Within Temptation nail down the first female-fronted metal spin of 2007, and are prepared and well-equipped to lead the way.
If the hordes of fans they have over in Europe are any indication, six-piece combo Within Temptation might finally be getting the recognition they deserve. Female-fronted metal in the '00s is officially no longer a rarity, with new bands popping up out of Europe's cold, dark corners with a gothic sound literally every day. Following in the footsteps of Lacuna Coil, Theatre of Tragedy and The Gathering -- but going solely on their previous two releases, 2004's The Silent Force and Mother Earth, a long six years ago -- Within Temptation have been perhaps the most vivid and cathartic of all of them.
The Heart of Everything, their latest disc, is hardly just another chapter in the band's book, though – it's either going to make or break them to new audiences across the globe. One such goal is immediately clear: it's their first album to eventually be put on shelves in the States (though not until July, which really sucks). Frontwoman Sharon del Adel is as such the clear focus, putting her soulful whispers to full use, so much so that sometimes the stereo even shakes. What's a little worrying is that it's packaged a lot like Evanescence's Fallen. The similarities run right down to the band doing a duet with a male singer on their first single -- the guest is Keith Caputo of (American) band Life of Agony. It's called "What Have You Done?", not "Bring Me to Life", but it's more or less the same love gone wrong tale, with the particularly inexcusable line "Would you mind if I killed you? / Would you mind if I tried to?"
At the heart of The Heart of Everything, though, is a fantastic, if glossy, album, above-par rocking for a market that can't seem to get enough of the "gothic" image at the moment. Del Adel sounds more sure of herself than Amy Lee, anyway, and -- the clichés of "What Have You Done" aside -- the wispy acoustic guitar in the verse sure is effective sitting next to the pounding drumming. The harmony between her and Caputo is a true highlight, and the swirling chorus is quite sly:
I've been waiting for someone like you, /
But now you are slipping away, /
Why... why does fake make us suffer? /
There's a curse between us, /
Between me and you.
Yup, the band can still maintain their dignity, even if they are subtly playing with a more commercial sound. Based on a fantasy video game, The Chronicles of Spellborn, flowing piano opens "The Howling". It's nothing to worry about, though, because the fiery, uptempo bulk of the track quickly drops, captivating us for all five and a half minutes with oh-so-elegant melodies and double harmonies. "Our Solemn Hour" borrows from Winston Churchill's famous "Be Ye Men of Valor" speech, and brings in the whole orchestra for dramatic effect. del Adel's shrill siren call pierces the echoey, haunting atmosphere like a raven in the night, so relentlessly eerie-sounding is the soundscape. A smoldering guitar solo is inserted over more talk and the sound of guns -- surely not since the days of Metallica's "One" has this theme been explored as deeply, and with as resolutely a straight face as it is here.
Only "The Truth Beneath the Rose" doesn't catch on as quickly as most of the others, and that's because the band probably heard Nightwish's mini-opera "Ghost Love Score" and decided to rewrite it themselves . . . with an overbearing bassline. At seven minutes, it's an epic, epic piece of work, one that marks a clear progression, from a nimbly plucked lute, to the obligatory guitar solo, to the piano which brings it closure, but it's hard not to feel like its out of place, crammed in late to the set and dragging on without having much to say. "I have lost my faith in holy wars", del Adel confesses earnestly about halfway -- yeah, haven't we all?
Fortunately, she fares just as well on the record when she's allowed to spread her arms and ballad out. She sounds genuinely fragile and devastated on "Frozen", predictable in its maudlin, lovesick lyrics ("Tell me I'm frozen, / What can I do?") -- but a lighter-waver if ever one existed, especially when it reaches its apex a minute from the end and explodes into a climactic chorus laced with strings. The Heart of Everything's final track, on the other hand, sees Within Temptation tackling the unaccompanied piano ballad Tori Amos-style. "Forgiven" is apt to move anyone and everyone -- it sends shivers down the spine to hear how pure Sharon del Adel's voice is, how high she can hit, and how she truly sounds like she's making it personal, giving the listener a piece of her heart. It's also a fitting tribute to the band, as the disc winds to a halt, that they can take the ancient piano ballad and make something new out of it.
US success or no US success, The Heart of Everything plays through on an enticing, grandiose, sometimes masterful level, and sets the stage for when the band hits North American shores for the first time in a few months. There's no excuse not to check this out – it's an accessible, slickly Netherlands winter. It's also the first femme-metal offering of the year, and is already firmly leading the pack and raising the bar for those who would challenge its transcendence.