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Like the early days of gothic rock itself, some of the earlier prominently known goth metal albums didn't initially crystallize with the intent or purpose to actually identify itself as goth metal. Mandylion gets that tag slapped on it, and I suppose rightfully so in retrospect, but even now there's actually very few female fronted acts championing the goth metal scene that sound even remotely like this album in many ways. This release interweaves doom drenched riffing with atmospheric and eerie dream-pop melodies to form a cohesive entity that's refreshing and engaging while maintaining doom metal's penchant for slow grooves and repetition. Anneke's voice coasts over the maelstrom in ghostly fashion in a dazzling display of note selections and techniques that to this day set her apart from most of her peers without the need to show off her range if the music doesn't require it. There's also no sign of death grunting to be heard to offset her contributions, which was an almost ambitious and risky venture in itself for a female led metal band in 1995.
The production is reasonably clear yet carries enough echo to envelope the music with a haunting and somewhat cavernous allure. Unlike many bands of this genre, the vocals are not mixed up front whatsoever; in fact they blend into the swirling aural landscape to a degree where I don't find myself paying much attention to the lyrics, which, as many have stated, are unquestionably awkward (my review title is an excerpt in case you were wondering). Granted, traveling around in a time machine to hang out with Cleopatra and Chaka Khan would be a fun endeavor, especially if Chaka Khan was actually dead these days, but as song lyrics they don't particularly match up well to the pummeling brooding heaviness cascading from "Strange Machines" at key points. Thankfully, the lyrical prose is really just a minor quibble in an otherwise exceptional exercise in creating a dreamlike, haunting yet clearly metal vibe.
The songs are constructed in both gothic and metal building blocks, but the degree of each influence varies from song to song, offering a healthy scope of variety concerning each track. Whereas "Fear The Sea" and the opening cut's foundations veer decidedly towards a doom metal approach, there's the title track that clearly swings the other way, sounding like a tribalistic excerpt from Dead Can Dance's Into The Labyrinth album, minus the goofy bird noises. Other songs marry both genres equally to create a more unique impression, particularly the two "In Motion" numbers, which evoke a hybrid of early Black Sabbath and The Cult's "Brother Wolf, Sister Moon". The "In Motion" tracks are incidentally my favorites of the album precisely because the various elements and influences wound up blending in an arresting fashion to form these 6/8 tempo jewels that defy easy categorization yet stick in my head regardless of their inherent lack of deliberate catchiness.
Skill-wise, the band shirks technicality and showmanship yet compromises with a strong sense of melody when needed and a healthy dose of creativity. I would cite the middle section of "Leaves" as a perfect example of The Gathering's capabilities in creating this exuberant pastoral quality through melodies that aren't particularly difficult to emulate, yet brilliant as far as actual songcraft is concerned. There are more creative ideas surfacing in this album than a slew of instrumentally proficient progressive metal acts even attempt to conjure.
Outside of the unfortunate positioning of the title song and "Sand And Mercury", in which separating these two predominantly instrumentals (despite some lyrical content) would have benefited the album's flow, this remains a landmark in the metal genre, and despite its influence, hasn't exactly been reproduced by scores of younger acts in such a successful manner. In fact, the closest album I would compare Mandylion to wouldn't be a metal album whatsoever, but goth rock outfit Opium Den's amazing Diary Of A Drunken Sun, which shares not only uncannily similar vocals, but also that gloomy haunting aura that permeates throughout this disc without feeling forced or garish, which I can't say about a lot of goth acts, metal or not. Mandylion to this day feels like a one-of-a-kind release that helps give relevance and a level of respect to a genre too often in need of it.