The Gathering – Mandylion (Special Edition)

Having achieved a small measure of success with their first two albums, gloomy mixes of doom and softer death metal The Gathering sought a change in direction of sound. The Rutten brothers who had formed the group sought out little known Dutch vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen and created the most exciting band to come out of Europe in the latter days of the 20th Century. Choosing a lighter rock sound, ditching the growling vocals, but keeping the guitars and progressive elements, Mandylion became a hit; a sprawling, influential epic which remains many fans’ favourite. Van Giersbegen’s trippy lyrics flow smoothly with Rutten’s musical landscapes but it is the new vocalist’s voice which would come to define the group. Each song is lifted by the power in her voice, indeed the songs would never have been possible or conceived of with any other normal singer. Although the album wouldn’t show off some of her softer tones, she wails wonderfully, soaring high and low and conveying any number of moods in just a few syllables. From this point on the band would grow and evolve with each new album proving as interesting as the one before; not the first album, but where it all truly began.

`Strange Machines’ opens the album with a classic distorted riff. When the drums and chimes kick in you know it will be a huge song, but when Anneke starts to sing you know you are listening to something special. The lyrics cover a wish to fly through time, stopping at famous moments and periods – nothing particularly exciting but key to the album as a whole. It is the musical progression which is central here, verse turning to chorus as you would expect, but with instrumental middle parts reminding the listener of Metallica, Radiohead, Dream Theater- any number of other bands but also sounding like nothing else. The song never tries to be simple – there is always room for another riff. This is not done though as a pretense, the band is clever enough to know when a song is complete and subtle enough to know when something does not fit. This is a live staple and a great opener.

`Eleanor’ opens in eerie style with brooding synths before a mosh-inducing series chords are hammered out. A firm live favourite which never fails to get the crowd jumping it features superb vocals (as expected) from Anneke. The bass riff compliments the guitars perfectly, Anneke’s lyrics of anger meeting the necessary metal quota. It is during the middle part where the blast beats, guitars, and chimes blend together to form an irresistible blend of thumping and appreciation. Between these two parts is a quieter middle section where the musical builds in atmospheric fashion cleverly fusing their metal roots with their progressive future. The closing words and cyclical nature fit well with the overall themes of time and loss.

`In Motion Pt 1′ opens with bell-like sounds against a moody synthesizer, alongside the big riff which soon comes in. Anneke bears her heart and soul here, sounding at once like a hundred mourners rending their hair from the skull and an unstoppable avenging Goddess. Everything builds to the repeated climax of the chorus, lyrics jerking the listener from any passive passerby status, music lifting the body from the shoes. A traditional enough solo marks the middle section, you won’t find any twiddly trash antics here; everything is done to create and maintain the mood, noticeable as the guitar continues through the midnight sounds of crickets before that chorus blasts forth again.

`Leaves’ is one of the band’s most famous songs as well as one of their most well constructed. Opening with beautiful guitars crossing over each other it is surprising when the almost off-key main riff blasts in. Anneke stretches herself here more than any other song, a million other singers would struggle and break attempting this. The chords roll along slowly reminding us of their Doom Metal beginnings, the lyrics speaking of loss, confusion, and disbelief. It is the middle part which really makes the song a classic though with one of, in my opinion, the best guitar solos of all time. It isn’t anything difficult it soars at its own pace merging perfectly with the other instruments and is as good as anything from any Pink Floyd album. Once this section ends, like a mirror the rest of the song continues returning to the first section and ending on the opening chords.

`Fear The Sea’ is probably the least memorable song on the album, although on listening again it is still one to appreciate if not adore. Anneke’s singing here is among her best as she is trying tricks with her voice that she doesn’t get to try in other songs. The song moves along at a fair pace and is fairly heavy. Of course it is not on one level, with a more calm middle section swirling around our ears and some of the best use of keyboards on the album. The chords here are similar to those which open `Leaves’ although played in a completely different way. This is an underrated song in the band’s back catalogue probably because it isn’t played live as much as others and lacks some of the spark of the other songs here.

`Mandylion’ is an eastern influenced instrumental interlude, sounding like something you may have heard in the court of the Pharaohs. Opening with unique and snakelike horns it twists through a mellow middle, the only vocals being some background, distant shouts, progressing through a brief synthesizer part before returning to a brass and percussion finish. It compliments the songs which bookend it well, being the softest of the three but no less impressive.

`Sand And Mercury’ opens quietly, almost like a Metallica instrumental of old with pianos and acoustic guitars complimenting each other. The inevitable crushing guitars come in heavier than on any other song on the album before returning to the softer intro. This continues without feeling repetitive before moving through various phases; chanting along with muted power chords, making way for a church organ to give a further epic feel; Then comes a sudden shift to a new sound, almost like a new song with sounds of rain, soft cymbals raining over light guitars. Anneke then starts to sing softly, dream like showing her varied depth as a vocalist as well as the band’s range of influences and ideas. This middle part could easily be a worthy song in any other band’s catalogue, but here it is all the more powerful due to the intro and particularly the heavy finish as the guitars climb back into the mix. Although I’m not the biggest fan of bands doing these sorts of songs, The Gathering mange to pull if off and the song is interesting throughout. At almost 10 minutes it may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but they have done longer songs and this seems like have the length.

`In Motion Pt 2′ opens with drums and violins dueling sadly before Anneke’s mournful vocals tear the listeners emotions asunder. The lyrics this time are filled with emotional and anguish, the guitars crunching in heavily but never spoiling the melodies. Again there is a lengthy instrumental interlude with ??? keyboards backing the lead guitars before one of ??? trademark Gilmouresque solos begins. This middle part is atmospheric – audience and band swooning and swaying together in a dreamlike state before the main melody comes back in spine tingling fashion, wrapping up the partner song and the album as a whole. The band performs many different version of this (and other) song, check out the one on Sleepy Buildings for perfection.

As well as being a neatly designed package this special edition of the album comes with handy notes and art about the recording. These are interesting for the bigger fan and offer some insight into the band’s inspiration. More useful though is the second CD- a collection of demo versions of the album tracks. These again are interesting but not really worth listening to more than a few times. Also included is the wavey instrumental `Solar Glider’ and a version of the later hit `Third Chance’, a passionate and fast paced rock song. Solar Glider opens with some early Floyd style flange, then breaks into a fast paced synth and guitar beat similar to `Adrenaline’ while the early version of `Third Chance’ sounds quite tribal and is sung with lyrics from `In Motion’ which don’t fit very well but give an idea of the finished melodies.

Without trying (though failing) to sound like an over zealous fanboy this is an album which should be in every music fan’s collection. Not only has it influenced any number of female fronted bands like no other, it is massive in scope and contains some of the best rock songs of the decade. In short it is the sound of an extremely talented band at their peak, enjoying every moment in the knowledge that whatever they touch will turn to gold. When this happens hopefully a wide audience and success should follow. Sadly the band remains largely unknown outside of Central Europe and South America – a crime considering the wealth of music they have created. When this collision of talent and timing comes together, no matter the genre every fan of music should get involved. It doesn’t happen often so we should take every chance we can to hear something special. Following albums would give many more moments of brilliance and the band would refuse to do the same thing twice. Each member would grow as a performer and writer and things would steadily get better.

Feel free to share your thoughts on the album and the band in the comments!
Review Originally Written in 2006

Tell it like it is!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.