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Abstract Tiki Head Metal - 100%

TheUnhinged, May 25th, 2017
Written based on this version: 1995, CD, Century Media Records

The Gathering have always been kind of an oddity through their twenty-five year run. They were one of the many bands from the 90's to initially take on a death/doom persona, only to end up losing their extreme aspects (much like Katatonia or Anathema). Even in their time playing extreme metal, they had this weird, spacey, alien-like quality about them that I find difficult to describe. Perhaps it was the heavy usage of weird sounding synthesizers and introspective lyrics over top of death metal riffs, or the eerie (and considerably un-trained) female singing. When The Gathering realized they weren't interested in using harsh vocals anymore, they decided to go a more unorthodox choice; Neils Duffhues, the nasally and out-of-key lead singer that performed on their Almost a Dance album. They kicked him out of the band once they realized he was absolutely horrible, and their backing female vocalist Martine van Loon disappeared from the picture as well (not that she was really that big a part of it anyhow). It was then that they seemed to come to a revelation; "Hey, let's continue playing the same kind of gloomy, atmospheric style of doom metal, but let's get a lead female singer who actually sounds good." The band came across Anneke van Giersbergen, and thus, Mandylion fell into place. This was when the band sort of took their odd, unorthodox sound, and managed to turn it into something that sounded unique and fresh instead of just plain weird.

That being said, Mandylion is still a pretty weird album. What with the tiki head album cover, odd sound effects (such as the mechanical breathing noises during the first track or the keyboards that occasionally sound like doorbells), and general unearthly sounding atmosphere, this isn't exactly what you would call a traditional metal album. I like to think of the album as being what would have happened had Anathema mixed their early doom style with some dreamy 80's darkwave, a la Dead Can Dance. The former of the two definitely stands out, as the slow riffs and spacey keyboard melodies definitely bring back some of the qualities of The Silent Enigma, whereas the charming, fluid voice of Anneke van Giersbergen brings to mind Lisa Gerrard of the latter. It's a combination that works all too well, and has ended up inspiring a multitude of doom and gothic metal bands alike since its release.

Although Mandylion is typically regarded as the pinnacle of gothic metal, I have always found that the release is steeped in a more atmospheric, introspective form of doom metal. Opening tracks 'Strange Machines' and 'Eleanor' showcase this the best in their opening riffs; while the former takes on an almost traditional doom style of riffage, 'Eleanor' in particular kicks off with an ultra slow beat and that dreamy, introspective vibe with the spacey keyboards and intricate bass lines. One thing that I love is that each song has its own nuanced song structure, mood, tempo. No two tracks really sound that much alike; with the exception of 'In Motion #1 and #2', though this was clearly deliberate. The two 'In Motion' tracks carry on a somber 6/8 beat, with a simple, repetitive song structure. 'Leaves' and 'Fear the Sea' have more friendly, rockish, mid-tempo song structures, which perhaps make them the most radio friendly tracks out of the bunch. The title track and 'Sand & Mercury' are long, nearly instrumental tracks which most clearly showcase the album's influences in darkwave and doom; while the former is a calm, earthy, ambient track with Middle Eastern vibes, the latter is a spacious anthem of dreary atmospheric doom.

Anneke has a voice that truly soars and can jump from lows to highs seamlessly. You can really tell she had a good time recording her parts for this album, as her lines are so intricate and are packed with charisma. Although the lyrics that she sings tend to not be about very happy subjects, it's easy to imagine that she sang them with a smile on her face. When performing these songs live, that enthusiasm and energy is very clear, and she is able to sing them so flawlessly as well. It's definitely a huge step up from the bland, high-pitched backing female vocals that the band had selected in their earlier releases, as well as the harsh male counterparts.

While the band would eventually taper off of their metal elements, their style has continued to blossom with the two outstanding characteristics of their sound; the odd and abstract atmosphere, and the charismatic female singing. Mandylion was the album in which the band seemed to realize that these two aspects were what made them groundbreaking and original. While The 3rd and the Mortal from Norway had already taken on the style of melodic doom metal with gentle female singing, The Gathering injected its warm ethereal atmosphere into the style, which helped them to avoid sounding too much like the Norwegian doomsters.

Without a doubt, Mandylion is The Gathering's crowning achievement. Even 20+ years later, it is still being recommended as a classic of gothic doom metal to those who want to explore the style of ethereal, atmospheric sounding metal. A few modern bands who have come into the limelight to follow in the path of this brilliant album include Akelei, Mourning Sun, and To Cast a Shadow; all three of which play atmospheric or melodic sounding doom metal with charismatic clean singing and a dreary, haunted atmosphere such as the one present on this release.