I’ve learned through these past few years doing The Metal Pigeon that the hardest reviews to write are the ones for releases that I don’t feel strongly about one way or another. Case in point is the amount of days I’ve been putting off publishing this review for the newest Within Temptation album, Hydra, simply because I’ve felt unsatisfied about my own written response (I’ve re-written this thing about three times now, and this fourth and final time is me just being blunt and hopefully not coming across as a jerk). Full disclosure before I begin: I generally enjoy what Within Temptation does —- which is polished, semi-symphonic metallic pop-rock crowned with the ear pleasing vocals of Sharon Den Adel. There have been some missteps along the way (the insipid “What’ve You Done Now?” duet with Keith Caputo comes to mind), but generally speaking Within Temptation have done rather well in their chosen style. I’ve never really considered them a metal band, but they get thrown into our world due to the semi-doom stylings of their debut album and simply by association (at least for me… I first heard of them through Den Adel’s guest spot on the first Avantasia album). But that’s okay, because over the past decade plus they’ve delivered a handful of albums with catchy, well crafted songs that ring with conviction.
This however, is not one of those albums. Within Temptation have always possessed a commercially friendly sound, but on albums like Mother Earth (2000), its follow up The Silent Force (2004), and the surprisingly excellent The Unforgiving (2011), that characteristic seemed like a natural byproduct of the band’s songwriting ability to use dramatic, epic sound palettes in crafting self contained pop format songs. Den Adel’s vocal melodies were central in importance, while the riffs and orchestral arrangements would work to support them by encapsulating them (for example on tracks like “Stand My Ground”, or “Angels”). Of course the caveat here is that such a strategy only worked as long as the vocal melodies were strong enough to carry the song alone —- and on those records, they generally were. When the band gets it wrong, as on The Heart of Everything (2007) and yes, on Hydra, the results are largely uninspiring. Compound this with a series of misguided guest vocalist additions and you have a near disaster of an album.
Let’s start with those questionable guest vocalists first. I remember feeling mildly concerned that their usage of the aforementioned Caputo as a guest vocalist on The Heart of Everything would mark the start of a potentially negative trend, but surprisingly The Unforgiving was guest-free. I guess they’re making up for the lack thereof on that album becauseHydraboasts an unseemly four guest singers, none of whom on paper inspire confidence. The results are worse on record —- where to start? Let’s take “And We Run”, a song where a promising verse really needs an actual developed bridge to the Den Adel sung chorus, but I suppose that’s rapper Xzibit’s job, with his post chorus raps full of nonsensical lyrics and atonal delivery that completely derail any hope of this being a good song. Its one of those songs where you wonder if someone in the recording process or mixing phase was silently thinking to themselves, “I think this should be a b-side”. Not faring much better is the lame “Dangerous”, where ex-Killswitch Engage screamer Howard Jones gives us his best alternative rock voice, which is a shade more tolerable than his regular style. The song itself seems to have the potential to be something decent, the vocal melody is salvageable, but its marred by clumsy, embarrassingly bad lyrics.
And then there’s the much ballyhooed Tarja Turunen (billed these days simply as “Tarja”) collaboration, “Paradise (What About Us)”, a song that is disappointing on a few levels. First I suppose I should remark on just how well Tarja’s English pronunciations sound these days, to the untrained ear her traded off verses with Den Adel would be nearly indistinguishable. That’s also part of the problem —- their verses are patterned so similarly that there really isn’t an apparent juxtaposition of voices on the song (unless you count Tarja’s operatic accents during the middle bridge section —- which I don’t). Songwriting wise, there’s some solid rhythmic variations going on in the verse sections that you wish were expanded upon. It’s the chorus that fails me, not only because its repeated countless times in favor of… you know, actual songwriting variations, but its simply weak, unable to pull sufficiently from the wellspring of drama that has fueled so many Within Temptation choruses past. To me personally, its yet another sad piece of proof that Tarja’s vocals will never have the benefit of the kind of songwriting platforms Tuomas Holopainen crafted for her in Nightwish —- she simply does not sound good anywhere else.
The only guest vocalist spot that sort of works, and that’s primarily due to the strength of the song, is Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner on “The Whole World is Watching”, of which I still can’t believe no one representing the band didn’t try to get on NBC during the Sochi Olympics. Do I have to draw you guys a picture? Despite its maudlin lyrics, this is one of the stronger songs on the record as an above average ballad, but I suppose that depends on your tolerance level for these things. Pirner has always been a rather expressive singer (certainly among most of the Minneapolis rock bands of that era), but just like the other guests he’s a puzzling choice for co-vocalist, albeit one of the more believable ones. I suppose I can see a younger Within Temptation enjoying “Runaway Train” back in the day, but wasn’t there someone with a far more distinctive and powerful voice they could’ve called upon? And I wonder why all the increased emphasis on guest vocalists all of a sudden anyway? A cynical perspective would highlight them as examples of a band wanting to trade in on a guest vocalist’s fan base, but only in the case of Tarja is that really a potential reality here. I’m baffled honestly.
Thankfully its not all bad. The album opener “Let It Burn” is a decent song, reminiscent of the same surging energy that ran throughout The Unforgiving, with tension building verses that explode in a exuberant refrain. The highlight of the album however is “Silver Moonlight”, the one track that sees the band refreshingly reconnecting with their metallic roots. There are actual metal riffs at work here! Some pretty good ones at that, making a change from what has become the band’s typical reliance on big dumb power chords. Here Sharon Den Adel flexes her soaring vocals to greater heights, and guitarist Robert Westerholt makes his co-vocalist return with some impressively doomy death vocals. Ironic that this ends up being the best track on an album full of guest vocalists. There’s also “Covered By Roses”, where the Gothic imagery of the title is matched by the content of the lyrics, full of references to castles, falling stars, wine, sadness, beauty —- it winds up sounding like an outtake from The Silent Force (that’s a good thing). Is that an actual fluid guitar solo I hear at the end there? I knew these guys still had some real musicality hiding under all these layers of production gloss! On an album this dire, I’ll take every encouraging sign I can get. I could’ve done without the awkward, half-baked “Dog Days”, a song that might’ve benefited from a producer who would’ve called the terrible lyrics into question. Oh well… I’m getting tired of listening to this record honestly, so moving on.
There’s a bonus disc on some editions of Hydra that contain a handful of covers taken from the band’s questionable The Q-Music Sessions (see Wikipedia for more info on this), and some “evolution” tracks of songs from the album (essentially, gradual fades of demos to finished versions). I just want to focus on the idea of these covers here, let’s see: Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive”, Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, Enrique Iglesias’ “Dirty Dancer”, and Passenger’s “Let Her Go”. Both “Dirty Dancer” and “Radioactive” sound silly, they’re completely divorced from their original sound palette and while that was the point —- flatly I find them unlikeable. Faring little better is “Summertime Sadness”, as the upbeat Goth-rock orchestral arrangement conjured up for the cover is an inadequate backdrop when compared to the original’s eerie, smoky trip-hop palette. Much better by far is the band’s take on Passenger’s “Let Her Go”, and yes the lyrics are strange when sung by a woman, though Den Adel’s vocals are far superior to Mike Rosenberg’s. Something strikes me as odd about the inclusion of these four tracks as bonus cuts. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’m not surprised that three of them are very recent hits… and major major hits at that (I’m talking Lebron jamming to his Beats headphones type of hits). And they’re being re-re-released here for emphasis.
I know the intention behind The Q-Music Sessions was to celebrate a radio station’s anniversary (huh?!) and to see if the band could quickly adapt a song to their style —- however, the entire affair struck me at the time as the most dubious exercise in crass commercialism. What’s even more surprising was the lack of anyone calling them out on it. I have no problem with a band wanting to get bigger, to sell more records, to gain more fans, and to generally secure their livelihood. I do feel however, that what Within Temptation have done by agreeing to the concept of their stunt with this radio station is inherently disingenuous. They’re not releasing a covers record of songs culled from their influences growing up, they’re simply covering pop radio hits. Was it really such a challenge to deliver such half-baked covers? When they released all these finished covers as an album, the YouTube uploads quickly followed —- you can’t say the band isn’t shrewd. How many of those covered artists’ fans have checked out these YouTube-d covers by this odd Dutch rock band? How many of those fans will in turn check out Hydra due to simple fandom flattery? How far does something like this go you may ask? Den Adel even recently appeared on a European chat show with a bewildered looking Lana Del Rey. Crossover indeed.
If you haven’t heard of Germany’s Atlantean Kodex before, that’s understandable because they are only recently receiving the kind of critical acclaim that is turning quite a few heads thanks to their amazing new record The White Goddess. I myself only listened to them after 2013 had passed, thanks to seeing their high placement on Adrien Begrand’s Best of 2013 list. Atlantean Kodex play power metal, or as some prefer to call it to avoid negative stigmas, traditional or epic metal. The caveat is that all this new found attention is coming from far more than just relatively underground power metal sites/blogs —- as the band have been turning the heads of writers at a few big platform publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Popmatters, and Vice. Yes you’re reading that right, a release by a power metal band from the birthplace of the subgenre itself is receiving the kind of attention that is normally reserved for critically acceptable black and death metal bands. Their success in this regard is the product of two parts smart marketing and pairing with highly regarded indie record labels (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin), and one part a blending of such disparate influences as Manowar and Bathory —- a combination that practically begs to be investigated.
Its important to note that Atlantean Kodex are a relatively young band in a strange way; they formed in 2005 but have been quite content to take their time in creating new music, as The White Goddess is only their sophomore full length album. However it might be one of the most important power metal recordings of all time, not only due to its undisputed excellence, but for what it could mean for the future of a subgenre long maligned in the United States. In this regard, Atlantean Kodex are venturing into unknown territory, being the first power metal band to achieve critical success from non-metal media platforms in the post-social media era. Surely this kind of success would not come from the genre’s long standing forefathers, its torchbearers such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Avantasia, etc, etc —- the fix was in against those bands perhaps simply because their origins predate the current era. Its always easier for the media to disregard something long established with lazy labels and critical adjectives (ie cheesy, pretentious, dinosaur, etc) than it is to actually do the work and understand why these artists are as popular and loved as they are.
What makes The White Goddess great isn’t exactly groundbreaking on a conceptual level —- its simply quality songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a vocalist that sells it all with soaring conviction. The same qualities could be attributed to many other fine releases by other bands within the genre. Where Atlantean Kodex strive to differentiate themselves is by adding shades of melancholic doom to their take on power metal, which makes everything sound heavier, with a tendency to lean on slower, steady tempos, often with ample use of space and silence. Evidence of the latter can be found on the slow and brooding eleven minute long “Heresiarch”, where isolated bass lines sometimes are the sole instrument rumbling along during the verses. The clear album standout here is “Sol Invictus” (another ten minute plus track), the album’s clarion call that boasts a punishing heaviness not only from sledgehammer riffs, but from the brutal attack of the rhythm section —- drummer Mario Weiss is one of the most talented and unheralded drummers in metal today, his percussion is at once relentless, assaulting, and artful. The chorus here puts the spotlight on vocalist Markus Becker who commands your attention with a performance that is Imaginations-era Hansi Kursch esque. I’ll spare you a track by track dissection here, the entire album is jawdroppingly amazing, but my personal favorite has to be “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown”, a semi-ballad that wrenches out emotion from every note. At times throughout the song, metal fury is pierced by moments of haunting, doomy, ethereal beauty. I mentioned Bathory as an influence earlier, and its extremely difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where Quorthon’s work really comes through, because its simply everywhere, ingrained in the fabric of Atlantean Kodex’s sound and approach to songwriting. You hear it alongside the Manowar-ish influences and it sounds completely natural.
Lyrically, this is top tier level stuff that transcends power metal boundaries despite using many mythological references. The underlying theme of the album is the rise and fall of modern Europe, but these lyrics are ancient world imagery rich and full of obscure mythological metaphors, as guitarist Manuel Trummer explained to VICE, “The figure of the White Goddess is an allegory for this life/death relationship. She‘s an pan-European deity who shows up in all religions from ancient Greece to the Nordic pantheon, but she‘s always associated with aspects of life, death and rebirth.” Many of you that read this blog often already know that I’m big on lyricists within metal, that is, quality lyricists which are few and far between. This is band that has put as much work into their lyrics as they have their music, a rare tendency in power metal even, which is a shame because I thought Trummer had a point when he talked about the lack of need for focusing on lyrics in other, more extreme genres of metal: “with all these Cookie Monster vocals in brutal death metal, metalcore, deathcore, etc., you can‘t understand the lyrics anyway. A lot of this new kind of metal is about physical power, about experiencing your own body, about extreme feelings and situations. There‘s simply no need for elaborate lyrics.” And that’s a good jumping off point to say that I think The White Goddess could be a turning point for the future of power/trad/epic (whatever you want to call it) metal —- it certainly is going to be a benchmark going forward at the very least.
The possibility exists now, however small it is, that this album’s critical success could pave the way for more power metal bands to get first time, or simply longer “looks” from the mainstream media, particularly here in the United States. More pressingly, it could inspire many power metal bands that are either stuck in a formula, or afraid to get “arty” to go ahead and take chances with their music. I must admit to wondering idly whether or not The White Goddess would have received the kind of attention it did from those big platform sites had it been released on Century Media or Nuclear Blast, and featured cover art that looked like it belonged more on a Gamma Ray record (as opposed to the one they chose, which could be a Candlemass cover). It was a savvy marketing move, and no one can fault the band for that.
Thanks to Atlantean Kodex’s late 2013 success, I have an interesting idea brewing about 2014 being a resurgent year for power metal, as we are likely going to see most major bands within the genre release new albums throughout the year (Iced Earth for example already have —- review forthcoming), and this could be the year that some of these guys finally get the attention from larger circles that they are so often denied. I look at Atlantean Kodex’s dent in the tastemaker’s media platform as just one part of this potential future, Pharaoh certainly turned major heads (such as Lars Gotrich of NPR) with 2012′s Bury the Light record —- but more than just isolated examples however, is an undercurrent of what I feel might be an overload of the extreme metal spectrum. Death and black bands tend to take up the majority of critical attention, and I’ve been noticing that a few writers out there are getting seemingly bored with it all, and that the prospect of a metal band with actual singing is becoming a more and more appealing idea. Its going to be interesting to look back at the end of this year and see if my prediction is right.