Friday, March 27, 2015

Essential Within Temptation: The Singles

I've made it pretty obvious that the Dutch symphonic metal band Within Temptation is one of my all-time favorites. For nearly 20 years they've been releasing gorgeous music, and they've done something different with each and every album. To compile a list of their best must-listens would be very time consuming and stressful since there are so many. So, as I often do for my music lists, I limited the potentially selections strictly to singles. Even though I oftentimes consider the non-singles to be the best of artists - especially in this genre - Within Temptation has accumulated a wonderful set of them. They provide glimpses into the band's wider scope, and some are undoubtedly among the ranks of their best songs.

To celebrate such a fantastic band, I'm going to briefly count down their most essential singles.

"And We Run" ft. Xzibit
Kicking off the countdown is Within Temptation's only song to feature rap. Some fans really weren't into this track, and neither was I for the first fifteen-ish listens... But it's so powerful and uplifting. The simple piano line says so much, and the song crescendos beautifully. Xzibit and Within Temptation's vocalist Sharon den Adel couldn't sound more different, but the collaboration works. It just takes an open mind and a little extra time to fully appreciate it.

"Forgiven" is the tear-jerking ballad from The Heart of Everything used to promote the acclaimed Black Symphony CD/DVD release. It's incredibly emotional and highlights Sharon's beautiful high voice, accompanied by only piano and strings all the way through. Hearts are bound to clench at the last lines of the middle eight: "Everything turned out so wrong / Why did you leave me in silence?"

*I recommend hearing the full version rather than this radio edit. It flows much better.

The Unforgiving got some flack from metal elitists for its 'fun' side, and "Sinéad" was the most fun of all. There are even noticeable synths used throughout. The things is... It's amazing. Try to listen to it and not start dancing - TRY. Failure is inevitable. The strings are catchy as hell and even epic during the breakdown of the middle eight. Like "And We Run," "Sinéad" is one of those songs that proves Within Temptation can do whatever they want - it'll sound great regardless.

"All I Need"
Another ballad from The Heart of Everything, although "All I Need" is a power ballad. Weirdly enough, I didn't like this song very much the first thirty-ish times... But then one day I was watching the official music video and just started bawling like crazy. It took a while for the incident to occur, but it hit me all at once. Not only is it beautiful, but it rips the heart to shreds. The string line is quite prominent, especially right before the final chorus kicks in... That cello line gets me every time...

*I recommend hearing the full version rather than this radio edit. It flows much better because it keeps the entire bridge, which is where the emotional rollercoaster really begins.

"Running Up That Hill" [Kate Bush Cover]
Within Temptation has now covered enough songs to make an entire album from the Q-Music sessions, but for a while, "Running Up That Hill" was their only cover song. A fabulous transition between the Mother Earth era to the Silent Force era, this song highlights the more shrill aspect of den Adel's voice. It's very upbeat; that chorus is a pure jam session, and the orchestra is still very prominent. Even though it's heavy, there's a lightheartedness to it that makes it stand out in their discography.

"Ice Queen"
The classic. The one single you know for sure you'll hear at a Within Temptation concert. "Ice Queen" has a signature light-hearted feel and wonderful lyrics, making it easy for listeners to bob their heads and sing along. It certainly highlights Sharon's glorious upper range and there's something about the orchestration that induces chills.

The video: It seems like everyone on the face of the Internet hates it... but I love it. I'm surprised that it doesn't get more love. It was made about 10-15 years ago - of course the backgrounds are fake as hell. But it's all kind of pretty... Every band member has a different element. 


"Stand My Ground"
Everyone loves a song about standing up for themselves, but Within Temptation managed to make it more epic. The verses hint at adventure while the chorus - the best part of the song - is filled with determination and even a sense of resolution, but it just grows and grows so that by the time we get to the final chorus the instrumentation kicks in full force. It's not overly ambitious, but it still does one hell of a job of catching attention. 


"Angels" has long been a fan favorite: Sharon owns the high notes like nobody's business, the lyrics are relatable as they're about deception and betrayal, and that post-chorus and middle eight are so intense and beautiful. It's definitely a song that builds, and even though it isn't particularly bombastic, it's still cinematic, and with a moment like this, it's hard to deny that it's fantastic: "This world may have failed you / It doesn't give you reason why / You could have chosen a different path in life."

"The Howling"
This single provides a glimpse of Within Temptation's horror side. It's heavy while being intensely catchy - even the backing vocals! It's definitely a bit of a departure from den Adel's head voice-driven repertoire in The Silent Force (although that aspect of her voice will never disappear) and shows off what she can do with a rougher chest foice Unfortunately the radio edit takes away from some of the symphonic elements, but it's truly a great combination of guitars and strings and virtually impossible to sit still while it plays.


"What Have You Done" ft. Keith Caputo
Before Within Temptation decided to include several duets on their latest album Hydra, "What Have You Done" was the only recorded one they had. The chorus is full of long notes and raw emotion, and the melody is unforgettable. Caputo's voice works quite well here, and in the extended version, Sharon puts her operatic vocals to fantastic use and makes the song absolutely epic. Within Temptation makes a lot of great songs about various topics, but this has to be their ultimate break up song.

*I recommend listening to the extended version since it includes a couple of its best parts.

Within Temptation has written a number of beautiful ballads throughout their career, but none quite like "Memories." Sharon's voice is so light and heavenly, just like the remarkable string arrangement. But it's really the ending that has the power to blow people away, when the electric instruments come in. Suddenly, the song has a new sense of desperation in that moment, and it lingers until the end when the violin cuts the band off. The music video is perfect.


Within Temptation's very first single, taken from their debut, Enter. Enter is the most different from all of Within Temptation's albums, and even though "Restless" doesn't include the growls that characterize much of the album, it certainly sets itself apart from other singles in terms of both structure and feel. This piano-led single is eerie, repetitive, and utterly beautiful - it certainly demonstrates the atmosphere of its unique album.


"Paradise (What About Us?)" ft. Tarja
The symphonic metal corner of the Internet exploded when this collaboration - this mind-blowing, bound-to-shake-the-Earth collaboration - was announced a little over a year ago. Within Temptation and ex-Nightwish singer Tarja Turunen certainly proved to be the powerhouse everyone expected. It's a catchy, adrenaline-filled masterclass with its urgent string line and amazing combination of vocalists. This single also produced what is arguably Within Temptation's best music video to date.

"Jillian (I’d Give My Heart)"
So... "Jillian (I'd Give My Heart)" is sort of a single; it was used for the promotion of The Silent Force Tour DVD, so I'm counting it. This song is undoubtedly one of their best pieces: It's so bombastic! The verses are very mellow with its string-led instrumentation and Sharon singing peacefully, but that chorus is a symphonic explosion: "I'd give my heart / Give my soul / I turn it back, it's my fault." By the time the key changes (creating perhaps the most effective key change ever fathomed) and Sharon is calling Jillian's name in the middle eight, chills are just inevitable. To this day it blows my mind.

"Mother Earth"
Is it surprising? Probably not. "Mother Earth" isn't just one of Within Temptation's greatest songs: It is symphonic metal classic. The riffs are intense even though the song is so free-flowing and easy to move to, the orchestration is beautiful, and Sharon's voice soars. This has to be the greatest salute to nature ever created with those perfect lyrics: "She rules until the end of time / She gives and she takes / She rules until the end of time / She goes her way." It's a simple life fact: "Mother Earth" is a masterpiece.

The video: While this music video has some seriously awkward shots of Sharon flinging her arms in front of lightning, it has a few perfect moments - particularly the end, because even though the band is jamming outdoors, there are strobe lights, eyes are glowing red, and the lightning is synchronized. Can't get much more metal than that, eh?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sacrificium | Xandria

The German symphonic metal band Xandria has been part of the music scene for a while now, and even though I've always heard of them, I've been hearing more and more unabashed praise ever since they released their 2012 album Neverworld's End. Praise continues to stream with their latest release, Sacrificium, which is the first of their albums to include Dutch singer Dianne van Giersbergen (who is also a member of Ex Libris). This operatic soprano has one of the most beautiful-sounding voices in today's world. While Xandria definitely has the right ingredients to make wonderful music, Sacrificium doesn't exactly leave a lasting impression overall.
The title track is the true masterpiece from this album. "Sacrificium" is a ten minute piece that opens with an epic orchestral section that just builds and builds. It includes a short narration before the choir cues the band in. There are definitely quite a few heavy riffs to be found in this song, but Giersbergen makes the entire piece quite graceful. Her vocals come to an operatic climax in the chorus: "Hold my hand wherever you are / My end now is just a new life for you all / This is my promise, my sacrifice." All the while, the choir is singing something a bit different at the same time and the vocals intertwine wonderfully. The orchestra and choir blend with the guitars to create cinematic intensity throughout, but this blend really shines in an especially bombastic way during the middle eight between guitar solos. Giersbergen is left with a piano and violin at the end singing goodbye softly as the song ends, a perfect way to end it. The only issue I had whatsoever with this track is some of the mixing: There are times when the guitars sound a little too fuzzy, particularly when the guitars first start to really get going and when the section repeats in the chorus. I wish it sounded clearer and less two-dimensional... I suppose after hearing the production on Epica's The Quantum Enigma, we're a little spoiled and have higher standards.

"Stardust" also shines as one of Sacrificium's best with its amazing riffs. When van Giersbergen's vocals start in the middle eight, the guitars nearly take the place of the classical strings stylistically - if Vivaldi was making music in this century, that section would be one of his pieces. The breakdown towards the end of the middle eight is heavy and epic, and the song as a whole is ear-catching. I have no complaints to file.

Aside from these two tracks, there aren't a lot of full songs that really stand out. "Dreamkeeper" is a mid-tempo track that's sort of reminiscent of Nightwish, and it has potential, but the chorus ultimately does not do anything exciting. Sometimes the duller songs have great moments in the midst, like the intense middle eight of "Until the End" or the chorus of "Temple of Hate," and there are plenty of moments where van Giersbergen steals the show with her amazing high notes. The only ballad from the album, "Sweet Atonement," breaks the heavy pattern right at the end as it is led by piano and violin. It's a nice song; van Giersbergen's vocals are gorgeous as usual... I really don't have anything to complain about, but nothing draws me to the song. It sort of reminds me of high school solo and ensemble selections, and I don't know how I feel about that.

The lead single, "Nightfall," certainly brings a level of intensity with its fast-paced, bombastic chorus led by van Giersbergen and the choir even though it isn't necessarily a favorite of mine, and "The Undiscovered Land" isn't bad with its folk influences. "The Undiscovered Land" is a song that builds throughout, but unfortunately the only parts I really loved were the middle eight and the soft outro.

In short, Xandria seems to be one of those bands that has all the tools - the heavy guitars, van Giersbergen's voice, the epic orchestra and choir - but they just aren't utilized that creatively much of the time. I wasn't crazy about Sacrificium. This album seems to suffer from its concept - while albums that revolve around a specific concept can be completely perfect (i.e. Epica's albums, Within Temptation's albums, and Nightwish's albums), they can also ruin themselves by concentrating more on having a theme and less on the music. This results in a lot of songs sounding the same or just not being very unique in general. Regardless, I'm sure Xandria's sound will appeal to many even outside of regular symphonic metal fans because the guitars and orchestra get equal face time, which means that there are guitar solos galore in addition to bombastic orchestral moments. Blandness is the only enemy they have to conquer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Black Widow | In This Moment

I've been following In This Moment's career ever since its birth with their 2007 debut Beautiful Tragedy. Their sound has changed and evolved with every album as many metal bands often do. I am almost always supportive with changes even if I still hold preference to the older material - this goes for bands like Within Temptation, Nightwish, and Tristania, who have all sparked quite a bit of controversy based on the changes in their music. But I still loved it. That was how I felt about all of In This Moment's albums from Beautiful Tragedy to Blood.
But there's only a limited amount love in my heart for Black Widow. The way the sound has changed overall by adding occasional synths in the midst of the melodic metal doesn't bother me one bit, but it's the songwriting and some of the vocal styles that make me dissatisfied with a number of songs
This album begins with a creepy intro called "The Infection," which sort of sounds like a horror film advertisement. It certainly sets a tone, and as it crescendos it builds anticipation for what's to come... But then we finally make it to the first song where the band is really present, "Sex Metal Barbie," (yes, that's what they called it) and it is quite an anticlimactic start. Maria Brink sounds like a robot at the end of the chorus but I'm not entirely sure what she's trying to accomplish vocally in the verses. It's sort of a mocking sound, which suits the song lyrically as she's addressing the spiteful things people say about her on the Internet, but it just doesn't sound great. Just when I think I might like the middle eight, Brink is just repeating "Sex! Sex!" and all I can think is that they're trying way too hard to catch someone's attention.
The Brent Smith duet "Sexual Hallucination" irks me in a similar way. The duet actually sounds very good, the music itself sounds pretty decent, but again, I just feel like they're trying a little too hard in this department. Lyrics like "This is what I crave / To be your slave" (rather demeaning, eh?) have me rolling my eyes in utter disappointment. Not to mention "We both converge as one."
Fortunately this issue doesn't really repeat. The most common issue with Black Widow is that some of the songs often reach for the stars and fail. Their lead single "Sick Like Me" started out in such an interesting way with the sirens and the guitar-heavy breakdown before the verse begins, but then the rest of the song doesn't live up to the intro and ends up being rather boring, and this is the same problem I had with the title track. "Sick Like Me" is really just a combination of "Blood" and "Adrenalize." The ballad "Out of Hell" would have been very pretty with its subtle piano, but Brink's vocals manage to detract from the song: She's quite whispery. I have no problem with soft singing, but one needs the diaphragm more than ever when singing softly.
However, there are a few songs that managed to win me over. Their second single, "Big Bad Wolf," is quite heavy with its thrashing guitar riffs packed full of energy. Maria Brink's voice gets a chance to shine in different ways - especially that powerful chorus and that killer middle eight where she screams "PIG!" Her vocals in the verses are unconventional, ragged, and choppy and it definitely works in this setting - Brink is a force to be reckoned with here.
"Bones" has most recently caught my attention as a standout track and it tells the story of a rather reliant relationship. It's my favorite song from Black Widow. The verses are more subtle with a dark and eerie vibe while the explosive chorus sounds simply amazing... This is the type of quality I expect from In This Moment. It's heavy but easy to sway to. The lyrics remind me of the crazy relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights: "You are my god / You are my soul / You're my savior in a devil's world / And I can't exist without you / I can't exist without you / [...] I'm gonna lie with your bones forever."
"The Fighter" is definitely one of the best songs Black Widow has to offer. At first I wasn't fond of it because it sounds like Brink is really straining (quite painfully) in a lot of parts, but techniques aside, this song brings chills. This piano-led powerhouse is reminiscent of their older song "The Blood Legion," for they both have an epic chorus that's of a similar chord progression. I immediately liked "Natural Born Sinner" as the vocal line is extremely similar to that of "Beast Within," which was one of my favorites from Blood, but "Natural Born Sinner" definitely takes a more serious turn. I'm sure many will shout "Amen" as Brink challenges "GO AHEAD AND POINT" and states in the chorus that she's against the oppression and labeling of LGBT individuals.  The main issue is that I'm more likely to listen to the songs they're reminiscent of - musically, they aren't the most unique.
So, there are occasional strong highlights in the midst of what I consider to be a disappointing album. Unfortunately Black Widow suffers from some uninteresting songwriting and some vocal flubs, and it surprises me that In This Moment actually managed to make an album I can't be very enthusiastic about... But, they change with each release so perhaps I'll like the next album better. Time will tell.