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I once watched a TV documentary called Space that involved Sam Neill relating expert predictions of what life in the future might be like. One suggestion was that, far down the rocky road of evolution, we would live in zero gravity environments and no longer need both arms and legs, and instead end up with four arms. Since I haven't seen or read any predictions of the future since then that make more sense than that (or perhaps more importantly, sound more appealing) I have mentally prepared myself for zero gravity existence in case it happens within my lifetime, and hence replaced the concept of desert island discs with space shuttle discs. As I'm rotating slowly in mid-air on the bridge of some spacecraft, smoking genetically engineered marijuana, sipping a soylent cola and looking out on the cosmos, one of the things I am likely to be playing on my badass futuristic headphones is The Gathering's How To Measure A Planet.
From my vantage point, I would gaze down on an Earth that The Gathering dreamed of measuring with planes, boats, trains and cars. For the album is about travel, the ultimately finite nature of our planet which we might circumnavigate in a certain time dependant on the transportation we use. By car, and if there were a road all the way around, it would take 16 days to drive the 25,000 miles represented by the Earth's circumference; that's one way of measuring a planet. Bruno Peyron took 50 days to sail 27,000 nautical miles around the world.
This album would be a portrait of Earth, a keepsake for those nimble four-armed humans in zero gravity for whom spilt milk is actually quite a disaster. Although I mentioned the appropriateness of the album on future Mankind's iPod (standard issue of course; Apple will most likely govern the species by then, with harsh penalties for any who mention Microsoft aloud), it is in every way a product of the present day. It concerns the different ways Mankind has found of moving himself around on Earth and off it, innovatively communicating these through emotions rather than trying to suggest transport sounds through the instruments. Anneke, the album's lyricist, is wandering in search of "redemption" when we first find her, to a steady, thumping guitar by René Rutten which describes the tentative beginnings of a journey.
A number of the songs depict stillness and movement musically, without relying solely on tempo changes and lyrics. Anneke murmurs "when I hit the ground..." just as the euphoric guitar motif of 'Illuminating' drops out and a moment of stasis is introduced, the drums fading out and distorted effects swamping the sound. 'Great Ocean Road', sees Anneke describing how the "power" of the "earth and sea" can be harnessed by those audacious enough to "ride" these fierce natural forces. The music intensifies accordingly, with a driving electric guitar riff suggesting ships and airplanes for their nature-defying manmade assertiveness, before the later part of the track slows to a walking pace, with a more mournful and reflective guitar lead.
As we ourselves might one day do, The Gathering leave Earth during the course of this album, lifting the listener up into Earth's atmosphere while all the while "sitting in a chair" (that is, both the astronaut and, likely, the listener are sitting). 'Liberty Bell' captures the image of bursting out through the clouds and into the inky tapestry of space, with euphoric chords strummed and a suggestion of synth. The light, exultant tone glances at the culmination of human brilliance represented by space travel, while cleverly downplaying the apprehension suggested in the lyrics ("It's so enormously frightening/ when our tail reaches superheat").
How To Measure A Planet? expresses the full range of movement and exertion possible when in transit. It is a dense album, and the first-time listener may find it rushes over them leaving only a teasing impression of its true depth and range of influence. 'Rescue Me' shows the first signs of playfulness, with a more upbeat guitar riff, and a painstakingly precise performance from Anneke that will have you craning your head to pick out every note. 'Red Is A Slow Colour' feels like an outtake from Floyd's A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, the late-era Gilmour influences abundantly obvious through the understated triumph of the slow synthesized-strings buildup. 'The Big Sleep' takes its title from a Raymond Chandler novel, further cementing the band in the 20th century.
The last disc ends with the title track, the all-important moment of looking back on our world, on ourselves, from the complete unknown, and asking how we are to measure that seemingly limitless but brutally confined well of human potential contained on a sphere of rock that grows smaller the further you get from it. Although Anneke is present, there are no lyrics, the myriad questions left to the listener to struggle with. During the ambient section that dominates the title track, Anneke's voice is buried deep amongst a wash of effects that could as easily be the sound of roaring waves as they could the fusilage from a spacecraft burning up in the atmosphere. The Gathering have constructed this double album so well that, by the end of it, the listener is obediently listening through a wall of sound effects and vague noises simply because everything until now has been so good you don't want to miss anything, however distant or obscure.
How To Measure A Planet? is a beautiful, challenging, comforting, thought-provoking album, with which you might just as easily sleep as travel, or think or write. Despite the title, and the futuristic suggestions of the music, it is as much a barometer of human achievement in the 20th century as anything else.