Sweet Relief

If there’s one thing male heavy metal singers could never fully master, it’s subtlety. Ever since the birth of metal, vocal styles have ranged from one extreme to another: Rob Halford screamed, Ronnie James Dio bellowed, Lemmy Kilminster emitted that unholy rasp of his, Ozzy Osbourne sang in his charming, tone-deaf way, King Diamond let loose his demonic arias. With such an aggressive sound to support, lead singers felt they had to match that aggression more often than not. While some bands had frontmen with outstanding range (Queensryche’s Geoff Tate, Anthrax’s Joey Belladonna, Dream Theater’s James LaBrie), any hint of emotion they tried to convey carried a grandiose, theatrical quality to it. Whenever a band tried to employ more straightforward singing, the end result was more awkward than anything else (Diamond Head’s Borrowed Time is a good example). ’80s headbangers wanted forceful singing from their heroes of the male-dominated sound, be it growled, hollered, or wailed, and if any band dared to try a little tenderness, the end result, even if it helped break the band commercially, was met by great derision from the denim- and leather-clad legions of fans. Just ask Metallica.

Now Slaying

Absu, Mythological Occult Metal 1991-2001 (Osmose)
An immensely fun compilation by the Texas occult metal band featuring cult faves (“The Gold Torques of Ulaid”, from the film Gummo), several EPs, live tracks, and covers. The photos in the booklet must be seen to be believed, but the band’s exuberant blend of death, black, and power metal makes up for its seemingly hopeless fashion sense.

Hate Profile, Opus I: The Khaos Hatefile (Cruz Del Sur)
First-rate black metal courtesy Italian veteran Amon 418, this solo project overcomes some rather primitive production and a tinny drum sound to envelops us in its dark embrace. Ornate, chaotic, and impeccably performed (the vocals are killer), it’s catchy enough to win over cynics (“17 Empty Rooms”), yet kvlt enough to please fans of the genre.

Lullacry, Vol. 4 (Century Media)
They might sport the goth look, but at the end of the day, Finland’s Lullacry are all about the ’80s hard rock hooks, and their fourth CD sports catchy melodies more sugary than Pixie Stix. If you can listen to Vixen’s “Edge of a Broken Heart” with a straight face, then “Stranger in You” is a must.

Rosetta, The Galilean Satellites (Translation Loss)
This double CD does brazenly copy the concept behind Neurosis/Tribes of Neurot’s Grace/Tribes of Grace, but you can’t deny that Rosetta pulls it off well, perfectly offsetting a disc of mammoth space-metal with a second disc of ambient noise. It requires patience (not to mention two stereos), but the overall effect is as enveloping as it is hypnotic.

Scars of Tomorrow, The Horror of Realization (Victory)
On its fourth album, the SoCal band nails all the metalcore prerequisites: plenty of hardcore-derived, mosh-inducing riffs and breakdowns; screamed vocals; and the usual self-help themed lyrics. However, while the band is very good at what it does, there’s little here that sets the music apart from the dozens of other metalcore acts. Give us something to remember, guys.

Consequently, as the lads out there worried that their favorite music was becoming too “gay”, it became up to the ladies to inject some new life into the genre. Prior to the ’90s, there had been a number of prominent women vocalists in metal music. While there was no shortage of great voices (Lee Aaron, Doro Pesch, Kim McAuliffe), they all used the same over-the-top style of their male counterparts. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s when the role of the female lead singer would be revolutionized, and one band in particular deserves much of the credit.

Formed by brothers René and Hans Rutten in Nijmegen, Holland in the early ’90s, the Gathering went through several awkward formative years before finding its niche as a band. Hailing from a town where metal was the music of choice among young people, the band started out playing decent, albeit unspectacular melodic, keyboard-tinged doom/death metal. Its first two albums, 1993’s Always and 1994’s Almost a Dance, contained hints of strong songwriting, but the mood on both records was derailed by lead singers who sounded horribly out of place with the music the rest of the band was playing. The brief appearances by singer Martine van Loon on Almost a Dance gave people a glimpse of how good the Gathering could be with a female presence up front, and when the band recruited young vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen in 1995, it not only hit paydirt, but wound up profoundly influencing a generation of young female singers in Europe.

Never had heavy metal audiences encountered a singer with the range of van Giersbergen, and her astonishing, highly evocative voice added a new dimension to the band’s sound, becoming the focal point of the sensational one-two punch of the 1995 breakthrough Mandylion and the 1997 masterpiece Nighttime Birds. Drawing heavily from Tiamat’s languid 1994 album Wildhoney and allowing van Giersbergen’s voice to soar with Björk-like exuberance, the Gathering found the perfect combination of deliberately paced, gothic-tinged doom and majestic, lilting vocal melodies. Nowhere else is the adjective “angelic” more appropriate than when describing van Giersbergen’s singing, as she single-handedly elevated both albums to then-unfathomable heights, injecting doom-fueled dirges like “Strange Machines” and “On Most Surfaces” with rays of sunlight, adding emotional resonance to introspective songs like “In Motion #2” and “The May Song”, and displaying the ability to rock like nobody’s business on the pulse-pounding “Third Chance”. It’s one thing to have a singer who can easily hit all the high notes, but to have a frontwoman do so and effortlessly project an aura of warmth around the music is even more impressive. Nobody, before or since, has managed the same feat in such a forceful, heavy milieu. In fact, when comparing the version of “The Mirror Waters” from 1992’s Always with that from the 2004 live album Sleepy Buildings, the way van Giersbergen gracefully transforms the song is downright shocking.

So great was the influence of Mandylion and Nighttime Birds in both metal and goth communities that, in subsequent years, numerous bands started to emphasize the female voice more, including fellow Dutch acts After Forever and Within Temptation, as well as Epica, Norway’s Theatre of Tragedy, Finland’s Nightwish, Italy’s Lacuna Coil, and even a little American band called Evanescence, whose mainstream-friendly version catapulted singer Amy Lee to instant stardom. The Gathering, however, refused to stick to the formula, shocking fans by moving into a more progressive rock direction. Its post-1998 releases are treasures unto themselves, the entire band — especially guitarist René Rutten, keyboardist Frank Boeijen, and drummer Hans Rutten — coming into its own instead of lazily relying on the power of van Giersbergen’s voice (its growth also allowed Anneke to experiment more with her singing style instead of simply belting out the lines). 2000’s if_then_else, 2004’s Souvenirs, and especially 1998’s highly ambitious double album How to Measure a Planet? are more complete band efforts, as the Gathering delve into more atmospheric musical themes, inspired primarily by different musical styles such as krautrock, shoegaze, dreampop, and bands like Dead Can Dance and Radiohead, more than anything from the metal canon.

Today, just over ten years after the release of the groundbreaking Mandylion, the band is taking a look back at its career while setting its sights on the road ahead. While the Gathering continues work on its eighth studio album (due later this year), fans are being treated to two excellent releases: a comprehensive compilation of both non-album and unreleased material, and an outstanding live concert DVD recorded last year.

Released on Century Media Records (the band’s label until 2000), Accessories: Rarities & B-Sides does smack of a contractual obligation album, but it’s hardly a hastily assembled compilation. Instead, the two-disc, nearly two-and-a-half-hour set has obviously been lovingly compiled, focusing (to no one’s surprise) on the Century Media glory days, from 1995 to 2000, complete with liner notes by the musicians and their producers. There are no studio dregs whatsoever here; although it’s essentially an odds-and-sods collection, it’s hardly a stereotypical one, as even the unreleased tracks boast strong production. Best of all, the chronological sequencing works wonderfully, allowing us to hear the polished progression of the Gathering’s sound over those six pivotal years, all from a different point of view from that of the albums.

Disc one is a pastiche of the band’s various B-sides between 1995 and 2000, composed primarily of live performances, alternate studio versions, and covers, with a few non-album cuts thrown in. Van Giersbergen’s mesmerizing voice is in full force on early live performances of Mandylion nuggets “In Motion #1” and “Leaves” and the band displays brute force in a live setting, making for an enthralling contrast. Conversely, her 1996 performances of “Leaves” and “Strange Machines”, accompanied by Holland’s Metropole Orchestra (sans the rest of the band), manage to elevate the compositions to much more blunt, bombastic levels, and while it sounds at times that van Giersbergen is trying to out-sing the orchestra, the symphonic treatment is good despite yielding a different result than one might have expected. The late ’90s live staple “Adrenaline” is one of the more straightforward hard rock tracks the Gathering has ever recorded, yet despite its rather pedestrian arrangement (seriously, that fanfare intro is painful), unmistakable traces of the band’s unique sound creep in, making it seem like something only they would dare to pull off.

The punchy performance of “Third Chance” and an intimate, acoustic version of “Shrink” offer contrasting glimpses of the Nighttime Birds era, while the short film score “Theme From The Cyclist” and a demo of if_then_else‘s lovely “Amity” showcase the band’s growing fascination with new, more atmospheric tones. The band’s creative choice of cover material, though, proves to be the most fascinating aspect of the first CD: the faithful rendition of Dead Can Dance’s “In Power We Trust the Love Advocated”, an arresting performance of Slowdive’s “When the Sun Hits” (both recorded in 1997), and the superb, stripped-down recording of the great Talk Talk tune “Life is What You Make It” (from 2000) are three perfect examples of the band’s ever-increasing ambition.

The studio outtakes on the second disc, which center specifically on sessions in both 1996 and 1998, provide the most revelations on the compilation. Before the Gathering recorded the final version of Nighttime Birds, it recorded a handful of demos with noted krautrock producer EROC (known most for his work with Grobschnitt in the early ’70s). The nine tracks included here are wondrous, as EROC places more emphasis on mood and space (practically unthinkable in metal circa 1996). Consequently, the versions of songs like “Confusion”, “Nighttime Birds”, “On Most Surfaces”, and “Shrink” are vastly different than the songs heard on the classic album; EROC employs more of an expansive, atmospheric, Brian Eno-esque tone to the recordings with guitars mixed very low and Boeijin’s keyboards pushed up. These very spontaneous recordings prove to be well ahead of their time, as the band tinkers with sounds it would employ more fully nearly a decade later on Souvenirs. In the liner notes, the band readily admits that several of these tracks surpass the ones used on the 1997 release. The five excerpts from the How to Measure a Planet? demos are almost equally fascinating, offering much more intimate, compressed versions of “Probably Built in the Fifties”, “Red Is a Slow Colour”, and “Travel” than what eventually appeared on the final double album.

Recorded in May 2005 at Amsterdam’s ornate Paradiso (a perfect setting for a Gathering concert), the two-disc A Sound Relief (The End) is the kind of concert DVD that will have fans salivating. In gorgeous high-definition video, the Gathering deliver an entrancing set comprised of the mellower, more understated tracks in its catalog, but as opposed to the 2004 “semi-acoustic” live album Sleepy Buildings, the quintet is in full electric mode here. The pace of the 80-minute, 14-song set is decidedly languid, but the smooth ebb and flow of the music has a hypnotic effect, the songs offset nicely by computer animated projections (which can be viewed separately on the DVD). The editing is as laidback as the music, with no unnecessary quick cuts and plenty of close shots of each band member. The set list draws from various chapters in the band’s history, with the strongest emphasis on How to Measure a Planet?, a token nod to the beloved Mandylion (“In Motion II”), and a very good new song in the form of the surprisingly upbeat “Alone”.

The band’s striking versatility is especially apparent during the concert, which showcases the nimble rhythm section of Hans Rutten and bassist Marjolein Kooijman, and the keyboard/programming work of Boeijen. René Rutten’s guitar work is especially effective; he opts for more tasteful, understated notes and chords instead of huge power chords (although they’re not above the odd explosion of distortion, as during the soaring “Travel”). The haunting strains of Rutten’s EBow adds an ethereal touch to “Amity”, while on the more aggressive “Rescue Me”, he displays astonishing skill with a theremin, played simultaneously with guitar. Instead of sounding like a Jimmy Page stage gimmick, Rutten treats the theremin as a legitimate musical instrument, and the overall effect, especially when heard in the brilliant 5.1 surround mix, is enthralling.

Still, the band’s performance revolves around the presence of the radiant van Giersbergen. Clad casually in a white tank top, white jeans, and white sneakers, the singer is nothing short of captivating. In addition to bringing that invaluable warmth to the band’s progressive sound, her stage presence is completely devoid of pretension, and it’s impossible to keep our eyes off her. To see van Giersbergen smile so much within the context of such introspective and moody music makes her performance all the more beguiling (Thom Yorke could learn a lesson or two from the lady), quickly making up for the fact that she remains a rather reserved lead singer onstage. Her vocals are as impeccable as one would expect, ranging from powerful, sustained notes (“Travel”), to the more measured phrasing she employs on record these days (“The Big Sleep”), to tender, emotional moments, highlighted by the show stopping rendition of the early Almost a Dance track “Like Fountains”, which completely destroys the original version.

The supplemental features on the second disc offer a more personal glimpse of the band, the centerpiece being a 35-minute “Tour Diary” shot by the band on its 2004 world tour (during which van Giersbergen was pregnant with her first child), and what a pleasure it is to see that it’s not the usual document of sophomoric road hijinks that plague most metal DVDs. Instead, the artful presentation of randomly shot home video clips is very much like the band’s music: simple, at times abstract, but strangely engaging. We see them traveling through Europe, playing to rabid audiences in South America, touring in anonymity in America and Canada, surrounded by police in Mexico City to protect them from the hordes of devoted fans. After a while, though we’re looking inside the Gathering fishbowl in a cut-and-paste style, it quickly becomes apparent to us just how down to earth this band is, a fact driven home on two European television specials included on the disc. Beautifully presented and packaged, A Sound Relief is a must for fans, and a perfect introduction for curious new listeners.

After some 15 years, the Gathering finds itself at a rather comfortable point in its career. It has respect among its peers, a fiercely loyal fanbase, its own label (Psychonaut) that offers full artistic control over its music, and the ability to sell out venues wherever it plays. There’s no doubt they would welcome some additional success in North America, but the veteran musicians are well-grounded enough to know the lack of sales across the Atlantic is hardly the end of the world. As usual, they’ll just have to woo new fans one person at a time, and both Accessories and A Sound Relief, as well as the upcoming deluxe reissue of Mandylion, help their cause magnificently. With a new album, tour, and DVD (A Noise Severe, a second concert focusing on their louder material) on the horizon in 2006, there’s no better time than now for people to discover one of the most criminally underrated bands in not just metal, but all of rock music.

RATING 7 / 10