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“…birth, age, death…”
The only thing pre-Anneke The Gathering seems to gather nowadays is dust. It’s bewildering to me that somehow anything in this band’s portfolio prior to ‘95’s Mandylion has been enveloped by some great (over)shadow, doomed to be overlooked and unremembered like when your family went on vacation when you were too young to know or care. Since ’92, I’ve heard this sextet’s early sound wrongly described often enough (i.e. brutal, basic) that I’m convinced opinions about the band’s particular time period are as educated as the last lazyass who regurgitated info from the last lazy website or zine writer who may have never actually given the record a full, attentive half a whirl in the first place.
So, um, at this point The Gathering is merely doom/death metal, eh? And only with the arrival of Mandylion did the heavenly elegance of atmosphere adhere like angel wings, soaring their sound to higher planes of dignity and exaltation. With that known, on Always, Frank Boeijen does his best Captain & Tennille impersonation and only pretends to play keyboards and grand piano while Hugo Prinsen Geerligs adds flute and triangle to his resume to make his bass duties seem less banal. Drummer Hans Rutten brought his wind chimes from home because he likes they way they sparkle in the studio’s lovely fluorescent lighting, meanwhile his brother Rene and Jelmer Wiersma bring their regular and 12 string acoustic guitars along to merely laugh at the serenity and grace they propose. Henk van Koeverden and Marike Groot aren’t guest musicians, but visiting buddies of the band. With nothing better to do, Koeverden happened to drag his Korg MS 10 synthesizer into the studio for kicks and Groot practices her birdcalls out of the clear blue. What…a bunch…of tricksters.
Admittedly, the Dutch group’s debut didn’t open to the fanfare of trumpets. The outpouring of keyboards that were remindful of ‘80s new wave ala A Flock of Seagulls and Human League didn’t thrill some fans. Complaints of clandestine ‘happy’ elements arose from others. Fans of whatever available prog-power metal there was despised Bart Smits’s cavernous growl, but is possibly the sole grounds for the death metal realm to even consider this for comradery. And of course those fans ready to pounce on Immolation-level death metal were grumbling about a loss of ten bucks. Consequently, on several levels many wouldn’t recognize the band’s authentic atmospheric verve, an embryo to the semi-symphonic that was already in labor on Paradise Lost’s effigy Gothic. Always can be considered misunderstood much like Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, but how these two discs differ from the funereal strides of Paradise Lost and pubescent My Dying Bride and Anathema is in their darkness and heaviness, or dismissive use thereof.
Overflowing this lp are keyboards running the gamut of the lushly sublime to the mysterious to the oddly chipper, unseating the guttural crunch guitar sound and limiting it to the background where heaviness is strangely more an imposition than a factor – not an option people saw coming and an alternative that’s either an affliction or a consolation, depending on who you talk to. True, Smits’s frightful vocals aren’t enough to quell death/doom expectations, but that’s not its point. Featured throughout these eight fairly long tracks, the death vox may seem a focal point but it’s more a disguised lifeline to the darker metal realm, an old friend wrestling with the sway of progression. And what do we do for friends who are in trouble? We sleep with their significant other. No - we help, and if we can’t help, we root for them. Aficionados of the gravel-mouthed gather 'round with eyes hopeful, but the truth of it is Smits’s thick throat is the last thing the band wants you to dwell upon. They’d rather your curiosity be piqued by the piano-backed cleaner tones he surreptitiously implies in “In Sickness and Health”. They’d rather Groot’s uncommon soprano peel the death grip from your thoughts in “Second Sunrise”, “King For a Day”, and “Gaya’s Dream”. They’d rather the chill of wind chimes tingle your cognition in “Stonegarden”. And of course the keyboards’ sometimes chromatic (“Subzero”, “King for a Day”), sometimes blissful (“…Aways”) mien is not merely an adventure steady and fulfilling, but the uncharacteristic backbone of the effort.
Getting back to those ‘happy’ elements, they do exist – not gaudy Katrina and the Waves or even late ‘80s Bad Religion happy, but exquisite, gaseous stuff that can resemble an ambrosial aural aroma that is much more celestial sounding on Mandylion. Most things murky or malignant are deadened by layers of ethereal coloring - the color of light, the sky, the ocean, and all the hues that can come from them.
Lyrics are rational and linear with streaks of poetic complexion, feeding off the Frostian umbilical cord less than other bands in the youthful genre that were finding it cardinal to do so (and I wasn’t complaining).
I know this isn’t for everyone, but anyone worth their metallic salt should at least recognize what helped forge the atmospheric, orchestral, symphonic, and even gothic genres.