"At a certain point we beat Britney Spears!" How Ice Queen made Within Temptation symphonic metal's first superstars - and changed heavy music forever

ICe Queen video
(Image credit: Youtube (Within Temptation))

In the 90s, symphonic metal was more a glittering garnish than a scene in itself, something bands from Therion to Celtic Frost would sprinkle on their music to make it sparkle. And while the genre would start coming together into something more tangible towards the end of the decade, it wasn’t until a few years later that a song would emerge to put symphonic metal on the map.

That song was Within Temptation’s Ice Queen. A complete volte-face
from the gothic doom of the Dutch metallers’ 1997 debut, Enter, it appeared on the follow-up, Mother Earth, in a flurry of lavish arrangements and fairytale histrionics. Buoyed by vocalist Sharon den Adel’s crystalline voice, it pushed metal towards a new frontier, quickly whipping up a buzz in mainland Europe. And while Nightwish would eventually emerge as scene leaders and symphonic juggernauts, at that time, the Finns were still very much in their power metal phase, having just released 2000’s Wishmaster. Instead, Ice Queen can take credit for being symphonic metal’s first major hit, pushing women to the forefront and influencing a brand new generation of bands. Here, Within Temptation guitarist, and Sharon’s husband, Robert Westerholt, looks back on the song that kickstarted symphonic metal.

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What are your memories of writing Ice Queen?

“I remember the house we lived in at the time, at Sharon’s parents’ house. We had a studio in a little room, with a tape deck and eight-track. At that time, we really had this separated way of working; I wrote the music in there, then when I finished the track, Sharon would go into the room and write the melody lines. We were on a very tight schedule at that time for recording music. Our budget was not big. Sharon would have to record the vocals during the day, and I would write the lyrics of the song, which was to be recorded the next day, at night. It was quite a romantic way of working for a young band. Those were exciting times.”

Ice Queen and Mother Earth was the first time Within Temptation embraced symphonic metal. How did that change come about? 

“It was a big step, but then again, also a logical step to toss away the grunts at that time. We originated from death metal, so for us, adding a female focus was something new. But then again, it felt a little forced, and we always tried to search for new things in our music. We knew we could do way more with Sharon’s vocals, our songs became faster – before that, it was quite doomy and slow – and also, I think our songwriting skills had improved. So for us, it was like a whole music musical world was opening.”

How did you find your new sound?

Mother Earth had this musical innocence – we were searching for something with an edge and a bit of melancholy. We came from death metal, Paradise Lost were a big influence, but I loved Marillion and Sisters Of Mercy, and when you take those influences and mix them, you get your own thing. Also, soundtracks have always been inspiring thing for us. The soundtrack of Braveheart – not the film! That’s the combination that took us in a more symphonic direction.”

Sharon took a larger role in the songwriting process for Mother Earth...

“Her voice became more and more important, where at first it was really... I don’t know... it was more the gothic, the doom vibes, and then it became... I think she became more important. Mother Earth and Ice Queen were really for the first time... when it really became her band, that she was in it now for a longer time. She really wrote everything, like the vocal lines.”

What are your memories of the burgeoning symphonic metal scene at the time?

“It started in Holland at first. We really felt there was something boiling because every show that we did was selling out. And we didn’t know why. [In 2002], we went to Netherlands festivals, like Lowlands and Pinkpop, and people were going crazy, it was packed. We felt that we were doing something new, something people hadn’t heard before, so we felt something was building.”

Was there a moment you realised things were taking off for the band? 

“Until Ice Queen, we had felt resistance from national radio, then on a video channel called The Box in the Netherlands, the video for Ice Queen became the most requested video. At a certain point we beat Britney Spears! Then the general radio couldn’t ignore us anymore. They had to play it! Later on, Ice Queen spread to Germany and more countries in Europe and suddenly we were up there in the mainstream.”

Speaking of the video, there’s some wonderful 2000s CGI going on in the video for Ice Queen...

“Actually, we made three videos for Ice Queen, none of them we’re really happy with. The original one, which broke through on The Box, was even way worse!”

You’ve written lyrics throughout your career about nature and the destruction of the world. And that started with Ice Queen...

“At that time, the topic of nature was really on our minds – how we treat the world and how it should be better. We loved the adventure, the melancholic vibe, but also it hurt us to see that the beauty of the world was dying in a lot of places, very much a contradiction to the beautiful worlds of fantasy we created."

At the time, Nightwish were doing their own thing in Finland. When did the two bands become aware of each other?

“We were aware of them because we were doing demos and landing on small, compilation CDs at the time, but we were so busy doing our own thing. I think we were more ahead in the mainstream when we broke through.”

Did Ice Queen open doors for Within Temptation?

“Ice Queen was a huge kick-off. Because of Mother Earth, we got the opportunity to work with real orchestras afterwards on [2004’s] The Silent Force. The orchestral parts on Mother Earth were all samples. From Mother Earth, we invested everything we had in making our shows look bigger and cooler.”

Within Temptation and symphonic metal in general played a huge part in providing representation for women in metal. How do you feel looking back on that?

"I think it's a very obvious thing and a very true thing. I have a feeling that for a lot of girls and women, it was like, 'Oh, yes, finally, now we can participate as well.' It also gores together with the fact that, at the time, metal wasn't that melodic. It was bold to do different things again and to use a lot of melody. And the way women [in symphonic metal] dressed was also a big thing. Sharon has always embraced her femininity. She's never wanted to be one of the guys."

What is Ice Queen’s legacy?

“It was the kick-off for this long, long, long career. It has enabled us to do what we like and connect with so many people. We are grateful. It was something really fresh, new and exciting to people. I think sometimes it’s really just luck that you’re there at the right time. That’s the legacy, the magic of that time, and that music.”

Within Temptation - Ice Queen (official video) - YouTube Within Temptation - Ice Queen (official video) - YouTube
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Dannii Leivers

Danniii Leivers writes for Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, The Guardian, NME, Alternative Press, Rock Sound, The Line Of Best Fit and more. She loves the 90s, and is happy where the sea is bluest.