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Relaxing, welcoming, soothing - 89%

gasmask_colostomy, February 3rd, 2016

Let's say that you don't know anything about music. You've never heard it before and you can't imagine it, when someone tells you that music is a way to hear everything you can feel. That's confusing, isn't it? You tell them you don't understand. They say, OK, listen to this. It's 'Mandylion' by The Gathering. You listen and it's just like they told you. You hear fun, you hear wonder, you hear darkness, you hear love, you hear tragedy. And then, presumably, you listen to it again just to make sure. You smile.

As stupid as that little story sounds, listening to this album is a little bit like that. 'Mandylion' is music for lovers of life and, to a certain extent, metal as well. There is a richness to this album that is hard to describe without listening to it, but it's the same sense of luxury that you feel when driving a large, powerful, comfortable car after clunking about in an old jalopy for a while. Black Sabbath are a battered old Ford, Iron Maiden a trusted Mini, The Gathering are a Mercedes Benz. Step into the music and you will feel an overwhelming sense of relaxation as the sandy warmth of the guitars lope around you and the world passes by at a dreamy pace. The album works like a Benz too, idling along at a comfortable speed and intensity for the most part, though always seeming like it could suddenly charge forwards with a touch of the accelerator. When 'Eleanor' pushes hard into its refrain, there is an exhilarating rushing feeling that doesn't excite in the same way as a thrash band's speed, but leaves you breathless instead.

We also feel safe inside this album. There isn't a sense of danger, but of beauty and care instead. The fluid melodies of the guitars and softness of the keyboards remain lush throughout much of the experience, 'In Motion #1' in particular sounding like a whimsical children's story read to comfort the soul. Anneke van Giersbergen has the ideal voice in this sense, creating the feeling that your mother (or perhaps the Earth Mother is closer to the truth) is telling you these tales to protect you, to warn you, to enlighten you, always with a thought for your comfort and another for the truth. What surprises in this regard is that the lead singer was a new presence on 'Mandylion', yet she feels so fully integrated into the band's sound, all of whom developed a long way in the two years following 'Almost a Dance'.

The doom leanings still remain in part due to the size and weight of the guitars, especially on the heavier opener and parts of 'Sand & Mercury', while the smoothness of the melodies and instrumental movements is a total revelation, lending the album a much softer edge that floats out towards atmospheric rock, progressive rock, or even ambient music at times. Liquid_Braino's comment about "eerie dream-pop melodies" is also a helpful reference for those expecting any great quantity of heaviness. This softness gives the album a dreamy feel that - when combined with van Giersbergen's voice - dances forwards and backwards across the line between peace and sensuality, as though the mother becomes lover and lover becomes mother. One really gets this feeling when listening to 'Leaves', through the refrain "Although I don't really know you/I don't really care", which shows the twisting female voice in all its sinuous grace and confident power - perhaps the finest moment of the album.

As for the other songs, the title track is surely the most surprising inclusion, not just due to the tribal wind and percussion that build the slow-moving instrumental to an atmospheric pitch, but also because of the rather unexpected concession of its ending, which merely finishes, not achieving anything of note. Happily, no other song has this issue, though there is a tendency to explore freely that may irk those less given to wandering from conventional structures. The first two songs arguably possess the most explosive power, 'Strange Machines' including that chorus and 'Eleanor' using some darker textures to build an intricate, though very memorable, passage between vocal sections. The lengthy 'Sand & Mercury' splits itself in two by building up a wall of keyboard atmosphere and chugging doom riffs before spiralling out into hazy ripples of sustained notes and van Giersbergen's gorgeous ascending notes, one of which will particularly give you shivers of joy. Despite a great deal of instrumental time, there is no showboating or attention-grabbing performance among the other musicians, all choosing economy and texture over the more traditional metal principles of excitement and standalone riffs or solos. Clearly pointing the way to the atmospheric rock territories The Gathering would later inhabit, 'Mandylion' is a wonderfully detailed dream that should draw you in for its entire length. Take a deep breath, let go, and sink into the music.