Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hydra | Within Temptation

Dutch symphonic metal legend Within Temptation has finally released their sixth studio album, Hydra, thus changing their sound yet again. The fact that the band has decided to go in a bit of a different direction is not surprising whatsoever; every single one of their previous albums have all been very different from another. Their last album, The Unforgiving, changed the sound in a way that made some fans frustrated. While I must say that I loved The Unforgiving and gave it an extremely positive review on this blog years ago, it has never been my favorite Within Temptation album. Hydra is definitely an overall improvement, bringing the band back to some of its older roots but still being quite dissimilar.

I've been counting the days until Hydra's release for months, for Within Temptation is one of my top two favorite bands of all time. I must say I particularly appreciate the theme of this album as well as the heaviness, which wasn't as present on the last album.

Hydra opens with a quiet, atmospheric synth that crescendos to a stop, cuing the gorgeous and explosive opening guitar riffs (layered with strings, of course) of "Let Us Burn." Melodic lead singer Sharon den Adel's signature vocalizing comes in towards the end of the powerful intro before the eerie verse kicks in, but her vocal style in the chorus is completely different - she's belting it out like nobody's business. I absolutely loved the demo version we were privileged to hear on the Paradise (What About Us?) EP, but this finished version is perfect. Sharon's vocalizing in the intro, new haunting backing vocals in the second verse, amplified string lines, slight changes in some of the choruses' vocal lines, and that middle eight! A choir can now be heard during the middle eight, making it much more epic. "Let Us Burn" is an extremely impressive heavy track filled with emotion.

The second song is "Dangerous," an energetic collaboration with Howard Jones of Killswitch Engage. It was definitely a smart single choice with its heavy, catchy guitar riffs. As Howard Jones sings his half of the verse, Sharon vocalizes with her head voice in the background, creating a fantastic contrast between the two very different vocalists, but their voices end up going relatively well together for the chorus. Really, "Dangerous" is a great morning song; it's bound to get anybody pumped.

Even though Within Temptation fans should be used to the band trying new things all the time, "And We Run" may the most different of anything they've tried, for it features Xzibit - a rapper. While I've been open to the idea of merging rock with rap, I really don't think this is one of Within Temptation's better ideas. The verses are too small for rap, which usually requires longer verses due to the quick recitations, and I'm really not a fan of rapping when it's slower than the speed at which I talk. So, maybe I would've liked it better at a different pace or with a different rapper. The chorus didn't do much for me either, but I must say that I loved the choir in the instrumental.

I'm not concerned though. I highly doubt Within Temptation will try the whole rap thing again since they change so much, and one lackluster song on a fantastic album won't burst my happy bubble.

And I'm sure we all know that their fantastic duet with Tarja can't break anybody's happy bubble. As I said in my review of the EP that was released some months ago, I absolutely love "Paradise (What About Us?)" - what an epic song! It was also #1 on my Top 13 Singles of 2013 list. I must've listened to it on the EP a million times by now and it still isn't old. Those strings are so urgent and catchy as they morph with the guitars, the instrumentation of the verses is just awesome, and the chorus and middle eight are incredibly powerful... I love every aspect of the track. And I must add that this is the first Within Temptation song I've ever heard on the radio on my side of the world (FINALLY), so it definitely served well as the first single.

Halfway through the album, things slow down a bit with "Edge of the World." "Edge of the World" is the track that really surprised me, and I mean that in the best way possible. It begins quite softly with subtle percussion and some strings, but things start to change in the second verse as more instruments come in, eventually bringing in electric guitars with the chorus. A beautiful moment of piano and cello begins the middle eight, giving me chills, and then BAM. Heaviness. Chaotic, screechy violins overlap dark guitars and more intense drumming than usual. That last chorus is just perfect. It's so strange to remember that when "Edge of the World" began, I didn't think I'd like it, but it ended up being my favorite song from Hydra. It's absolutely gorgeous!

Next, the fast-paced "Silver Moonlight" takes fans of  Within Temptation's older material down memory lane. Robert Westerholt's grunts/growls (which were found on Enter, The Dance EP, and the song "Jane Doe") have returned, but that isn't the only resemblance to older material. The guitar riffs are sort of reminiscent of their past music as well. Sharon's vocals are rather impressive on this track, and they're much more edgy than usual, just as I mentioned when I reviewed the song's demo on the Paradise (What About Us?) EP. Like the other songs that we heard early versions of, "Silver Moonlight"  has endured a lot of technical improvement before surfacing on the album.

"Covered by Roses," the seventh track, caught my attention right away with its smooth flow. Sharon vocalizes quite a bit in between the catchy verses and fantastic chorus. Her voice has a nice light tone throughout the track, making this song a rather pretty (though upbeat) one. The middle eight is another highlight of the song with its dramatic strings and eventual breakdown, which left a distorted piano and a child's narration. Another great addition to Hydra.

"Dog Days" is a piano-led ballad that we got to hear the demo of on the Paradise (What About Us?) EP, and the instrumentation is now much cleaner and connected. It's not a bad song, but it doesn't really shine to me, making it my second least favorite from Hydra. At the end, Sharon repeatedly belts "these are the dog days," which doesn't sound like the easiest thing to do... I personally prefer her to switch to her upper register when singing high  notes (because it sounds so pretty!), but more power to her for trying different techniques. We all have our preferences.

The ninth track, "Tell Me Why," pumps up the volume one last time. The guitar riffs in the entire song are heavy and intriguing as Sharon's voice soars - especially those verses! The middle eight begins with vocals (including more of Robert's grunts/growls!) and ends with vocals, but the middle is a bit of an instrumental explosion. The rhythm guitars are so dark during the middle eight under the awesome guitar solo. "Tell Me Why" is one of the heaviest songs on the album, and there's a unique sense of fluidity to it.

But, Hydra had to end at some point. "Whole World is Watching" is the last song at the album, ending it on a soft note. It begins with a bit of guitar and a gorgeous violin. The song features Dave Pirner (the lead singer of Soul Asylum), and it reminds me of "Utopia" in some ways. The best parts are the second half of the chorus and the middle eight as Sharon shows off on the higher vocal lines. It's not one of my favorites per se, but it's still a great song; I really like this one. However, it ends a bit too abruptly for me - especially as an album closer.

But despite any flaws or dislikable qualities found on this rather energetic new album (in my case, mainly just "And We Run" and "Dog Days," and I did find positives in both), it's easy to say that Within Temptation has done it again. The direction they've taken is a bit more metal than symphonic, but the symphonic elements are certainly still there. Within Temptation is doing something different while giving us flashbacks of older work off and on throughout the album, surely giving even the pickiest fans something to enjoy.

Personally, I will be unabashedly replaying Hydra for a long time. I'm sure many others will as well.

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