The Gathering – How To Measure A Planet?

Here we go, the album which is inexplicably never included on any Best Albums Of The Nineties List – How To Measure A Planet? The band’s fifth album remains their most ambitious, their most epic, and some would say their best. In another shift in direction for the band this album is much more ambient than all of their previous work with many softer ballad type songs lighter guitars, more emphasis on effects and soundscapes and is more progressively influenced than metal. Naturally this alienated many fans who expected another heavy album, but most fans realize that the band are never satisfied with retreading the same ground- each new album should be challenging and entertaining for themselves as well as their fans and they would probably get bored if they made the same styles of music. The double CD is a loose concept album involving space and time travel but wider subjects such as loss, loneliness, and our insignificance in an inconceivable universe. While many of the songs are more mellow the bands famous melodies remain, Anneke is on peak form with her vocals while the lyrics are steadily progressing, and Rene weaves some chilled solos at one point, to hard-edged riffs the next. Many of the songs here are played live, some are played as entirely different versions. While some may not see this as necessarily their best album, it shows off their talents as musicians and writers more than any other.

`Frail’ opens with some unnerving hissing and swirling electronic noises before a delayed and stuttering guitar riff plays gently. This is the band at their most downbeat. Anneke sings softly, but with great force. The effect here is of setting off into space, alone and helpless in a capsule flying so fast into space that it seems as if time has come to a stand still. There is an even pacing and steady progression here, nothing is rushed and it sounds as if the band are in complete creative control of every aspect of the recording. The lyrics speak of redemption, sacrifice and weakness, but that in sacrifice there is great strength. This opening tells us that this is an album to listen to in the dark rather than one to jump around to like the previous ones.

`Great Ocean Road’ has revolving riffs, electronic noises fading in and out, industrial sounding drums. Again the pace is slower although there is enough of a head banging beat if you search for it. The high levels of production are apparent here- everything is in perfect balance, there is a large depth of sound, and each track is perfectly clear. The musical territory is again unexplored taking the band to new levels, and Anneke gets to show off her whispery tones for the first time. She may be able to scream as well as anyone, but when she sings quietly it is as if she is a long-lost friend watching over you, singing from another place and time. There is another classic Rutten solo here, the brothers competing with each, drums and guitars clashing for which is more noticeable. Hans usually doesn’t get the credit he deserves, here his talent is a bright dot on the radar.

`Rescue Me’ starts with a lonely guitar and the solitude grows from there. Anneke gives one of her most beautiful performances here and there are definite shades of OK computer. This again has the feeling of floating uncontrollably through the night surrounded only by emptiness with your thoughts as sole company. While some of the more downbeat songs on Nighttime Birds were lacking a spark or some missing piece, on this album they sound more than complete. The growing, distorted guitars here are a highlight, merging with the laser sounds before fading back to Anneke. This is one of their best and most underrated songs, and one to play to an uninitiated friend as proof of their genius.

`My Electricity’ isn’t one of my favourite songs here, but is still very good; not many albums have that effect. It is more simply constructed song and quite sparse compared with others- Anneke sings perfectly as always, the guitars are almost in the background while the drums and computerized beats take centre stage. The slow pace of the album continues here, sounding drowsy and sleep deprived- exactly the tone they sought to achieve.

`Liberty Bell’ is the first track where the pace picks up, and may be the only track on the album which lets the crowd bounce up and down. Anneke’s effects filled vocals swirl around the growing drums, guitars- there is almost a Beach Boys feel to it until the main riff breaks in and we thankfully mosh. The video sees Anneke in a space ship zooming about the galaxy with trippy visuals in some sort of homage to Kubrick’s 2001. This is a nice rock song with catchy melodies, simple sing along lyrics, not as heavy as Third Chance and more akin to Adrenaline. The song features some sound clips in the place of guitar solos, focusing more on the fading and returning riffs and chords. I like of (unintentional?) irony of the line `we are sitting in a chair’ lyric as this is the only song on the album which makes you want to get on your feet.

`Red Is A Slow Colour’ crashes in with some loud though almost acoustic chords. I like the use of drums here, stopping and starting in unusual places to give the impression of a foreign time signature being used. The lyrics are quite poetic here, brooding and symbolic speaking of rage, possibly death, hallucinating and any number of other themes. Again this is a more simple song, but the straightforward nature is hidden under the dense amount of percussion and effects. Hans gives one of his best performances here, while Rene is happy to play only a few chords, the digital strings give an added futuristic, unreal tone to the music. The long outro is quite strange but never becomes repetitive and the scratching sounds are one of the best effects on the album.

`The Big Sleep’ may be the most drowsy song yet featuring some excellent effects and synthesizer work. The subject is obviously sleep deprivation, made worse by the narrator travel light years between places. There seems to be zero guitar work here, at least not in any traditional sense, and the flute/phone like effect at the end of the chorus is probably my favourite that the band have ever used. Anneke harmonizes with herself, dual and triple voices coming in from various corners, drifting in and out to give the sense of falling in and out of consciousness. I would warn listeners from playing the hypnotic refrain at the end whilst driving- it is the best kind of sleep inducing.

`Marooned’ is one of the best songs the band has ever written- excellent lyrics, beautiful melodies, sublime music. I prefer the live versions such as the one on Sleepy Buildings, but the music and tone here fit so well with the rest of the album. There is desperation in the lyrics, the vocals, a distance and emptiness in the music, although the lyrics are more like an unrelated love song of despair rather than mirroring the space travel theme. The xylophone style middle part, the radio static effects, the chorus- every second of this is music at its best.

`Travel’ is one of, if not the top fan favourite epics. Opening with various bleeps and clicks, the drums and guitars drop in creating one of the most memorable introductions I think of. While the album version is quite heavy in places, the band usually prefer to play this much more softly live. The lyrics are among the best they have written, lyric gets a chance to shout like on previous albums and for quite a long song it never feels boring, drawn out or repetitive. It is the band’s tribute to music, with contrasting thoughts on performances- the exhaustion of touring, the Vampiric energy which travels between crowd and performer. The second half of the song has some good melodies with Anneke’s lonely voice yelling out in seeming agony to create a classic ending. It is an apt closing song for the first half the album, and one which frequently closes concerts.

`South American Ghost Ride’ opens the inferior second half of the album. Inferior to part one yes, but still better than what most other bands can achieve. The song begins with what sounds like sound clips from a variety of TV shows- some distorted, some played in reverse. The theremin wind effect is put to good use here, creating an atmospheric opening. The ghostly guitars blend in well showing that the band are amongst a few select group who can write instrumental pieces that are not boring. The only vocals here are an almost laughing Anneke chanting before the TV show sounds come back in. The dissonance of the ending does well to compliment to mood of confusion, and the winding down finish does not feel like a cheap gimmick.

`Illuminating’ sees the drums and keyboards take the lead again, while Anneke’s vocals grow to the burst of the chorus. Again the lyrics tell the story well rather than being a collection of words stapled together. This is another Gathering song which tends to be forgotten- it may not be as memorable as many other,s but when you hear it after a while in the wilderness, you are reminded of its quality- the cut off guitar solo which descends into an anarchic distorted mess of noise, the drums, the surprise of the chorus.

`Locked Away’ is the most straightforward song on the second side, a simple structure albeit with subtle building of sounds and instruments. It remains mostly a verse chorus verse affair, but one with some heavy guitars, catchy melodies, and typically brilliant vocals.

`Probably Built In The Fifties’ features good drumming once again, distorted vocals and strained guitar sounds. Anneke shows of the power of her voice here on the chorus, something she doesn’t get the chance to do much on this album. The chorus is quite and uplifting one when compared to many other tracks on either side of this album- it is one which the listener can scream along out of tune to. There is a quiet middle part here which sounds like a fade out until the guitars come back in menacing fashion for a classic Gathering doom influenced finished.

`How To Measure A Planet?’ is the longest song the band have recorded, although song probably isn’t the correct term to apply to it. It has more in common with something like Revolution 9 than Shine On You Crazy Diamond. At over 28 minutes it is filled with sound bites, strange sounds, and doesn’t have much of a structure. It is the band at their most experimental and it doesn’t always pay off. When the drums come in almost two minutes into the track you would be forgiven for thinking it was all going to build up into something monumental. Unfortunately for most of its length it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and maybe that is the point. It is both an apt ending given the epic and challenging nature of the whole album, but also infuriating given that the rest of the album is so good. The track would work better live, with the band simply jamming, sounds coming and going and the audience being entranced. While listening to the album this would be the one to skip. Of course there is much to recommend it as with any other Gathering song- there is good guitar work, it sounds like the band are in a trance themselves and enjoying that fact, and at times it teases you into thinking it is going to burst into another classic moment. Most of the middle part of the track is very quiet, just a swirling soft sound. Perhaps a shorter, more condensed version would have worked better.

The band’s most adventurous album yet sees each member in fine form- although the band experiments with different genres and does things which no-one expected them to do it is almost always good. Anneke’s lyrics are greatly improved, the music is mostly more subtle and there is a wider range of songs. We get to see other instruments taking the lead rather than simply relying on Anneke and Rene. Once again this was a step in a new direction as the band would go further into unknown territory for their next album, becoming even more ambient and less reliant on traditional rock and metal rules. Many rules are broken here, so many fans couldn’t cope with the change. Many new fans were gained as people who had no interest in metal gained appreciation for this ever evolving and intelligent band. Not only does this feature some of their most ambitious work, it also features some of their best.

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