ATF Review: The Gathering – Mandylion

Location: Oss, The Netherlands
Genre: Doom/Gothic Metal; Progressive Metal
Released: August 22, 1995
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: All Time Favorites

By: Kris Kotlarik

I am going on the record in saying that Anneke van Giersbergen is one of the best metal singers of all time. Devin Townsend is up there, as well, and the results are about as amazing as you would expect two of the most talented individuals on the planet to sound when working together.

But before all of that; before Townsend unleashed the sonic bombardments of City and Ocean Machine in 1997, came Mandylion, the first Gathering album with Anneke. This would mark the beginning of The Gathering’s transformation from just another doom metal outfit to an alternative rock band that would later redefine the entire scope of the genre. Mandylion bridges the gap between the two eras, and is a rare exception to the “bridge under construction” rule when it comes to bands that slowly, yet drastically, change their overall sound. Even though the instrumentation is still generally what you would expect to find in a doom metal album (generally slow and at least somewhat downtuned), it sounds more upbeat with Anneke on board, with her vocals soaring above everything.

It starts off with “Strange Machines,” beginning with a simple,unassuming guitar rhythm. But after a short buildup, Anneke comes in and starts singing about traveling through time:

Russian revolution, let’s do that in one day
Beethoven and Gershwin I think that would be o.k.
More than anything I wanna fly in strange machines

I wanna do centuries in a lifetime
And see it with my eyes
Watch Jesus rise, if he ever did…

The lyrics take on a serious form on occasion as seen in the second part of the quote, but the (George) Gershwin line is a clear reference to his musical, Oh, Kay! There’s also an interesting line about touching Chaka Khan in the last verse. Khan is still alive and was only 42 at the time of this recording. Nonetheless, it’s a standout track with two lengthy instrumental sections that, while still heavy in sound, are far more upbeat than one would expect this kind of music to sound.

The next track, “Eleanor,” shows off the low end of Anneke’s vocal range, especially in the closing minute. “In Motion #1” and “Leaves” are both Anneke-heavy tracks, with the former boasting a dual-layered chorus. “Leaves” is much slower and is the most traditional doom song here, but Anneke is several octaves above it all.

The second half of Mandylion is much more instrumental-oriented, with vocals taking more of a secondary role. “Fear The Sea” is another slower number, driven by an especially poignant bass line. The midsection instrumental is a solid preview of what to expect on later works, such as How To Measure A Planet? The title track is a haunted instrumental that is powered by a theremin and what I believe are bongos, as well as numerous other electronics and a brief moment of Anneke singing upper-register ambient vocals. This has the feel of meditation following the consumption of various substances, but if you need to blaze it up in order to enjoy this song (and album), then you’re doing it wrong.

“Sand & Mercury” is a nice song, but at ten minutes is way too long. Following a varied instrumental, it completely changes gears following the halfway mark, slowing down to a crawl. Anneke comes in with vocals that aren’t especially powerful in a tangible sense, but strike a chord emotionally. The closer, “In Motion #2,” begins with a well-crafted use of strings. Although this isn’t Anneke’s best vocal display, the part where she sings “It is sad how the rain falls down” over a suddenly lively riff that reoccurs later is among the album’s best moments.

To be clear, this isn’t an “Anneke van Giersbergen is great and the rest of the band just serves as her cronies” album. What she does is breathe life into the music, which was already good but not spectacular before she came in. In every track there is an instrumental section that makes the listener take notice to just how great the band is as a whole. The following effort, Nighttime Birds, was more experimental but did not resonate with me nearly as much as this did. How To Measure A Planet?, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.

Overall: There will never be another album that effectively blends doom metal with top-notch female vocals to the extent that Mandylion achieved.

Rating: 5.0*

Bonus Thoughts: “Strange Machines” and “Sand & Mercury” each have samples that, until reading about where they originally come from, don’t make much sense. The one from “Strange Machines” is fairly straightforward, as it comes from a film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, while the one that ends “Sand & Mercury” is J.R.R. Tolkien reading a quote from 20th century French feminist Simone de Beauvoir.

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