"I was burned out. I was tired. I was stuck and bored. I was at a complete loss, and I didn’t have a clue on where to start with new music. I had to ask myself, ‘How long do I want to do this? Do I want to do this? There was a point where I didn’t think we would continue with Within Temptation.”
Sharon den Adel is reflecting on the turbulent few months that almost derailed one of the biggest metal bands of the 21st century. Sat alongside her bandmate, husband and business partner Robert Westerholt, she admits that a combination of burnout, writer’s block and life-altering personal issues meant that, for a time, the likelihood of a new Within Temptation album – of Within Temptation even existing – looked very, very uncertain.
“I think the whole of Within Temptation needed a break,” adds Robert, alluding as much to Within Temptation the ‘brand’ as the band. “It felt like we’d been on a [fast-moving] train for many years, so it was necessary. And, to be honest, we didn’t really know what the outcome of that break would be.”
While Sharon and Robert may have started the year in a state of flux, you wouldn’t know it from speaking to them now. The pair seem in a relaxed and amiable mood as we chat over lunch in a restaurant high up in the Amsterdam Tower: a 22-storey modern build overlooking the Netherlands’ capital city on what is a bright and humid late-summer afternoon. Robert dressed in a white hoody and jeans, Sharon in a suit jacket and black top, they complement each other as only couples do; often finishing each other’s sentences or politely correcting one another’s answers, a tag team whose dynamic doesn’t eclipse their own personalities. Where some band partnerships offer an endless clash of egos, theirs is a relationship built on mutual trust, understanding and, ultimately, a shared vision for a band that has spectacularly defied the odds. One of metal’s premier power couples, the Dutch duo have guided Within Temptation for over two decades; graduating from the class of symphonic metal bands that emerged from Europe in the late 90s, they’ve since become a modern rock powerhouse, consistently churning out critically acclaimed albums while building one of metal’s largest and most dedicated audiences.
You don’t become one of the biggest artists in your country’s history without a bit of hard work, so we shouldn’t be too surprised when Sharon mentions before the interview that they were up until 4am working on their imminent new album, Resist. Still, it’s a far cry from the stifling “wall” the pair claimed to have both hit creatively only a few months ago.
“Yeah, I had writer’s block,” Sharon sighs. “I didn’t feel it any more, I didn’t have inspiration. I wouldn’t want to go in a new direction with the band where people would go, ‘What a has-been.’ I’d rather not bring out a record than bring out a record I don’t feel confident about.”
“I was the same,” agrees Robert. “I think we all had that. The main thing was that we felt we really needed a new impulse, something new to inspire us and make it worthwhile to make a record.”
This rather significant roadblock could hardly have come at a worse time. Within Temptation’s previous album, 2014’s Hydra, ushered in their most successful chapter yet, landing career-high positions in charts around the world including the UK (6), the US (16) and their homeland (a return to Number 1, after previous opus The Unforgiving just missed out). Hydra’s lead single, Paradise (What About Us?), featuring former Nightwish singer Tarja Turunen, has racked up more than 50million views on YouTube, while the touring cycle for the album included both a headline slot at Bloodstock festival and, most significantly, a show at London’s legendary Wembley Arena. The scene had been set for Within Temptation to consolidate their position as one of modern metal’s most important bands. But dig a little deeper and it soon emerges that, behind the scenes, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the Hydra era that helped create the hole the band eventually found themselves in.
“With Hydra, we were searching for something new, but I think we didn’t find it, you know?” offers Robert.
“I didn’t feel that we made enough progress,” agrees Sharon. “When we were writing the album we felt we were moving in the right direction, but there was still a little doubt. In retrospect, we felt like it just wasn’t enough.”
“And then you get that doubt,” Robert chimes in. “The doubt of if you are still able to write a record, and if you can still get excited about it. It’s shit when you can’t do what you were born to do best.”
Professional frustrations are problematic enough for any artist, but there were personal issues, too, bubbling beneath the surface. Since 2011, Robert has taken a behind-the-scenes role in the band, writing a lion’s share of the music but staying at home to look after the couple’s children during tours – a duty he enthusiastically tells us has “been great”. As frontwoman of the band, however, Sharon has no choice but to be on the road. Earlier this year, she told Hammer that she was starting to struggle with being away from her family for those long stretches on tour, noting: “I’ve missed things. Kids are growing up, parents are getting older… you have to make choices about getting a balance in your life.” While she has since worked out a new touring routine for the band that she hopes will ease those problems – “we’re dividing the tours: two weeks at home, two weeks away, something like that” – she reveals that, on top of all this uncertainty, she suffered a devastating family loss that only added to her conflicted feelings about the band’s future.
“My dad died this year,” she states quietly. “It made everything more difficult. My mum is going through a [grieving] process, so I want to be at home more for her, and I felt guilty not being at home as much when my dad was sick. I felt insecure, like an open nerve.”
Unable to focus on Within Temptation, Sharon instead took a personal and professional detour, pouring her emotion into a new project. The result was her first solo album, My Indigo: a soul-baring, introspective odyssey that painted the soulful pop of singer-songwriters like Lana Del Rey with coatings of shimmering, 80s-styled synth. Released in April, it helped channel the issues Sharon was dealing with while resetting her creative impulses.
“I needed a different expression in my songs,” she says today, noting that while recent events helped accelerate its completion, ideas for My Indigo first started coming together “years” ago. “When I had the My Indigo album written and had given it a place, I felt a little stronger. With Within Temptation, it’s epic music, and you need a certain kind of emotion to write those kinds of songs.”
While Robert was also involved in the writing process for Sharon’s solo work, the rest of the band were left on the sidelines, uncertain of their future together. How did they feel about My Indigo?
“They were not that expressive about it, but we explained to them why we were doing it and they understood,” replies Sharon. “Ruud [Jolie, lead guitar] was the guy saying, ‘Oh, I expected you to do this years ago!’ They were not stressed about it, and that gave me more space. We’re all friends, and we go back so long; we know each other’s families, and people have respect for that. That makes us special.”
A gorgeous little album in its own right, My Indigo nevertheless represented a potential conflict for Sharon; it had been four years since Hydra – a long time in music by any standard. Was this new solo venture going to further undermine the chance of Within Temptation having a future together? As it turns out, the answer is a resounding no. In fact, My Indigo not only pressed a much-needed reset button in Sharon’s creative conscious, but ended up being the best thing that could have happened to the band.
“Because of My Indigo, I felt open to Within Temptation again,” Sharon explains. “I found a new way of writing, and we felt we knew where to start. There was a natural progression.”
Once that first trickle of promise seeped through, the dam, it appears, would soon break. From being uncertain if we would even see a new Within Temptation album again, the pair’s creativity was suddenly reignited at pace, the writing process for the new record all coming together “in the last few months, really quickly.” If Hydra represented less of an obvious evolution than its predecessor, 2011’s outstanding, conceptually loaded The Unforgiving, Resist would quickly see the band embrace elements that would bode well for forward momentum. This was going to be a whole new Within Temptation – bigger, louder and heavier than ever.
“There’s a bigger change than on previous records,” allows Robert. “It was like, ‘We need more edge!’ For us, that was crucial, and I’m convinced our fans will love it. It’s not that we’re a different band now, but you can feel more energy there – a certain… darkness… in the melodies, in the vibe, which we really like. The Reckoning was the first new song we wrote, and I think it’s probably one of the heaviest songs we’ve ever done. This album feels like we want to get on the barricades and kick some legs!”
He’s not kidding. With Resist, Within Temptation have taken everything that has carried their sound this far and beefed it up to Wrestlemania-sized levels. Aforementioned album opener and lead single The Reckoning is a case-in-point, packing what is easily the heaviest riff the band have ever written, sounding closer to Korn’s chunky heft than anything the Dutch crew have produced before and carried along an electronic hook so huge it goes off like a war horn sounded by Skrillex. Sharon is on imperious form, her powerful vocals providing a perfect foil for the excitable yelp of Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix, who is one of a clutch of well-executed guest appearances on the record.
The likes of Raise Your Banner – in Sharon’s words, “a proper metal song” – and Mad World – a pop-tinged industrial metal banger – continue in a similar vein, but it’s not just the heavier tracks that stand out. There’s a much bigger electronic presence across the whole album, whether it’s the syncopated, stuttery chords running under Endless War, the waves of warm synth that wash across the bouncy, EDM-indebted Supernova, or the cheeky appearance of a vocoder on Holy Ground (yes, really). It adds to what Sharon describes as a “futuristic” sound for the album, and it’s handled expertly by longtime Within Temptation producer Daniel Gibson, who manages to straddle the various elements on show without losing sight of the fact that this is still, ultimately, a metal album.
“It’s about using things you like from certain music you hear, and combining it with metal!” offers Sharon. “I think that is always the way forward. We’ve done that for many years, and it keeps it fresh.”
Sharon’s solo ventures, too, have evidently wielded influence beyond her album, with the ballady Firelight recalling the dark folk-pop that permeated much of My Indigo.
“That was the only song that was written for My Indigo,” she admits with a guilty laugh. “But it was too dark. It has elements from My Indigo, but we roughened it up into Within Temptation.”
Ultimately, it makes for an album that could and should see Within Temptation take another huge stride into metal’s proverbial hall of fame. What it definitely doesn’t sound like is a band running short on ideas or passion for what they do.
“We found an angle that we wanted to talk about,” Sharon points out. Ah yes, the angle. Not only is Within Temptation’s music looking to the future, but if Resist is anything to go by, their lyrics are, too. Taking aim at our increasingly digitalised age and what that means for our rights, our privacy and our humanity itself, the album channels a subject that has become a looming source of consternation for Sharon and Robert.
“It’s a topic that always triggers us,” says Sharon. You think you have a lot of freedom, but at the same time, you really don’t. There are a lot of programs being developed at the moment that you think are liberating because you’re getting more options for social media, but [your freedom] is being narrowed down. It annoys us.”
“You get the feeling that you’re being boxed in,” adds Robert by way of explanation. “Like with music. On Spotify, if you listen to Within Temptation, you always then get suggested Nightwish and Evanescence. I mean, I want to discover other bands, but you always get the obvious choices. It’s like someone is determining everything we listen to. Your own freedom of choice is there, but without you realising, they’re really directing you.”
“And not just with Spotify,” says Sharon. “I know a friend of mine who has been working on this program. It’s being developed for a radio station getting called by someone; they type in your name, they find your Facebook, they see everything about your whole life, and they can take something and discuss it with you. I think that goes too far. ‘You were drunk last night? You were doing that?’”
Even the biggest technophobes find themselves at the mercy of technology in 2018. Social media has completely changed 21st century discourse, while the famous Apple adage from their 2009 campaign – ‘There’s an app for that’ – has become a standardised way to learn, create and discover. While it’s undoubtedly reaped plenty of benefits in recent times, the potential for governments and corporations to harness our reliance on technology for sinister means grows ever more real – and it’s not something Within Temptation take lightly.
“Insurance companies have these bots that scan the internet,” offers Robert, clearly on a roll on something he has given much thought to. “That is a very simple way of seeing how much you are drinking, how much of a liability you are, everything… and suddenly you don’t have health insurance anymore, or you become a risk for the authorities.”
“It goes even further than that,” adds Sharon. “In China, they have face recognition on zebra crossings. It’s like Black Mirror! There is a new world being born at this moment. It’s changing really fast, and that fascinates us a lot.”
“It’s like all those sci-fi movies,” says Robert with a shake of the head. “The things that were happening there? They are more around the corner than people think.”
Technology as an existential threat has been something explored by metal for decades, and for Within Temptation, it’s provided an exciting – if mildly terrifying – new way for them to reconnect with what their music has always been about: telling stories through the medium of epic, overblown heavy fucking metal. And on that note: given their increasingly impressive live show, are we safe to assume that this futuristic theme will be given full rein when it comes to the stage?
“I think our show’s been developing through the years,” allows Robert vaguely, not wanting to lift the curtain quite yet. “It’s quite a big set-up again, this tour. We think it’s really, really cool. And yes, it’s a very inspiring new theme! Very sci-fi…”
Given where they were only a few short months ago, it’s a relief and an inspiration to see Within Temptation so excited about their next chapter. Armed with a killer new album and a wealth of ideas on how to expand on it – Robert teases something particularly high concept involving “augmented reality video”, heaven help us – they have all the tools to carry their band, to carry metal itself, into a bold new future. As the conversations over our world’s next big headliners continues to roll on, they’re as equipped as anyone to grab the proverbial brass ring – even if neither Robert nor Sharon are ready to embrace the spotlight quite yet.
“Ha! Sharon never says yes to talent shows or premieres,” laughs Robert when we ask if they’re ready to become bona fide rock’n’roll celebrities. So she gets offers for that kind of thing? “They always ask her! But we are more musicians than we are… TV people’.”
“I’ve been asked to go on Holland’s Got Talent and all those shows,” Sharon adds with a roll of the eyes. “It doesn’t feel right. I have other stuff to do!”
So there’s no chance of an Osbournes-style reality show about you and the fam?
“Never in a million years,” Sharon shoots back with a laugh.
“That is not a good idea,” chuckles Robert.
Whether they’re ready for it or not, Within Temptation are about to shoot for the stars. The future is theirs.
Within Temptation's new album Resist is out February 1 via Spinefarm Records.