The Unforgiving is the fifth album from Dutch Symphonic Metal band Within Temptation, and dare I say it’s something of a long-awaited album since the band’s previous effort The Heart of Everything came out back in 2007. That said, I think Within Temptation fans (like myself) are used to large gaps between their albums, as The Unforgiving is actually only the fifth album in a career that started as far back as 1996. Though the lack out regular output may be seen as a disappointment from one point of view, it does at least come with the bonus that every time Within Temptation does drop a new album, it doesn’t sound like the last one made over again, something that is perhaps especially true of The Unforgiving which features some of their biggest changes in sound since the band dropped use the use of death growls from the Mother Earth album onwards. To close off this opening I’m a self-confessed WT fanboy, and this will very likely be the longest review I write in 2011, so I advise grabbing yourself a cup a tea before progressing.
For starters, although The Unforgiving can still be considered as such, it is much less focused on the symphonic metal elements that were very prominent in past albums, particularly the period between Mother Earth and The Heart of Everything (which, admittedly, is most of their albums). They’re still there in the sound but the leading direction here seems to be to make songs with more of a rock or metal edge, featuring some of their heaviest riffs since their early Gothic/Doom work and with the most focus on lead guitar than ever before the overall sound at times doesn’t sound too far off from that found in traditional heavy metal bands, albeit with that distinctive layer of keyboards courtesy of Martijn Spierenburg. Despite this the album has quite a prominent commercial direction, but I don’t think anyone familiar with Within Temptation really expected anything otherwise, and with The Unforgiving Within Temptation prove that when it comes to rock and metal music, and especially with metal music, that commercial need not be a bad word.
The Unforgiving is also the first concept album Within Temptation has made. To represent this, the first track on the album, Why Not Me, is an introduction featuring a voice over. After this track is over however you can expect the band to deliver song after song and the only time a voice-over is featured again is during the song Iron, and fortunately in that track it actually really adds to the mood of the song – in my opinion it’s a rarity for such a thing to be pulled off.
The Unforgiving’s songs can be broken up into small groups. Although they all have that commercial edge there are some that can be considered more mainstream than others. Unsurprisingly I’m referring to the two songs that band used to promote the album prior to its release, those being in order of appearance, Faster and Where is the Edge. Faster is easily the most commercial track on the album, with a very much of a pop-rock feel to it, but it manages to really work in context of the whole album and I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to make some really commercial sounds into something quite atmospheric. Where is the Edge is more symphonic than some of the other tracks on offer, and is probably the album’s weakest moment overall, but I did still enjoy the track to some degree based on initial impressions, but I came to like it more so after several listens, particularly in context of the whole album. Neither of these tracks is a really good introduce to The Unforgiving though, making them poor early promotional choices from a metal standpoint, as neither really hints at what the album really offers as a whole package. Not my favourites in terms of stand-alone tracks but as a part of the bigger picture, both songs work very well. Sinéad also sounds more commercial lyrically, but the music and deliver makes it a very epic piece that it is pretty much in a class of its own, and overall it’s one of the more unique songs that the band have made.
Another category would be for those heavier tracks. The most obvious of these is Iron. There’s been a bit of hype about this one sounding like Iron Maiden and to be fair the intro riff does to a degree sound like something Iron Maiden could have come up with but as a whole the song is far from Within Temptation trying to be copycats, because it very much has their own stamp on it, but it definitely is one of their most metal orientated songs on the album, and features a solo unlike anything they ever played before, fast and brief, it brings the song up into epic proportions. Another such track is an earlier one, In the Middle of the Night. Not so heavy overall as Iron but the riffs are very much there and the track is very powerful on all counts, from the vocal delivery of singer Sharon den Adel to the song’s very structure, it is certainly one of the finest moments on offer with the album. Later track A Demon’s Fate is also pretty heavy, not as heavy as Iron either, which is about as heavy as the album gets, but the song has a very much metal feel to it, parts even push towards Euro flavoured power metal. In general though although it may sometimes feel as if the riffs are given a background role within a song those riffs are more often than not very metal orientated, particularly in tone if not always in the delivery, even on tracks such as Faster.
Then there are also the ballads. The main ballads here are Fire and Ice, a track which sits nicely between Faster and Iron, and the closing track Stairway to the Skies. Previous albums has tracks such as Somewhere (from The Silent Force) and Forgiven (From The Heart of Everything) but these ballads are a very different affair. While Fire and Ice in particular has many similarities to the aforementioned songs the tracks feel more atmospheric than symphonic, which really works in terms of the story the album is telling. Both ballads feature some excellent piano work and Stairway to the Skies is a great haunting closer for the album. Unlike many of their others ballads this one features some heavier sections.
Finally there are songs that just sound so different to anything the band has delivered before. Iron could also fit in this category but the main song I want to mention here is Murder, which features some quite unusual vocals from Sharon den Adel which coupled with some haunting symphony, make for a quite unique track. Lead guitar is also used to great effect. Also there is Shot in the Dark and Lost, which feature powerful vocals, and in the case of Lost use of acoustic guitars aplenty, even for a solo. There is a general epic feel throughout all these songs as well.
The Unforgiving is, overall, very much a change of pace for Within Temptation. Despite some early concerns on my part when all I had to go by were songs such as Where is the Edge and Faster, the end result is actually nothing short of amazing. The album did need more time to grow on me than most albums take before I felt able to write this review, but in contrast to Within Temptation’s previous album The Heart of Everything my initial impressions of it were much higher, but where The Heart of Everything grew on me pretty quick The Unforgiving has taken more time but the wait has been worth it and I now find myself able to play the album right through consecutively without getting the slightest bit bored (I’ve actually just given it three consecutive spins as I finalise this review!). Because of the commercial aspect of the music I’m not exactly confident that the more elite of a metal crowd will enjoy the album but anyone who enjoyed the band’s previous output or is open-minded to music in general is recommended to check out The Unforgiving. I for one cannot find fault in it. It also sounds fresh, like the work of a band rejuvenated – even though as far as I’m concerned they didn’t need it, Within Temptation has never disappointed me in the past with their albums, always consistently producing some of the best albums their genre has to offer and The Unforgiving is no exception, in fact it is easily their best and most exciting work to date.
There is also a special edition of the album that comes with a DVD. Currently I haven’t delved into this part of the package yet so watch this space for an update on the bonus content. As always though, the score given is representative of the standard package.
(Review originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)