By Adrien Begrand
There’s nothing wrong with a band broadening their sound in an attempt to attract a wider audience. For some metal bands, it’s the next logical step in their evolution. However, such a task is much easier said than done. Take Lacuna Coil, for instance. After doing the goth metal shtick for the better part of a decade the band decided to sound less European and more American on 2009’s Shallow Life, ditching the darker tones of their melodic heavy rock in favour of something along the lines of Linkin Park, geared more towards active rock radio than anything else. What fans got, however, was a rather awkward record that had the band sounding uncomfortable in its new skin. All the right buttons were being pushed, but it felt forced, and not only did critics pick up on that right away, but fans did as well, as the album’s worldwide sales were a huge disappointment.
Within Temptation, on the other hand, feel absolutely at home embracing their pop side. From the moment they put out their inspired cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up That Hill” back in 2003, it was clear that the middle of the road was the more fitting direction than mere symphonic goth theatricality. Unlike Lacuna Coil, though, it’s been a gradual process for the Dutch sextet over the past few albums, each release sounding more and more polished, arrangements more streamlined, hooks taking higher precedent over riffs. That their fifth studio album is their most quote-unquote accessible is no surprise whatsoever.
It might be considered blasphemy from a metal perspective, but from a purely pop-oriented point of view, where Within Temptation is concerned, “heavy” doesn’t necessarily equate “better”. They’ve always been a pop act at heart; whenever they’ve dragged out the heavy riffs or the goth clichés in the past, it’s felt a bit on the forced side. When they’re in full pop rock mode, though, they’re in their element, and The Unforgiving plays to those strengths, at times exceptionally well. While 2007’s The Heart of Everything paid lip service to the band’s heavier roots, the balance between hard rock and unabashed pop is a lot more even here, the guitars and keyboards creating a perfect backdrop to the wonderful vocal talents of Sharon Den Adel, who takes full advantage of the opportunity to put in a powerhouse performance.
Indeed, what makes The Unforgiving work so well is Den Adel’s presence. She is a total anomaly in metal and hard rock; whereas other singers play up the pure bombast of the music to over-the-top effect, Den Adel is so much more controlled. She can provide the necessary vocal power to propulsive rockers like “Faster” and “In the Middle of the Night”, and then turn right around and knock power ballads like “Fire and Ice” and “Lost” clear out of the park. All the while, she never lowers herself to melodramatic histrionics, her control grounding the music to render it convincing despite the fact that the band isn’t doing anything particularly original.
There are moments on the new record that find Within Temptation embracing the rock and the pop elements fully, and that’s where one can see their music headed in the future. “Shot in the Dark” is a perfect exercise in dynamics, subdued, electronically-accented verses giving way to an explosive chorus. “Sinéad” is a total Sisters of Mercy/Depeche Mode homage, built around a central hook in the chorus that’s one of the most contagious the band has ever written and underscored by a subtle, dance-oriented beat, reminiscent of the days when goth bands were unafraid to be pompous. “Iron”, meanwhile, is the kind of arena rock anthem that European fans go loopy over time and again, simple ebullience and fist-pumping empowerment, and nothing more. It’s easy to cringe at the lyrics that feel lifted from a Stallone arm wrestling flick, but taken without a trace of irony or self-consciousness (which is how you’re supposed to be hearing this music in the first place), it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
Underneath it all is a sort of rock opera storyline, which will come across more clearly when accompanied by the forthcoming comic book series of the same name, but the strength of the songs alone makes whatever plot there is a non-factor for anyone who’d rather focus on the music than the lyrics. For those who do want to delve into the album’s concept, the overall multimedia package the band has put together with artist Steven O’Connell is a clever one. For anyone still bellyaching about how “poppy” and “mainstream” Within Temptation now sounds compared to something like Enter, on the other hand, live with it. Don’t deny you didn’t see this coming. Besides, nobody is able to pull it off in classier fashion than them.