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Operation: Change. - 75%

Perplexed_Sjel, May 5th, 2009

There’s a certain section of fans of The Gathering that really irk me, despite being in the minority. These fans are characterised by over-the-top Anneke van Giersbergen worship. I suppose its something that just occurs whenever any, major or minor, loses a talisman/woman that was central to the band’s success. Its no secret that the reputation of The Gathering hit a new stride when Anneke joined to provide her talents on vocals. She took The Gathering from a supposedly mediocre death/doom hybrid to a successful rock band, which is still where they’re at now. Although there is no doubting her obvious influence and stature, The Gathering is a group of musicians, equal on every level. It was never a case of Anneke and The Gathering, its simply The Gathering. Iconic bands like Death lost their vocal point and decided to call it a day, which is fair enough since Chuck passed away, but Anneke hasn’t. She didn’t die, she hasn’t left our world forever. In actual fact, it was her decision to leave the band and find a new challenge which, again, is fair enough. Its her career and her choice to do as she pleases and when the news that she was leaving hit the crowds, people were astonished. It did seem rather out of the blue and even took me by surprise. However, the band’s intentions were to struggle through the difficult time, having lost a major part of the band and their success, and find another vocalist suitable to the band’s style and tastes. Enter Silje Wergeland, also the vocalist of gothic band Octavia Sperati, whom I’m not overly familiar with. The Gathering were never about individual performances and the strength of each record isn’t based on that either. Its all about teamwork and a good team ethic, which is what the band has and will always seemingly have since the acquisition of top musicians since the band’s arrival on the Dutch and worldwide scenes.

I assume its only since Silje’s arrival that Octavia Sperati have been put on hold. The future of that band seems rather uncertain in these troubling times. Whether Silje can maintain the level of high standards she’s used to with Octavia Sperati, and step it up a gear on a larger scale is unknown on the live circuit. The demands of The Gathering may be too much for her to sustain two careers, with two different bands. Octavia Sperati fans probably won’t be too pleased, but the majority of The Gathering fans have seemingly taken in Silje with open arms after this performance of ‘The West Pole’. I held some apprehension in regards to several things; A) Her performance. I had heard snippets from Octavia Sperati and it was decent, but not great. Their material seems to have been well met by audiences of the gothic variety, which bodes well. Would she be able to take her performance to another level and satisfy the fans of this legendary Dutch band? And B) Would the fans accept her despite how good her performance might have been on the record? The answers seem to be leaning towards a yes, particularly in terms of her reception from the fans. As far as I can tell, she seems to have been greeted with outstretched arms. However, although I can see the appeal of her vocals and generally accept that she is a talented artist, I’m an old man now, I’m set in my ways. I don’t think that Anneke’s departure signifies the end of the band, by any means, but it means a certain shift in power. Before Anneke left, The Gathering were beginning to establish a fine trend of repeating the level of performance they had. The performance levels were consistent and special. The band’s atmosphere, although experimental, was set in stone in some ways. You never knew exactly what you’d hear on any The Gathering record, but you knew it would be of a high quality. This record, ‘The West Pole’ is rather mixed. It doesn’t have the same finely tuned balance as the band had worked on for many, many years. It isn’t unusual that The Gathering have taken on a slightly harsher sound, though the record does tend to twist its form around to the complete opposite at times. ‘Nighttime Birds’, in particular, was a ‘heavy’ record (for The Gathering at least).

Although I didn’t immediately take to it, I eventually, over several years, came to appreciate its concrete sound, as opposed to the abstract that The Gathering generally tend to follow. Some of the content of this record sounds like odd fillers, whilst the rest tries to work on a new and previously unheard of sound, giving a rather post-rock ambiance to the atmosphere (crafted especially well by the underlying guitars). The balance isn’t quite right and it shows in songs like ‘No Bird Call’ which, to my ears, is distinctly average and ‘When Truth Becomes Sound’ which acts as a instrumental build up to the rest of the material but only servers as an annoying and disappointing filler. However, this song does show a different horizon from over the mountain for The Gathering. Its about as metal as they’ve sounded in years, bringing a heavier, but ultimately clumsy outlook. The one true mainstay of the performance is from the bassist, Marjolein who has gone from strength to strength in recent times. Her presence is always felt and always greatly appreciated. I’m reminded of many of the post-punk greats, such as Joy Division, when I listen to this outfit nowadays since the bass leads the performance. Or, at least, it outshines the rest of the instrumentation and herein lies the consistent problem - an ironic lack of consistency and flow. The songs writing has taken a dip in form, like a sportsman ravaged by injury struggling to find his feet. Switching between different emotional aspects of the record is risky and doesn’t exactly pay off. When the record truly kicks into gear, like on ‘Treasure’ or the inspiring ‘Capital of Nowhere’, which unleashes a plague of sorrowful vocals and instrumentation upon the listener, once again led by the fantastic bass contribution, the record is a good listen and certainly is enjoyable, but the fluctuation between songs is unnerving.

The backbone that constructed many of the great records from this band IS still there, but is bent out of shape. The bass is phenomenal, which cannot be stated enough and the ambiance can be awesome when those atmospheric tendencies rush to the foreground of the soundscapes, but certain average songs kick the wind out of the sails of this band. It may sound quite harsh as I do genuinely enjoy this piece. I just accept that it isn’t the strongest offering from the band. Like ‘Mandylion’ was to Anneke, ‘The West Pole’ is to Silje, a first attempt - a rehearsal for things to come. I don’t see ‘The West Pole’ as anything other than a stepping stone to better things. A raw, almost previously untouched sounding record is hampered by an angst ridden production, a few mediocre songs and a disjointed construction. The song writing needs to be re-worked, but not extravagantly. Drop the edgy sound and keep the mellow ambiance and this band, with this line-up, could definitely go on to greater things. The Gathering will always hold a special place in my collection and will probably be my favourite act for another few years until something in me and my life changes to alter that, but this is a work in progress as a lot of the instrumentation, bar the bass and post-rock-ish guitars is forgettable. While ‘The West Pole’ might add a heavier touch to the sound of this Dutch legend, the content doesn’t stand up to previous offerings where the band have given themselves a hardened edge, offerings such as ‘Nighttime Birds’ or even the old classic ‘Mandylion’. Never before have the lyrics to ‘Travel’ on the memorable ‘How To Measure A Planet?’ record seemed so apt when applied to the content and history of ‘The West Pole’.

“The crowd waits
and turns their faces
towards you expectantly
you give them what they need
But their useless criticism
makes you die
a bit more inside

Not a subject to control
you call upon a higher power
for help and inspiration”