It can take time to properly understand an album, however great it is. At first I found The Gathering‘s Mandylion album (1995, Century Media) almost exhausting to listen to, as each track was so weighty I’d burn myself out before getting very far through the cd.
That isn’t to say that the quality of the music isn’t apparent from the start. Album opener ‘Strange Machines’ riffs into being with a single guitar strumming above the silence; direct and unpretentious. It serves up a fantastic, slow-paced rhythm guitar part with a brilliant sense of energy and spacious power. Another guitar comes in, and as the track flows into the verse we are treated to our first taste of one of the finest vocal performances ever committed to cd. New vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen delivers a mesmerizing line of melody, with an effortless strength behind the notes, flitting lightly through this crushing soundscape, dancing above the riffs. The opening to the chorus is euphoric, lyrically and musically; “I want to do centuries in a lifetime,” is treated to a soaring, seventeen-note delivery that makes these words truly sing. Brimming with confidence and life, ‘Strange Machines’ heralds the beginning of a fantastic era for this band, and ‘Mandylion’ does not fail to deliver on this promise.
The album is graced by Anneke’s astounding vocals. She takes stunning melodic lines, facilitated by her astounding range, and the occasional multi-tracking takes things higher by creating some delicious harmonies, as in the track ‘Leaves’. There’s an incredible feeling of sincerity to her delivery, which is furthered by the fantastic lyrics.
All too often in music, lyrics are a weakness, an embarrassment, to be ignored if at all possible. But ‘Mandylion’ features lyricism that compounds the sentiment of the album, an honest and evocative emotional ambience. And they climax just as the songs climax musically, crafting some sublime emotional heights. The chorus to ‘In Motion #1’ culminates with the lyrics “Leave me against the stream, one hundred worlds will see me passing by.” When not set with the music, they lose so much of their potency, but even written on the page there’s something gorgeous about them. This album features some of the most moving choruses that I have yet come across, and the touching lyrics and vocals contribute massively to them.
The songwriting is fantastic, ranging from compulsive riffs, such as the excellent, swirling, high guitar outro to ‘Eléanor’, to the killer, simple alternating drone in the verse of ‘Leaves’. It ranges further, from energetic rhythm guitar, such as the monstrously compelling breakdown in ‘Strange Machines’, to the entrancing melodies of the violin section towards the end of ‘Eléanor’, reaching for something higher in the short moment of respite from the churning guitar, when the sun becomes visible through the clouds and you reach out to clasp it in your hand.
The songwriting is a little lethargic at times, and the album takes a while to reveal itself on account of this. But once you’re acclimatised, the length of the songs simply makes them all the sweeter. It’s great for a band to take its time exploring such fantastic spaces. A beautiful walk is best taken at a stroll; beauty must not be rushed.
The musicians’ individual performances are top-notch, and should not simply be seen as a back-drop for Anneke’s performance (as critics and fans of this band so often seem to do). The keyboard accompaniments are subtle and engaging, and when they take centre stage, as they do for the waltzing main melody in ‘In Motion #1’, the result is enchanting. The bass lines are great, and audible, thanks to the careful sound production: the accompaniment to ‘In Motion #1’, the mournful hook in ‘Eléanor’ , and the harmonics in ‘In Motion #2’ are particularly exquisite. The guitar solos are few in number, but those that there are are fantastic, putting expression over speed, as epitomised by the delightful ‘Leaves’ solo, drenched in warmth and feeling.
This brings me to the heart of why this album is such a triumph. Powerful and energetic in a way that most albums aren’t, it is also incredibly warm and reflective. Its ability to convey such a wide range and depth of emotions and energies is staggering; from relentless movement to melancholy, distance, catharsis, on to soaring hope, connection and bliss. It really does tap into something higher. It hits the carnal heart of metal music, through its riffs and energy, but also manifests the transcendent, melodic, captivating, euphoric, beautiful side of music. It’s rare to see a band come close to achieving just one of these two aspects; to see a band achieve both is something very special indeed. This is the secret of The Gathering’s success with Mandylion. Approach with patience and you be rewarded with a rare pleasure. Essential listening.
If you’ve ever listened to anything with a guitar in it, you need to check this out. If you’re interested in atmospheric, ethereal or ‘gothic’ music, like Dead Can Dance, it’ll also be of interest. For a taste of the album, check out the title track ‘Mandylion’ and ‘Leaves’. There’s a great live video of an orchestral version of ‘Leaves’ and ‘Strange Machines’. Their follow-up – ‘Nighttime Birds’ (1997, Century Media) – was of a similarly high standard. Tracks like ‘On Most Surfaces (Inuït’), ‘The May Song’, and ‘Nighttime Birds’ are of such high standard that perhaps it even eclipses its predecessor. Here’s a live video of the title track:
After these two albums, The Gathering left the realms of metal behind, and did something really exciting with the more experimental ‘How To Measure a Planet?’ Too often in music, ‘experimental’ is a code-word for indulgent, amelodic nonsense, but that’s not the case here. I’ve posted the videos for a couple of tracks from that album below: