I’ll admit to liking the early Within Temptation output like Mother Earth and The Silent Force. Sure, they were a dime-a-dozen, female-fronted gothic metal act with more gloss and slickness than the complete works of Glee, but the song-writing was consistently sharp and catchy without sounding too commercialized or fake and Sharon den Adel had big, captivating… vocals. Things started to drift for me by the time The Heart of Everything came along and though it had some good songs, it also felt more forced and AOR. I paid scant attention to 2011s The Unforgiven and didn’t really want to review this one, but hey, somebody had to do it and I wanna be somebody!
Hydra is more or less a continuation of the career path these Dutch goth-mongers have set for themselves and it’s full of slick, commercialized, gothic puffery with an increasingly minimal underpinning of metal. It also features a dizzying and often puzzling selection of guest vocalists, few of which actually help and one really hurts. The above average writing that once kept the band aloft in a sea of clones is still evident on some songs, but like their metal roots, it’s getting more thin, threadbare and elusive. In a nutshell, Hydra is a collection of shiny, vocal-driven goth-rock tunes with simplistic, underwhelming and essentially irrelevant guitars placed far in the back. Sometimes it works, more often it’s boring and as substantial as plastic dining ware. Naturally, it’ll sell a zillion albums.
Opener “Let Us Burn” is the 800 lb. gorilla of the set, with all the passion and urgency of their old material, filtered through the business sense of commercial radio. Sharon owns these kind of big, bombastic set pieces like few other singers can and she sounds great here, especially on the chorus which pops with power and poise. This one could have been on The Silent Force and it’s definitely a winner.
In a vertigo-inducing drop in quality, “Dangerous” reeks of a desperate attempt to attract the “modern metal” set with amped up, but horribly bland metalcore riffing, screamo keyboards and the dubious inclusion of Howard Jones (Killswitch Engage) on guest vocals. Can you say hackneyed sellout? Steel Druhm can. They recover with the mega-catchy, anthemic “And We Run” and Sharon sounds great on the simple, elegant chorus which is draped with modest symphonics. Then come the rap vocals from Xzibit (yeah, I never heard of him either) who sounds like a fifth-rate, post-SVU Ice T. These out-of-place and cringe-inducing raps completely torpedo the song and had me laughing whenever I could stop sneering, chortling and harrumphing (Mr. Bit rapping “I crush every motherfucking thing I touch” as Sharon coos and trills angelically in the background is destined to be a musical low point of 2014 and beyond). In a more sensible move, “Paradise” pairs Sharon with Tarja of Nightwish fame and the two song birds make quite a compelling duet on a formulaic, but memorable goth rocker. Sadly, they take the workable chorus and beat it so far into the ground through repetition, you’ll be sick of it after a few listens.
From there, Hydra goes into drift mode, with the sleepy but acceptable ballad “Edge of the World,” the semi-competent, Theatre of Tragedy-esque beauty-and-the-beast metal on “Silver Moonlight” and sub par goth rock of “Dog Days.” “The Whole World is Watching” features guest vocals by Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), but he adds absolutely nothing to the generic balladry and they could have had almost any male vocalist outside of Danzig and Abbath sing his lines and achieved the same amount of meh.
Though Sharon always sounds great and impresses with her power and range, the backing music is so flat and nondescript they might as well not even credit the band. It’s just a wash of simple, uninspired riffs, generic solos and dull back line play. Add to that an ever-increasing tendency to repeat a chorus until it hurts and make nonsensical guest selections and you have a band that sounds out of ideas, frantically trying to latch onto several trends at once, some of which have been over for years and are best left in the grave (no offense, your Ice-T-ness).
When diminishing returns clash with transparent attempts at crass commercialism, the metal fan feels the sads. If you love goth-rock and don’t care how unmetal it sounds, I suppose bits and pieces of this may hit the spot, but a lot of it is too dull to leave much of an impression. Shambolic album aside, I still love you, Sharon.