In September 2008, Within Temptation visited Kherson, a port city in the south of Ukraine, just north of the Crimean Peninsula. The Dutch metallers were nearing the end of a year-and-half-long tour for their fourth album, The Heart Of Everything, and it was their first time in the Eastern European country.
Two days later, they would play a show in the capital, Kyiv, but it’s Kherson that sticks out most vividly in their minds: a former Eastern bloc city on the rise, the beautiful tree-lined streets, the wide Dnieper River. During their stay, they were treated to a ceremonial tour with the mayor and invited, poignantly in hindsight, to plant a tree for peace.
“They put us in national clothing and gave us traditional food,” vocalist Sharon Den Adel says, remembering the warm welcome. “We had an amazing few days.”
When Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city to fall. Russian troops occupied the city from March to November, before it was recaptured by Ukrainian forces. “The resistance there was really strong,” says Robert Westerholt, Sharon’s husband and Within Temptation co-founder/studio guitarist.
“Every night, they would come out and literally slit throats of Russian soldiers, [come] out of corners and attack them in every way they could. They were really paranoid, the Russians, they never felt at ease there.”
That staunch defiance inspired the band to write Cyanide Love, one of several songs on the band’s new album, Bleed Out, about the Ukraine War. ‘Sunflowers will soon be growing over your grave,’ sings Sharon over tense synths and downtuned guitars, a reference to a viral video on the first day of the invasion: a Ukrainian woman offers sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier with the harrowing wish that they bloom in his pocket after his death. ‘You’ll take it, you’ll face it / The barrel of my smoking gun.’
“We really hope to go back [to Kherson] one day,” says Robert, and his voice aches with sadness.
We’re sitting in the stylish but homely kitchen – all high ceilings and tall windows – of Sharon and Robert’s house in a pretty, peaceful countryside town, 40 minutes from the manic tourist bustle of Amsterdam.
The couple have lived here for 15 years, and it’s very much their haven. As we talk, their two sons are next door playing a videogame on the TV. Their friendly black labrador, Charlie, demands a head stroke, and gold balloons strung across the front door celebrate their daughter Eva’s recent high school graduation.
But it’s also Within Temptation HQ, the base where they’ve masterminded the band’s shift from ethereal, dark-edged symphonic royalty to a powerhouse of modern heavy metal (see: 2019’s Resist). We’ve been invited here for a world-exclusive playback of Bleed Out, the band’s eighth album, which, at the time of our visit, hasn’t even been officially announced.
As Robert leads us through the house, we pass a rail in the hall that holds several leather jackets, and an enormous canvas bearing the artwork of The Heart Of Everything. Inside the white-walled studio, art and guitars hang on one wall above a low sofa. Sharon and Robert seem relaxed and excited to talk about the new album, although even now they’re still making last-minute changes.
Up until yesterday, the album had a different title; on the few tracks we were sent in advance, it was The Ultimate Sacrifice. The new name, Sharon says, is stronger, and more representative of the real-life struggles that have inspired some of the songs.
She was in Sweden when she heard about the invasion of Ukraine. Her immediate response, like many others, was one of shock and fear, admitting that the old-fashioned method of warfare – troops and tanks on the ground – was not something she had expected to see in her lifetime.
“Maybe that’s naïve, but not in Europe,” she says, curled up barefoot on a nearby armchair. “Kyiv is only a two-and-a-half-hour flight by plane [from the Netherlands]. It’s the same distance as Spain, where I’m going in a few days.”
Before they press play, they show us the artwork, which depicts a hooded figure in shades of black and red. “It’s dark,” Sharon notes, “because the album is dark.”
While Within Temptation’s last record, Resist, blew their sound up to supercharged proportions, just one listen of Bleed Out is enough to confirm that this is Within Temptation’s biggest, heaviest record so far. Stepping things up a level was necessary to match the severity of the source material.
Opener Go To War sets the tone with a colossal guitar part and an apocalyptic choir, a chorus dripping in grandeur, and a marriage of synths with the unmistakable mechanical judder of tech metal. The latter influence, Robert says, has filtered into the band’s sound not through bingeing on Meshuggah albums, but because its cold, almost cruel, mechanical nature best helped to paint a picture of a universe in crisis. “Somehow this [sound] resonates with that.”
The title track follows in the same vein, anthemic and cinematic, with hints of the epic symphonic and gothic doom of their earlier material. It all sounds huge – built to fill the massive rooms the band have become accustomed to playing these days. “Certain elements have come back in, that made us in the beginning,” says Robert. “They still inspire us.”
When we suggest it’s a culmination of every step in the band’s sonic evolution, Sharon agrees: “But with an extra layer of heaviness.”
“We have been searching for this for quite some time, to have a sound that is heavy, but still has this melancholy and beautiful storytelling lines,” she continues. “And finally, it happened on the very last few songs [we wrote]. Sometimes you have just one song that opens the door.”
It would be easy to draw parallels between Within Temptation’s current approach and a band like Sabaton, who have made a career out of songs that go big on bombast and heroism. Robert is quick to shut the comparison down. “We’re not making war songs. We’re not doing history lessons,” he says, arguing that the band didn’t find inspiration in the grim reality of the battlefield. “It’s more the drive of people and their personal stories. We won’t be going onstage with a tank.”
Within Temptation are reluctant to call this a “political” album, but there’s no doubt it’s their most socially aware yet, far removed from the fantastical tendencies of old. For our listening session we’ve been joined by the band’s manager, Martijn, perhaps a sign that, while Sharon and Robert are keen to discuss the inspirations behind the album, they’re cautious about the sensitivities involved.
Go To War, Cyanide Love, Worth Dying For and Wireless directly reference the invasion. The latter talks about the danger of propaganda. “I remember that I was in Russia once and saw something on my own social media,” says Sharon.
“I asked someone sitting next to me, ‘What are they saying?’ And the guy said, ‘Yes, these Americans, blah, blah… completely the opposite of what I’ve been reading on social media where I’m living. If you don’t go deeper, if you don’t search for more information that tells you the story from different perspectives, then you will believe the state television. So that’s why it’s important to tell stories, to give counterweight.”
The band almost called the track Mark Of Cain, a reference to Cain murdering his brother Abel in the Book Of Genesis. “Russia sees their neighbour country as… something that belongs to them or like family,” continues Sharon. “It’s like you wear the Mark Of Cain, everybody knows you killed your brother.”
Meanwhile, Sharon says the title track was written about Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly breaking hijab rules and died in the custody of the country’s morality police. Her death sparked nationwide protests.
“It’s inspirational that some people are willing [to protest], knowing when they take off their scarf, what’s going to happen to them,” she says. She viewed the protests as a generational conflict: “There’s a lot of women taking a lot of risk to do that, but also men from their own generation supporting them and also getting into trouble… the older generation are trying to keep things how they are, and the younger generation are ready [for] change.”
We haven’t heard Within Temptation this fired up in ages, but their initial intention wasn’t to make an album. They had spent the last two years releasing singles – Entertain You and The Purge in 2020 and Shed My Skin in 2021, all of which appear on the record – and enjoying the off-cycle immediacy of being able to write, record and upload. Following the outbreak of war, though, writing between their home and the Swedish studio of long-time collaborator Daniel Gibson, the remaining material came together over six months.
Other topics are discussed on the record, too: Ritual is a tongue-in-cheek, double-entendre-heavy paean to female sexual expression. Shed My Skin is about living by your own rules, free from the judgement of others, while Sharon describes Entertain You as “a song for the misfits”. It was inspired, she says, by a video she saw on social media.
“There was a trans woman who was walking in England, and she was bullied by three young guys. She’s not there for their entertainment, but they’re using her for entertainment because she’s different. I wrote that song [to say] we’re beautiful in our own way. To share some love.”
While some of the tracks were written and recorded almost three years apart, what holds the album together is the theme of freedom. “To protect your freedom, you have to be active,” says Robert. “If you’re passive, then you’re going to lose it. It’s about personal freedom, but also freedom for your country, for your friends, family… everything.”
“It’s a record about the unbreakable desire of humans to live free from tyranny and oppression,” agrees Sharon. “How many also are willing to give so much to achieve this not only for themselves, but for others and future generations. As an artist you have this platform, and we can talk about bubblegum. But I can also talk about things that matter.”
Having listened to the album in full, we decamp to a nearby brasserie for lunch, and to continue the conversation. Sharon drives, and as we cruise through the cool shade of the forest next to their home, she motions towards a large sand dune that meets the trees – a bizarre natural phenomenon where the cover art for her 2018 solo album, My Indigo, was shot. She’d like to record more solo work, she later tells us.
“One day, but not at the moment, because I need a little time. It’s been a rollercoaster. I have been writing songs since the war started, before that we had the pandemic, and after that we had to do all the shows that we couldn’t do during Corona.”
Once at the restaurant, we are shown to a table in a private corner outside, tucked away beside the hedges, where Robert and Sharon order us food and drinks. Clearly well-known, several members of staff come over to greet them during the rest of our interview.
Our conversation takes us all over: to Taylor Swift, an artist Sharon respects, and whether they would ever do Eurovision given the rise in metal acts (the answer is no, although Sharon was once on the Dutch judging panel).
We soon get back to the album – whenever an artist wades into the kind of matters discussed on Bleed Out, someone always complains that politics should be kept out of music. Have they received any backlash? “I deleted a message yesterday on Facebook,” says Sharon, explaining that a fan/troll had taken umbrage with the band’s song Raise Your Banner, from 2019’s Resist, which Sharon has taken to dedicating to Ukraine at their live shows, often waving a flag onstage.
“He said, ‘You’re preaching about freedom and then you preach war. You slut.’” She pauses to let the language sink in. He had complained about the lyric, ‘Blood for freedom.’ “It means you would give your life to have freedom,” she argues. “So, if he had put five minutes of effort into reading the lyrics, then he would know Raise Your Banner is taking a stand.”
“What annoys me a lot is that people say, ‘Don’t talk about politics’,” adds Robert. “It’s not even politics. It’s your opinion as an artist. Artists have opinions. That’s what art is for. That’s what makes it interesting.”
In 2021, Sharon was invited by Kerrang! to write a comment piece for International Women’s Day, and chose to argue the importance of access to abortion. Her research for the piece revealed vastly differing approaches across Europe. “There were people who didn’t understand my point of view,” she says of the response to the essay, as lunch arrives at the table. “Not everybody is in the same place at the same time when you write an article like that. But backlash is also a good thing, because then it gets the attention that it needs.”
The track Don’t Pray For Me from the new album makes the argument for bodily autonomy: ‘I don’t need your absolution, so don’t hold that sword over me / For my confessions I don’t need a church / I don’t need salt to know where it hurts.’
“We were fighting for that and talking about it [when I was in my teens], and we’re still fighting the same battles,” she says, explaining that the issues facing women are increasingly at the forefront of her mind, especially given her own daughter’s coming of age. “It doesn’t seem like we have stepped forward yet.”
Within Temptation have always been equally fascinated and horrified by the human predisposition for destruction and harm, whether it be towards our planet or fellow man. As far back as 2004’s The Silent Force, the haunting Forsaken painted a desperate picture of the end of days. ‘Our time has run out, our future has died / There’s no more escape… We’re the last of our kind.’
They also grappled with the futility of war in 2007, on Our Solemn Hour, from The Heart Of Everything, which interspersed symphonic excess with excerpts from Winston Churchill’s Be Ye Men Of Valour speech.
In 2020, they had started planning a stage production worthy of their grandiose vision, although the pandemic put their plans on ice. Instead, their blueprints became The Aftermath, a CGI livestream in 2021 which took place in a post-apocalyptic world. It depicted the band performing in the remnants of a ruined landscape, escaping to space as the planet burns in a fireball below – a sobering statement on the man-made challenges facing us today.
“It was a thought experiment of what would be very possible in the future,” says Robert of his sci-fi vision. “There were two thoughts behind it. One, we are getting more aware that we’re really destroying our planet and ourselves. That’s pretty obvious right now. But the second thing is the big perspective – it’s quite logical that people, at a certain point, will definitely [abandon Earth and] go into space.”
Another subject the band are interested in is the increasing, perhaps dangerous, control modern technology has on our lives. They’re huge fans of Charlie Brooker’s Netflix series Black Mirror, while a similar narrative rippled through 2019’s Resist. Their live shows have become increasingly futuristic in theme, while the video for recent single Wireless was made using AI. We mention that Black Mirror actor Aaron Paul voiced concerns about AI, and that soon we might not be able to tell what’s real and what’s not. “I think that’s already the case,” says Sharon.
We ask about the rise in AI-created music online, and if they worry about the artistic implications. Robert is dismissive. “Music is not just about listening to something, it’s the whole story around it, where you are at a certain place,” he says. “We’re very interested in what it can do. It’s one big experiment.”
How would you feel if someone used AI to make a Within Temptation song, and people thought it was an official track? “What I could find difficult is they could make lyrics, that are offensive, that I didn’t write, and people might think I did,” says Sharon.
Robert shrugs. “But then you can tell them you didn’t.”
“But if they can’t tell the difference…” Sharon perseveres.
Robert is still unconcerned. “If it’s not on your official website… it’s really no issue at all.”
Sharon looks at us with a wry smile. “So even we have our discussions about that.”
When Within Temptation were able to resume touring after the pandemic, they brought The Aftermath to life. Rescheduling their long-postponed Worlds Collide UK arena tour with Evanescence, suddenly they were operating, conceptually and visually, on a whole new level.
Their pyro-packed stage production even included a huge humanoid head. They cite Iron Maiden, who they have toured with several times over the years – the most recent outing being on 2022’s Legacy Of The Beast run – as their main inspiration. “Those bands who do something special visually have always inspired us to do the same,” says Sharon.
And while they’ve been a bona fide arena band in mainland Europe for years, it felt like, finally, they’d cemented the same status in the UK. “I think everywhere the venues will now be a bit bigger,” smiles Robert. “We felt it was a milestone in our career. We didn’t care too much about what we were making [financially] with the show, but just to make it the most memorable show that we could. We never thought that we would reach this far.”
Sonically, too, it feels like Within Temptation could go anywhere. While Bleed Out is littered with symphonic elements, it’s a musical label that now feels uncomfortable, something they’ve long outgrown. “We don’t feel like a symphonic band,” says Robert.
Sharon agrees. “But I don’t know what to call ourselves now either. I don’t have a new box to put ourselves in.”
And even as they’re making the final changes to Bleed Out, their minds are fixed on the future. As hectic as the last year has been, the process of making the new album has got their creative juices flowing.
“It’s so funny. As soon as we finished [Bleed Out] we were like, ‘We want to make another album.’ But we’re going to take our time for the next one,” she insists. “We were working full force from our house [during the pandemic]. I loved what I was doing, but at the same time I was also very tired. So I can’t wait to have a little bit of a break. This summer, we have a few festivals and then I have some time to really get both feet on the ground.”
She won’t take her foot off the gas for too long, though. After 27 years of constant innovation, Within Temptation don’t know how to stand still. “What I feel like now is actually writing again,” she laughs, shaking her head. “It’s very strange and positive!”
Bleed Out is due October 20 via Force Music