Even during the humblest of beginnings, there are signs of emerging greatness.
The Gathering’s beginnings were indeed quite humble. Founded by brothers Hans (drums) and René (guitars) Rutten along with vocalist buddy Bart Smits in the late 80s, they were one of many bands of the time destined to start as extreme metal and eventually morph into something very different. For The Gathering, that metal was a slightly epic, slightly gothic take on doom/death, and while debut album Always… is now most known as a curiosity for fans of the band’s later work, it is in fact a pretty strong debut. Already present was the band’s knack for a deliberate pace ‒ both in tempo and songcraft ‒ and nuanced melody. René Rutten and second guitarist Jelmer Wiersma were already crafting subtly infectious riffs and bassist Hugo Prinsen Geerligs already showed a penchant for stately countermelodies.
The band unfortunately made a massive misstep on their sophomore effort. After Smits left because the band wanted to evolve from death metal, they made one of the biggest boner plays in the history of metal when they brought in Niels Duffhues. To say that Duffhues’s punkish tone did not fit the growing gothic doom vibes of Almost a Dance would be a gross understatement, and to this day it’s a shame that the band never re-recorded the album with a more fitting vocalist, as there were continued signs of strong songwriting and talent from the instrumental side of The Gathering (some riffs did get re-used on albums as late as How to Measure a Planet?). Martine van Loon, however, did an admirable job handling the female side of the vocals, and it appeared that the band had found their direction.
To deliver albums that fit their growing talent, they had to get the next vocalist right. To say they got it merely right is another extremely gross understatement, as they managed to land one of the most gifted singers on this whole blue dot we call Earth.
Anneke van Giersbergen is, to put it lightly, a bit of a talent. One could go on and on about her tone, her phrasing, her insane control, her fierce power, her bountiful but graceful charisma, or a million other things that describe her voice and expressiveness, but one of my fellow Last Ritesers (none of us remembers who because we’re all drunks) once described her quite perfectly:
“She sings as if she’s always surprised by the sounds she’s creating.”
It’s that intangible wonder, that je ne sais quoi that makes her so special. Well, that and the immeasurable talent. She showed up with fully formed abilities on her first record with The Gathering, 1995’s Mandylion, which just turned the big 25 last Saturday. Her presence in the band helped The Gathering move from those humble but promising beginnings into absolute glory, and with Anneke they would see their greatest heights. And while many would argue that this partnership yielded even greater fruits after they mostly or fully shed their metal roots ‒ How to Measure a Planet? and Souvenirs are my personal favorites ‒ it all began with Mandylion, which still today stands as a gem in that magical mid-90s era when whole heaps of bands were evolving from their extreme roots into any number of forms.
For Mandylion, that form was greatly hinted at on Almost a Dance: a type of gothic-tinged doom in terms of sound, but definitely not imagery or lyrics. Mandylion was far different from much of the metal it would eventually influence such as Lacuna Coil or ‒ possibly indirectly ‒ even Evanescence. There was no gloom, vampiric wailing, or corsets involved, and key to what made it different was Anneke, a statement to which you’re likely saying “no shit” after all the praise that was just heaped on her abilities, but it went beyond that. While the rest of the band was largely playing plodding doom metal, she imbued the music with a sense of wonder and curiosity. The lyrics of opener “Strange Machines” even tell a delightfully light and youthful tale of wanting to travel through time to witness many of history’s biggest moments, complete with a sample from the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine.
It wasn’t just the band’s new singer that elevated the music, however, as the rest of the group further embraced more layered, progressive structures for several of the songs. While “Strange Machines” stayed relatively straightforward, being based on just a few simple riffs, “Eléanor” instantly upped the album’s complexity. The track begins mostly with a doom-paced, open atmosphere in which Anneke sings sadly (and ever-so-slightly bitterly) of a self-destructive friend, but during a longer instrumental section takes on some symphonic elements and eventually gets into a hefty, pummeling passage of double kick drums and machine gun guitar. It’s one of Hans Rutten’s only real heavy metal thunder sections on the album, as his tasteful drumming typically goes for a more understated and reserved approach.
Songs like the title track and “Fear the Sea,” meanwhile, hinted at where the band would eventually go, with longer atmospheric passages highlighted by Frank Boeijen’s diverse, often airy keyboard work. At times, Boeijen’s showed as much appreciation for Richard Wright as he did keyboardists from goth rock and doom metal, even if his music obviously comes from a very different source and time than that of Pink Floyd. More in wandering mentality than exact sound, then.
The point: even if Anneke was the star, Mandylion was the product of a full band that was just beginning to discover its greatness. The progressive rock elements reached their peak later in the album on the nearly 10-minute “Sand and Mercury.” Much of the song is instrumental, taking a bit of a light-and-dark approach to dynamics as it slowly weaves its voiceless story. The subtlety of each performance aids this, with some of Hugo Prinsen Geerligs’ most timely bass lines being of particular narrative quality. Eventually the music drops to a hush, as if the lights in the theater have all gone out, allowing a spotlight to shine on one figure. That figure is Anneke (obviously), who then delivers some absolutely tragic lyrics, pleading with a loved one to stay as the song’s subject lives their final moments in life. It’s heartbreaking by design and somehow uplifting in its delivery, not to mention unforgettable.
Nearly every moment of Mandylion is spun gold, but there is one passage that stands out as possibly the greatest on this record and one of the most entrancing for The Gathering as a band and Anneke as a singer: the chorus of “In Motion.” (Yes, even greater than the magic of “Sand and Mercury.”) There are two songs called “In Motion,” of course, and each sets up this melody, this grand swell, this light of heaven coming through your speakers in its own way: “In Motion #1” with staccato keys and the tiniest bit of punch under a soaring Anneke melody and “In Motion #2” with a far drifter, swaying motif. And when the chorus hits, good lordy, friends. It only appears once in “In Motion #2,” more as a reprise than chorus, but it perfectly closes the album and brings the journey full circle. The lyric may be “Make me cry in vain,” but the moment creates chills of such a kind that you might end up with tears of joy. It’s that powerful.
Eternity, Wildhoney, Theli, Draconian Times… the mid-90s created countless gems by groups that started as good-to-great extreme metal bands and then branched out in a thousand directions. Each of these and many others still feel as fresh and vibrant today as they did when they came out, and Mandylion is no different. If anything, it has only gotten better with age, as The Gathering’s unmatched class as both musicians and people has stayed true all this time.
Anneke left the band in 2007 and has enjoyed a very successful solo career along with a heap of collaborations (most notably with Devin Townsend), while The Gathering found yet another golden voice in Silje Wergeland and have continued to put out good records. But neither can yet claim to have found as great of artistic success apart as they did together. With Anneke they explored gothic doom metal, progressive and post rock, trip-hop, alternative, and even bits of avant-garde, resulting in six great-to-incredible albums and one magnificent EP, each as different from what came before it as those that came later. And it all started with Mandylion.
Even if the hints were there on the first couple albums, no one could have predicted such a leap coming from out of the blue. An undeniable classic of most graceful order.