Talking Heads: Within Temptation Baffles with Hydra
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.