elements together. You have to weave them carefully in and out of one another, achieving a delicate balance of soft and hard, metal and melody, epic and personal. 

Nightwish is one of the few bands to consistently achieve this feat. Tuomas Holopainen, the genius behind the Finnish symphonic metal masters, has mastered the creation of songs that deserve the verb “composed” instead of merely being “written”, integrating the melodic and the metal in a way no one else can seem to match. 

With this in mind, placing Within Temptation on a pedestal next to Nightwish is not the insult it might at first appear to be, even if the implication is that the Dutch band plays decidedly second fiddle to the true masters. Within Temptation have historically been good at what they do, but there’s a reason they’re not considered the leader even though their band was actually formed in the same year as Nightwish.

Sharon den Adel and company built their band’s sound on a foundation that could be generously described as “melodramatic”. There was something compelling about the almost absurdly over-the-top nature of their music, but that same quality robbed it of the emotional punch of Tuomas’s compositions. When thinking of Within Temptation, I always conjured the image of a listener sitting alone in a tiny chair in a huge empty room being somehow beaten over the head with an orchestra.

That’s an amusing way of saying that the driving force behind their music has long been choir, strings, and vocals. Everything else has been backgrounded and the result left one wondering why such a band needed two guitarists. It was catchy, generally well done, and fun music, but it was hard to take seriously. 

With The Unforgiving, Within Temptation have managed to evolve their sound into something far more mature and whole without sacrificing any of the fun or epic feel that made them interesting in the first place. The result is undoubtedly the strongest album they have yet released.

Even in the more traditional cuts on the disc, such as “Stairway to the Skies” or “Iron”, the songs feel more well-rounded. The rhythm section is stronger, the guitars a little more prominent.

Where things really get fun is on some of the other tracks. The lead single, “Faster”, is a great example of how the band has changed. Sharon’s beautiful, soaring vocals are still as strong as ever, but instead of being backed up by nothing but strings and choir, an entire band has mysteriously appeared behind her. The guitars provide riffs and even solos. Drums drive the song rather than simply existing. The whole affair is simplified and less overdone than their prior work. In fact, the once all-important choirs and strings make barely an appearance, showing up just enough to make a dramatic impact.

In fact, the lessened prominence of the strings and choirs has heightened their effectiveness. When they were everywhere, they were overpowering. It could become too much, with all the songs sort of blending together. In The Unforgiving, when these background elements show up, they carry more weight, as they should. Rather than being simply the expected and uninteresting noise behind all their music, Within Temptation has learned how to craft these elements into a useful emotional tool.

The empty space left by the absence of the elements that used to comprise most of the band’s work has made way for their most varied and interesting album by far. 

Good old-fashioned synth is used effectively in spots, such as the opening of “A Demon’s Fate” where it is layered underneath real strings for an interesting contrast. Sharon’s voice soon joins the mix with a style that makes her sound oddly like another synth instrument for a moment until the actual verse starts, driven by the guitars rather than the rolling strings that back them up. 

The guitars lead the listener into “In the Middle of the Night” and proceed to carry most of the rest of this fast-paced stunner, with the strings only popping in here and there to act as dramatic punctation marks or subtle backing. The riffs and guitar work here are worthy of a pure metal song, some of the best on the album, and are backed up by a driving chorus and layers of strings and musical depth that keep things interesting. The song closes with churning guitars and double bass good enough to head bang to. I approve.

“Murder” is a perfect example of how to use strings to drive a song effectively. The moody opening layers pulsing strings under Sharon’s sinister vocals, made even more so by the subtle computerized voice singing underneath them. This dark beginning transitions into a slightly more upbeat chorus when the guitars kick in and Sharon starts belting her traditional soaring vocals, only to return to the depths for the next verse. The pacing is fantastic.

“Sinéad” might be my favorite track on the disc. It begins with oddly soothing synths and Sharon’s soft vocals, sounding like the beginning to a lost pop ballad from the 80s. The strings peek in soon afterward, along with the rhythmic pulse of a drum machine that also sounds right out of the 80s. This odd mix drives into a chorus that is catchy, energetic, and - gasp! - even upbeat. This isn’t a tone you hear often in this genre and its inclusion gives a welcome break from the overly epic, the dark and depressing, and transports the listener to a slightly happier place of blips and bloops while still sounding recognizably like Within Temptation. Even the strings join in, played in spots more like quick taps of a synth key than the smoother style typically heard from the band. “Sinéad” sounds playful and fun. It’s the single best example on The Unforgiving of how the band is willing to incorporate new ideas into their music and how this experimentation has created a far stronger end result. 

The Unforgiving does what so few albums in this genre manage to do. It sounds like it was created by humans. It is playful and energetic. It has emotional punch to go along with its moments of mindless epic catchiness. It has fantastic pacing from start to finish instead of the often monotonous wall of relentless epic that made up the majority of their older albums. Within Temptation has created what is not only their most varied and interesting album yet, but also surely one of the best works in the genre of symphonic metal as a whole. It makes their previous efforts look positively amateurish by comparison. One can only hope that this discovery of the other members of the band leads to more experimentation in albums to come. If this is the beginning of a trend, then their future is bright indeed.

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