The 50 best albums of 2023
The Kerrang! verdict on the 50 albums that shaped 2023.
There was a point, shortly before lockdown, when Within Temptation realised things had to change. Inspired by the enthusiasm for their forward-looking 2019 album Resist, a release that lifted, streamlined and modernised their once tree-hugging symphonic rock, they also wanted to be more reactive to current events and trends.
It was a focus that prompted them to leave the relative safety of major label Vertigo, with whom they had no argument; just a desire to escape the traditional album-and-tour cycle. With the pandemic eliminating any possibility of touring in 2020 (the band’s Worlds Collide co-headline trek with Evanescence was postponed no fewer than four times), it proved a wise move, enabling Within Temptation – one of the biggest bands in continental Europe – to release a succession of timely standalone singles and videos.
“In dance music, artists often release singles when they want because they feel it’s the right moment,” singer Sharon den Adel considers. “We wanted to have that kind of freedom. In rock and metal everything seems to be very traditional – you release an album every few years and then you have three singles. But when something’s happening right now, you can’t wait three years to talk about that subject. We wanted to release music in the moment when it matters, and there’s no way we could have done that had we still been on a label.”
The initial focus wasn’t on creating a new album – it was more about responding to need; being present in the moment. Of the five songs released prior to 2023, though, all but one made the final cut of Bleed Out, Within Temptation’s darkest, most daring and certainly most prescient album to date. Supported by eye-boggling AI-enhanced videos, recent releases Wireless and the title-track have highlighted such current topics as the war in Ukraine and the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman ‘detained’ for not wearing a hijab.
“We were not initially considering putting the older songs on the album, because we didn’t have to,” Sharon says. “But it turned out that they all fit, because every song and every subject is ultimately about freedom. These are songs about society and how people accept each other, or don’t accept each other.”
As usual, Sharon wrote the album in co-operation with partner and guitarist Robert Westerholt – though rarely in the same room. Robert – who no longer tours with the band due to family commitments – and Sharon are too unflinchingly honest with each other when it comes to the creative process, so they work separately, with longtime producer Daniel Gibson providing the bridge that makes their magic work. The singer sniggers: “It’s such a delicate process. It’s hard to work on something with your partner, because you’re both so close to it, and you wind up in these endless discussions.”
One motivating emotion the couple did share was a sense of horror and impending doom regarding Vladimir Putin’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. So moved was Sharon by the suffering of the innocent that she took to waving a Ukraine flag during performances of Raise Your Banner (from Resist) at live shows. The new album is instilled with references to the war. Some like Wireless and Worth Dying For are direct while others, such as Cyanide Love and Unbroken, are more allegorical, but it’s almost always there. Bleed Out’s remarkable opener We Go To War has everything – a sonorous chorus, huge guitars, synths, even a choir, but more than anything it’s engendered with a sense of wearily accepted sorrow and fear. It establishes a tone that this daringly emotive album maintains throughout.
“There is that daunting feel throughout the album,” Sharon states, ruefully. “I don’t think anyone wanted this war, but it has been forced upon the Ukrainians. Even if they gave up part of their land, Putin’s not gonna stop there. He’s already said that he won’t; he wants to take back the things he believes belong to Russia at the very least, and then maybe go further. Who knows where it will end? We are not talking about a reasonable person. People who want to stand back and stop supporting Ukraine need to realise that this is happening virtually on our doorstep. You cannot allow yourself to go blind just because doing so fits your life in the short term. Here [the Netherlands] the war is just a two-and-a-half-hour flight away. You may not want to lose your comfortable life, but we will if we don’t stand together.”
The band’s stance is entirely laudable, though being an act with a genuinely global following it does in one sense put them in an awkward position. Asked how she feels they might now be received by Russian fans, the singer speaks without hesitation, but her sorrow is clear.
“I don’t think we will ever play in Russia again,” she states. “It’d be naive of us to think that. In the past we’ve had a great time when we played there and we met some lovely people. This is what Wireless is about – ordinary people being used as marionettes in someone else’s game. In Russia there is only one real information platform, the government.
“They started this war by saying they were liberating Ukraine," she continues. "There are people who think they’re doing that, maybe like their grandparents did in World War Two, but in fact they’re not being told the truth. I don’t believe that everyone in Russia wants this war. The majority is oppressed, though there is of course a strong minority that believes what Putin is saying.”
The boldness to confront these issues is the mark of a renewed, revived and more confident Within Temptation. Even their earliest material, like the classic Mother Earth from 2000, had a message, but it came enfolded in metaphor. Today’s output is amplified sevenfold in both studio sonics and the directness of that message. And it’s not one way traffic – on the subject of the title-track, which addresses women’s struggle for rights in Iran, Sharon recalls her own childhood in the Middle East and says she can still smell the herbs, see the people and the colours. She talks of the great beauty of things, and of love and empathy for the region’s culture, but especially for “those women who have been so brave in standing up against elitist regimes”.
Again, it’s the currency of the matter that truly motivates her. “Writing a song about it might seem like a small thing in comparison to what some people have been through, but we are just trying to keep those subjects alive, so those struggles – which are still ongoing even if people aren’t talking about them – are not overlooked.”
Part of the reason for this confidence is the way that Within Temptation have managed their career. Sharon, for example, is among the Netherlands’ most famous and instantly recognisable singers, but with the support of her partner and bandmates, she’s been able to live a relatively ‘normal’ life.
“People got to know us gradually, so we’ve grown with that," she says. "A lot of bands that experience instant fame have a more difficult time. Everybody quite suddenly wants something from them, and there’s a lot of pressure.
“As for everything else in life, I don’t participate in any television programmes that are not related to music. I really hate that kind of thing. In fact, I only grew to love being onstage because I love making music.”
Sharon hasn’t relished her glimpses of fame’s underbelly, and that’s made her more determined to keep a lid on extraneous factors that have nothing to do with music.
“I am not a public figure and I don’t want to be in the limelight all the time,” she asserts. “There is always someone who wants something from you, or someone who has an opinion to share, and that has been difficult for me because I’m not that kind of person. I used to wince when flashlights went off, but I am more at ease with it all now. For us, it has been a good thing that we’ve been able to grow into it, slowly, with each album.”
That, in part, has also expedited the sense of boldness in Within Temptation’s music. If that was apparent on the futuristic Resist, it is doubly so on the creatively unshackled Bleed Out.
“You realise the only option is to be honest about how you see things,” she concludes. “You try to keep topics alive and make people think a little bit more about their own views and the decisions they make. You’re not thinking about yourself; you’re thinking about the bigger picture – what’s good for the world? If we want to make things better for everyone, including those who don’t have a voice, then it starts with voting for the right people.
“Within Temptation are not gonna be around in another 20 years," she says in conclusion. "We can say what we like, and I hope you like it. If you don’t, then I don’t care. This is who we are.”
We're hosting an exclusive launch party for Within Temptation's new album on October 19, where you can hear the album in full and meet Sharon! Head over here to win tickets.
Bleed Out is released on October 20 via Force Music.
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