Review Summary: A little more direction, a little less cheese, and a whole lot of drama.
Less is more... unless, of course, you happen to be a member of Within Temptation. Over the course of their 15 years of existence, the Dutch symphonic rock ensemble has gained a not-at-all undeserved reputation for overblown excess, particularly after the "Evanescence on steroids" sound of their 2007 album The Heart of Everything. As a result, when early reports on the group's long-delayed new release, The Unforgiving, suggested that the group had swapped in its signature orchestral backgrounds for synthesizers and dance beats, many fans imagined a horrific blend of metal and the most gaudy variety of '80s pop. Instead, this fifth studio album in the band's discography represents a compelling new development in the Within Temptation's musical style, simultaneously pushing boundaries while playing to the group's old strengths.
One of the most unusual aspects of the album is its relationship to other works. A concept album built around the plot of a series of comic books, The Unforgiving was originally conceived as a method of telling the same story through different media. To that end, the ensemble also produced a series of three short films, each released alongside one of the album's singles. Together, the films, comics, and music tell the story of a group of remorseful killers brought back from the dead to combat evil - an original and interesting twist on the traditional good-vs-evil duality. However, it should be noted that, while it may help with plot details, exposure to these other works is not by any means necessary to appreciate the album itself.
Musically, The Unforgiving features a lot of quality work on the part of the musicians, making for an overall enjoyable experience. The symphonic elements have indeed been dialed back considerably (with the exception of "A Demon's Fate", which toes the line between acceptable and excessive), a fact which will please listeners who felt that the last few albums could have done without them. Meanwhile, synthesizers and electronic elements have been added to the mix, giving many of the songs an entirely new dimension. The band's instrumentalists are at their very best on this album, switching seamlessly between epic tracks like "Iron" and "In The Middle of the Night" and ballads like "Fire and Ice" and "Lost" to create a wide range of emotions throughout the album. And, of course, vocalist Sharon den Adel delivers yet another incredible performance, this time swapping her typical light soprano style for her more powerful low range.
Despite its numerous highs, The Unforgiving still has a couple of low points which prove that the band still might need to work out a few kinks in its formula. Some of the synth work, particularly that featured on second single "Sinead", feels as though it belongs more in the soundtrack to a '90s era Nintendo game rather than to a Within Temptation album. Additionally, a few of the tracks feature introductions so similar that they border on monotonous (how many times can a band possibly use "guitar plus some breathy 'ooooooh's" before they realize that they're overdoing it"). Finally, the audio clips from the short films featured on the introductory track "Why Not Me" and in the middle of "Iron", though probably meant to keep the album grounded in the story, seem superfluous and somewhat tacked-on (not to mention confusing for listeners who aren't familiar with them).
As a whole, The Unforgiving is a surprisingly good offering from a band typically known for not being able to see when enough is enough. Though it has its rough patches, the album is almost certainly a promising start to what could be a fantastic new period in Within Temptation's career.