[7 February 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In 1995, heavy metal, shunned from the mainstream in the wake of the grunge craze, was undergoing an explosion worldwide, the likes of which had never been seen, as bands tested the limits of the genre, pushing the sound to different, yet equally thrilling extremes. At the Gates’ seminal Slaughter of the Soul became the benchmark for Swedish death metal (paving the way for Dark Tranquillity and In Flames), Blind Guardian took the fantasy element to a whole new level, Sepultura’s Roots and Fear Factory’s Demanufacture set the template for the nu-metal wave that would crest in 1999, Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve stunned people with its technical proficiency, and Norway’s Emperor and Mayhem transformed black metal forever. While those bands drove metal into much more aggressive territory, an unknown band from a small city in The Netherlands decided to head in the opposite direction, yielding one of the most startling albums in metal history, and profoundly influencing a generation of young listeners.
The first two albums by The Gathering, while sporadically interesting, seemed lost, as it felt like the band was feeling their way around too furtively. Their music, firmly rooted in the dark, midtempo style of gothic and doom metal, influenced by the likes of Paradise Lost, Trouble, and Tiamat, was adequate, but their choice in lead singers was questionable at best. Bart Smits, who sang on the 1993 debut Always, employed a generic death metal growl, and his replacement on 1994’s Almost a Dance, Niels Duffhues, was much more awkward, his tone-deaf, alt-rock style horribly out of place with the stately musical arrangements. It was the presence of understated guest singer Martine van Loon on Almost a Dance that showed where a good female presence could potentially take the music, and later that year, the band’s prayers were answered with the arrival of a 21 year old singer named Anneke van Giersbergen. The resulting third album, Mandylion, would take that otherwise dour doom sound and infuse it with emotion, charisma, and soul.
In celebration of the album’s tenth anniversary, the new two-CD Deluxe Edition of Mandylion is a great chance for new listeners to discover the album, yet at the same time offers longtime fans a more detailed glimpse of The Gathering, circa 1995. The album itself still sounds incredibly fresh ten years later, a testament to both the band’s songwriting, and especially their prescience, as Mandylion still makes all of today’s popular goth bands, from Evanescence to Lacuna Coil, sound stiff by comparison.
The feeling one gets upon first hearing the opening bars of “Strange Machines” is unforgettable: a simple three chord doom riff kicks in, soon joined by cymbal crashes and tolling bells. Nothing but cookie cutter doom so far, but after the snap of drummer Hans Rutten’s snare, it’s as if the clouds suddenly part, giving way to warm sunlight, as van Giersbergen makes her grand entrance, charming us with her quixotic lyrics: “It has always been in the back of my mind/Dreaming about going to the corners of time.” Her strong, confident, sustained notes mesh perfectly with the layers of guitars, as she continues to muse about traveling back in time to “watch Jesus rise…if he ever did”, and, in a rather cute moment, “touch renaissance and Chaka Khan.” The haunting, graceful “Leaves” has van Giersbergen showcasing her astonishing range, often channeling Bjork, Rene Rutten’s emotive guitar solo complementing her vocals gracefully. “Eleanor” has the entire band in full-on metal mode, with its double-bass beats and staccato riffing during the extended coda, and both “In Motion #1” and “In Motion #2” boast strong, darkly poetic lyrics by the young van Giersbergen (“This blood in my body runs for you/Drink my tears as I cry”). Late in the album, the lengthy tracks “Mandylion” and “Sand & Mercury” display the band’s growing interest in the more progressive side of hard rock, something they would delve into with gusto a few years later.
The 43 minutes’ worth of bonus tracks on disc two, while not quite as revelatory as the demos on the Accessories compilation released late last year, are fun nonetheless, including five Mandylion songs presented in their formative stages. Recorded in June, 1994, “In Motion #1” is decidedly rough around the edges, but to hear van Giersbergen, who had just joined the band, take command of the music as she does, shows how perfect a fit she was for the band. Meanwhile, both “Eleanor” and “In Motion #2”, recorded in early 1995 have the band sounding much more streamlined, and as opposed to the album’s heavy emphasis on guitars, these demos allow us to hear Frank Boeijen’s atmospheric synthesizer work more clearly. The previously unreleased instrumental “Solar Glider” puts the focus on the other five band members, who crank out a muscular, uptempo groove, the churning riffs of Rutten and Jelmer Wiersma dueling with Boeijen’s keyboard squalls. The early version of the great “Third Chance” differs tremendously from the final product on 1997’s Nighttime Birds, as the band tosses various ideas around, from the use of congas to samples, while van Giersbergen’s vocals are much more tentative as she sings a completely different set of lyrics from the final version.
The Gathering would take the ideas from Mandylion and achieve perfection on Nighttime Birds, and then take a radical left turn on 1999’s How to Measure a Planet?, continuing to challenge listeners into the 21st century, but although Mandylion sounds rather simplistic compared to the band’s subsequent records, it remains a crucial turning point for both the band and metal in general, proving to all that sumptuous melodies could commingle with loud guitars without resorting to over-the-top bombast. That impeccable balance of sensitivity and aggression is something countless bands are still trying to equal a decade later, but after revisiting Mandylion, it’s doubtful anyone ever will do so as gracefully as The Gathering have done.