It's funny how, in the wonderful world of rock music, there can exist bands, groups, or musicians who can prove to be eternally frustrating, due to their position on the exact line between what you love and what you don't. Often, we're lucky enough as listeners to hear a group and immediately tell whether the music is brilliant, good, bad, or terrible. Our individual aesthetic dictates the ways our tastes run and we're all the better for it. However, sometimes there can be a group that can have literally every single element of other groups you love and adore, and yet for incomprehensible reasons, the band fails to move you the way the others do.
Within Temptation's album "Mother Earth" is like that for me. It is such a bother. In theory, I should love it, if only because it doesn't do anything radically different from any of the groups I enjoy. I'm a huge fan of Lacuna Coil, and Nightwish especially. And here is a group that has a foot in the goth-metal camp, and another foot in--the Celtic folk camp!! Good Lord, I thought to myself, now HERE is the group of groups! Celtic music is some of the calmest, most beautiful music I've heard, and here is a group that combines it all, and yet produces something easily less than the sum of the parts put into it. The disappointment and frustration I feel goes beyond the desire to like it--it's the knowledge that, by God, I should. And yet it doesn't move me.
After my initial perplexion at the fact that I had gotten this album and was skipping through songs faster and faster with each minute, after having been so excited about it, I think I've narrowed down a few of the issues that I have with it. First, the singer, Sharon den Adel, is obviously a singer of Celtic folk--she possesses the same airy, fluttering quality the best singers of the New Age/Celtc genre are possessed with, such as Mary McLaughlin and Loreena McKennit. And yet, over the music her bandmates make, her voice more often than not sounds shrill, untrained, stretched, not soaring with the trademark beauty of others working in the genre. Her note choices strike me as questionable, as well, and her voice, when set on "power," merely just sounds loud and striking in its thinness. More than anything, her voice is mostly devoid of the organic warmth of her contemporaries.
This may have more to do with the production of the album, however, and the choices made by the producers and the band to play up certain elements of the music. I come to this conclusion based on another factor that irks me here: the orchestral arrangements are just overflowing with unedited bombast. Even the cheesiest of the cheese bands like Rhapsody temper their orchestra arrangements, doing their best (and doing it well) to preserve the organic, driving nature of their music. Here, by contrast, keyboardist René Merkelbach went incredibly note-happy and produced one of the thickest, most elaborate orchestral arrangements I've heard from any band of this type. There are so many instruments playing such dense harmony at all times, moving with the drama and crashing loudness of an epic Broadway musical, that the overall effect, when set against the simple 4/4 structures of the overwhelmingly average rock songs buried underneath all throughout this album, is to muddy the sound, destroying any semblance of tightness, coherent rhythm, and power. The drums and electric guitars, ordinarily at the forefront of any metal outfit incorporating orchestras, are mixed way, way down and are heavy on the treble and mids even with my stereo's bass boost on. The technical precision of the band members are totally overshadowed by the constant clashing and crashing of about 100 violins, 60 cellos, 30 tubas, 40 French horns, and battalions of trumpets, harps, pianos, chimes, xylophones, flutes, English horns, ulliean pipes and God knows what else.
With all that going on at once, the whole thing sounds unfocused and leaves me flat. It's disappointing because Within Temptation seem to be considered a cream-of-the-crop group within their genre, and as I said, I really do want to like them.
Within Temptation is:
Sharon den Adel- vocals
Robert Westerholt - guitars
Ruud Jolle - guitars
René Merkelbach - keyboards
Jeroen Van Veen - bass
Stephen Van Haegstradt - drums
1.) Mother Earth
A perfect example. In the intro I can detect two cellos, a viola, a traditional flute, a piano, a violin, and a full choir, and that's before it's SUPPOSED to sound loud. Then comes really loud chimes and a blaring horn over frenetic strings, and almost inaudible drums where the bass drum is apparently not played. Sharon's vocals here aren't terrible, but over the chorus you can tell that over the really imbalanced and loud violins, not to mention the rest of the orchestra with the horns and the strings and the sinks and the kazoos and whatnot, she's having a hard time. This music would be so much better if all that crap was just toned down a bit. The melodies sound so insipid over all that business. This opener already left me flat, which boded ill for the rest. 2.5/5
2.) Ice Queen
I love the moodiness of this intro, which adds neat synth flourishes to the orchestra. The choir parts, unfortunately, just scream "Omen!" And then when the band comes in with a trademark Big Dumb Chord Progression over a bouncy rhythm, for some reason the "oh-oh!" part DOESN'T go away, making the whole thing sound unintentionally funny. And those horns again. Ugh. I like the vocal melody, it's nice and poppy, but especially in the chorus, it gets lost amidst the reverbations of all the other instruments. Jesus, get rid of all that echo. Every instrument sounds like it was recorded in a cavern. A calm interlude is very beautiful. Just imagine how great that would be if the rest of the song had any sense of what "oomph" is. 3/5
3.) Our Farewell
The band should really stick to making songs like this. Or the producer could form a sort of intervention group, like for alcoholics, except this one would be to be sure the band weaned themselves off their addiction to reverb except for songs like this. Anyhow, this song is a much calmer, very ambient and lilting ballad that would not be out of place on a Celtic music album. Sharon shines on this one. 4/5
As far as the others go this is a little more tolerable, since the slow place makes the ambient activity from the orchestra more tolerable. But there are still a few parts where the band is obviously intending for heavy headbangingness and they're stopped by all the reverb. Everything just goes awash in those sections. Also, Sharon attempts to make her vocals a little more edgy, with mixed results: it's very shrill and I find it mildly annoying. The choir singing is insipid. 2.5/5
5.) The Promise
Here we get another awesome intro that hints at all sorts of epic awesomeness. Oh, wait, but then there's a funny horn melody over it. More and more and more instruments come in. Fortunately, this is saved by a very cool band interplay section when the guitars come in. The drumbeat, which exits typical realms for the first time here, helps. But then the next thing we hear are silly and disproportionately loud plinks from muted violins over more orchestra business gone awry. The chorus here is really good, though, another shining moment from Sharon. The guitars and drums should be mixed this high all the time. The outro is really cool, with great chugging from the guitarists. 3.5/5
6.) Never Ending Story
Now here's some great stuff. A beautiful harp and piano part gives away to a great Celtic-style melody from Sharon. I'm serious, this band would be much better off lightening up and playing Renaissance-style New Age with a slight rock feel. Excellent song. 5/5
7.) Deceiver of Fools
Additional completely overwrought orchestra ambiences invade the intro here. The hummed vocals are mixed disproportionately loud...once again, the band misplaces the proper instruments and parts to elevate for certain sections. The group requires a much keener sense of dynamics than what it has now. When the band comes in, though, the music is pretty quality. 4/5
A pretty throwaway piece, this is actually very interesting and eerie. It's short, but if the band were this moderately inventive all the time, they'd at least be moderately interesting all the time.
9.) Dark Wings
A slight Nightwish vibe becomes apparant here. But God, why are those muted violins mixed so high all the time" Ugh. Anyway, the song isn't very different in tone from anything that came before, but there is a very nice vocal melody in the chorus. There's a really nice harmonized solo towards the end also. 3/5
10.) In Perfect Harmony
Yet again, here is a very nice, ballad-y New Age-style tune with wonderful nylon-string acoustic guitar and another subdued solo, with great ambience and depth. Within Temptation should seriously get rid of their electric instruments altogether. This is fantastic and beautiful. 5/5
This is a nice, moody track that keeps the orchestra stuff more or less under control. The guitar parts here are fuzzed-out and fantastic. Tone-wise the song ends up being mostly similar to what came before, but that's all right, because this is pretty good. 3/5
Another great ballad closes this out. Wonderful. I'm serious. No more electrics for this band. Ever. 5/5
Jeez, it's such a bummer that this album was fraught with so many utterly misguided mistakes of production, because there's the potential for so much lovable stuff there. Plus the singer's really hot too. ;) In any case, I'm giving this a 2 owing to the incredible level of flatness this leaves me with. If you like, you don't really need to view that rating as definitive, as it's more or less biased towards my own personal taste. Even so, giving it a higher rating on the off chance that people will disagree with me is dishonest: I can't really recommend this.