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In a genre as perennially disparaged or, at most, marginally tolerated in most serious metal circles, The Gathering are one of the few and probably the most noteworthy of the slew of metal bands with a gothic undercurrent featuring a female vocalist that have managed to retain not just continued critical acclaim, but a genuine sense of 'coolness'. If one of these newer corset donning acts pumps out quality material, the comparisons to The Gathering are frequent in reviews. Hell, I've done it. If the band in question is some disgraceful by-the-numbers toss-off, Evanescence and poor Lacuna Coil often get dragged out yet again as scapegoats to the demise of the genre and as progenitors to the glut of these terrible bands despite Lacuna Coil once possessing amiable qualities over a decade ago. The thing is though, when I listen to an album like Nighttime Birds, or the majority of The Gathering's releases, I don't see any fit comparisons since hardly any gothic metal band actually sounds remotely like them, then or now.
How they held on to their cred while other acts squandered theirs can be traced to forging their own destiny. From their beginnings as a full-fledged death/doom act back when similar seminal gothic doom acts were just hitting their stride, to the heralded gothic metal classic Mandylion which first featured Anneke's superb pipes, to ditching metal altogether for more alternative and experimental waters with 'How To Measure A Planet?' well before the goth-metal scene became over-saturated with pop leaning imitators of the more successful acts, The Gathering have always capably stood apart from their peers. To this day, Mandylion and 'How To Measure A Planet?' are highly acclaimed albums and usually regarded as the group's most pinnacle and important works. Nighttime Birds perches itself as the in-between 'chirper' sandwiched by these two monolithic creatures, and often gets left out of conversations concerning positive accolades attributed towards the band, not because it isn't good, but it's simply not glorified as crucial. It's a bit of a shame too, since by my own quirky estimation, Nighttime Birds is not only their best album, but their most unusual and fascinating as well.
The album wastes no time in proclaiming to the listener that The Gathering are still playing metal music. The guitar tone is still thick and heavy, and doom riffs are unquestionably present. The drumwork remains organic with emphasis on a good snare sound. It's metal, but the outside influences are already seeping in within the first number and by track three it becomes apparent that The Gathering were on the verge of transmogrifying their sound towards entirely new directions, but somehow managed to reach the outer fringes of what can be construed as metal without losing the necessary qualities which define it. What makes Nighttime Birds special is not entirely the experimentation involved while retaining a metal status, but rather the particular outside influences themselves, entwining throughout this album seamlessly in such a way that The Gathering have practically created a style of their own design here. It's hard to pinpoint the outside elements and inspirations attributed during the songwriting process, and listeners will certainly vary to some degree in their assumptions, but I hear a strong sense of post-punk akin to The Joy Division, The Cure's Seventeen Seconds era and groups like the early Psychedelic Furs, in which album track "The May Song" consistently brings to mind the Furs' best track, and one of the few I actually enjoy, "Sister Europe".
There's another level of distinction to the band's enigmatic presence at this point, which is of course Anneke's singing. Possessing an accomplished flair for capturing dreamy and haunting moods with clarity and a strong but not overstated vibrato, her vocals exude trip-hop characteristics which swoon over the instrumentation. Vacillating between a languid, ethereal vibe and the more forceful though equally bewitching delivery, her voice espouses lyrics that work well enough within the context of the music while remaining unsuitable for a poetry reading class. At least they are a significant improvement over Mandylion's prose.
The pacing throughout this disc flutters between slow and mid-paced tempos, which in fact do not negatively affect the listening experience of the album's full duration thanks to some fantastically written chord progressions and harmonies that remain completely engaging whenever I'm in the mood for this release. Almost akin to very heavy renditions of the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen fronted by a session vocalist from This Mortal Coil, Nighttime Birds to me is their most unique work in that it's metal, but honestly doesn't sound like metal depending on my mood, if that makes any fucking sense. It's a tricky bugger. After this album, they would shoot directly into alternative territory with their outside influences suddenly becoming their main reference points to amalgamate into the band's new creative stew that doesn't exclude metal (if_then_else for example utilizes the genre on some occasions), but regulates it as merely one of the band's numerous properties. They would still be an exceptional act, but I would be hard pressed to tag them as a metal group by the 2000's. Thus, by my reasoning, Nighttime Birds represents the swan-song of the band's metal era, and a hell of a good one at that.