Within Temptation: "The Unforgiving" - CD Review

If you've been watching our updates on The Unforgiving – the new supernatural concept album from symphonic metal superstars Within Temptation – then you know they've got a pretty big multimedia thing going with this release. Not only is there a stylish tie-in comic book written by Steven O'Connell (Dark 48, BloodRayne) and drawn by Romano Molenaar (X-Men, Witchblade, Lady Death), but the band has also been releasing installments of a creepy short film series explaining the backstory of the characters. So far, two of these noir-style black & white films have been released: Mother Maiden sets the stage for a dark fantasy world, while the recent Sinéad focuses more closely on protagonist Sinéad Harkin – a cursed woman who returns from the dead with a new mission and purpose. Turn the page to dig a full review of the album, plus check out those first two films...

For a band that forged a major international rep on the basis of sweeping gothic melodrama – all drop-tuned guitar riffs, massive orchestral/choral backgrounds and vocalist Sharon den Adel's pure, angelic soprano – The Unforgiving is a major step in their departure from that sound. Some slight changes were already underway in their album The Silent Force, their first tentative steps from so-called "ethereal metal" to more mainstream gothic rock, and continued into their 2007 release The Heart of Everything... but they hadn't made a truly daring creative leap until now.

Co-founder/guitarist Robert Westerholt has explained how the band was interested in tapping into the more straight-forward rock styles of the 1980s for inspiration, since that was also the period when their love of music and comics began to intertwine; much of this new stylistic shift is probably based on that musical nostalgia. It's also interesting that the band would incorporate more pop-rock rhythms and song structures for this particular album, since the concept spans such an epic supernatural tale of revenge and a centuries-old team of evil-fighters, but weirdly enough it actually works in the story's favor.

Not that the band completely abandoned the colossal sound that their fans have come to expect: some of the tracks on The Unforgiving are as hugely cinematic as anything they've turned out in their career – they're just built more on a traditional hard rock/pop core, all the way down to arena-friendly guitar solos, ballads and danceable beats. This approach "reflects one of the many musical roots we have," Westerholt said. "Combined with the modern influences on our new album, it's like the past and future created the present."

The storytelling aspect of the album is set up immediately with the brief opening track "Why Not Me," a dialogue excerpt from the title character of Mother Maiden – the first short film in the series – establishing the connection between the music and the comic book storyline. Here's that clip, which also includes the band performing the single "Faster":

The first clear sign of their new sound comes straight-away in the first song "Shot In The Dark," the first time the band relies on keyboards for rhythm lines and not just sweeping orchestral passages. Not that they don't hang onto the symphonic elements: in fact, they incorporate a real orchestra on this record, which plays a key role in the massive, high-energy cut "In The Middle Of The Night." But when the single "Faster" steps up, the band's '80s-era influences really come into play, marking the biggest split from their early sound. But the moodier ballad "Fire And Ice" and the mighty guitar riffs & higher-range vocals of "Iron" still remind you of their roots, and they're also shining examples of how the band expertly handles epic-scale arrangements. The mid-tempo "Where Is The Edge" lacks the same dramatic punch, but still packs a solid hook.

"Sinéad" is the theme song of the album & comic's title character – as well as the second single – is significantly different in style and tone with its clubby dance beat, but it's actually a lot more fun than "Faster." It also shares a title with the grim & creepy second film in the series – which doesn't contain the song, but sets up more of the character's backstory:

"Lost" is an emotionally powerful ballad that showcases Sharon's vocal range, before the band ventures down a much more sinister path for "Murder" – a dark and complex song with goose-bumpy harmonies and a vast cinematic feel. "A Demon's Fate" is a 50/50 split of the band's older and newer styles, with the pop-rock style of "Faster" but all the grand-sounding instrumentation & backing vocals of their earlier efforts, plus some of lead guitarist Ruud Jolie's most interesting work. The melancholy "Stairway To The Skies" ends the album on a dreamlike note, with simple but climactic instrumentation forming the perfect accompaniment to Sharon's otherworldly voice.

For a band that helped push female-fronted gothic/symphonic metal into the mainstream (along with Nightwish, Tristania, The Gathering, Epica, Leaves' Eyes, Theatre of Tragedy and dozens more), it's a daring but ultimately savvy move for Within Temptation to bust free from that model... it took them a little while to get there, but they finally achieved the transition with The Unforgiving. In a way, they're not only re-defining themselves, but the whole genre as well. Of course none of that would matter if the songs didn't rock (or worse, if they just plain sucked), but fortunately they do... and I'm hoping for even more interesting experiments from them in the future.