Indie

Review: The Gathering – Souvenirs

Location: Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Genre: Alternative rock, trip-hop
Released: February 24, 2003
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

Allen Enigma of Metalbite: Obviously the sound of The Gathering has changed greatly since it even began, before you joined and after. What where some of the influences of The Gathering circa 1995 and “Mandylion,” and what influences The Gathering of present day?

Anneke van Giersbergen: Music-wise, we are very much influenced by this new dark pop music. You might call it like Radiohead, Massive Attack, and bands like that. They really influence us because we like the catchiness of this music but also the dark side of this music. But other than that, there is an infinite choice of inspiration. You can find inspiration in just about anything, books and movies and friends, and just leading your life, you know? I think that’s a big change from what we did in 95-96, because then the world was just a little bit more black and white because you’re younger then. But now this whole gray area seems to be an influence on our music these days.

As I had mentioned in my review of their previous album, If_Then_Else, I was already a big fan of The Gathering’s early work, especially Mandylion and How To Measure A Planet? The contrast between those two albums is stark; the former leaned on its doom metal aspects with vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen soaring above it all, while Planet marked their excursion into more electronic-laced alternative rock.

For a while, I thought I wouldn’t like their later albums. But then I gave If_Then_Else several spins and really liked it for its variety. Souvenirs may not have as many different styles on display as that album, but I think it’s actually better. I would go so far as to say that it’s right up there with Planet for their second-best album.

What it lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in coherence and a far more clear sound. Opener “These Good People” has a simple yet chilling bass line that builds up over the first 50 seconds before Anneke’s vocals kick in. That intro is symbolic of this album; it’s not afraid to be led by electronics and enhances the material. Speaking of Anneke, her work on this album shows a vastly improved sense of control over her vocals; whereas Mandylion was a display of her raw power, Souvenirs showcases her range, often in the form of high-low harmonies that are haunting and beautiful at the same time.

Much of the album carries on in this fashion: Various electronic effects that add to Anneke’s vocals. These effects are scattered all over the place, from the breakdown towards the end of “Even The Spirits Are Afraid;” to the distorted intro and outro of “Broken Glass;” and just about all of “We Just Stopped Breathing,” especially its choppy, trumpet-laden instrumental outro that stretches over several minutes. Under most circumstances, I would consider such an extensive usage of these elements to be a copout, but this is the kind of art that should be embraced with this instrumentation.

Souvenirs has two tracks that I would consider to be closer to the traditional “rock” structure: The title track, and “Monsters.” The former features some of Anneke’s best vocals on the album, reminding me somewhat of an evolved Adele at times during the middle of the track. “Monsters” is catchy, looping together a crawling bassline with lyrics that portray a person who is frustrated with life’s shortcomings and just wants to be left alone.

Much like how “Analog Park” served as the “climax” of If_Then_Else, “Monsters” is the heaviest point of Souvenirs. And like its predecessor, the final songs here drag on a little bit too long. While still good, the pacing is too slow, further brought down by the four-minute gap of silence between “Jelena” and closer “A Life All Mine,” a surprisingly interesting track that features Trickster G (Ulver, Arcturus, Borknagar) as a duet counterpart. It’s a highly experimental track with all-electronic instrumentation, and is the kind of track I would expect to sneak onto local alternative rock radio stations if the intro is shortened for the edit.

My pick for the best songs here are “These Good People” and “You Learn About It,” the latter mostly because Anneke’s voice teters on the edge of angelic as she is singing. This is true across the album, but there’s something special about Anneke’s high-end vocals, even when they’re not being belted at full lung capacity.

Out of all of The Gathering’s albums, this is the one I have been listening to the most recently. It’s not their best album, but what it does for me is become the soundtrack to my day; I can take this album and listen to it anywhere. Mandylion doesn’t hold that distinction, as amazing as it is.

Maelstrom: You don’t play with your hi-hat open on the new record. The result is that it’s a lot quieter.

Hans Rutten: It is. It’s all to achieve a crystal clear sound. The bombast is gone. At first we had massive guitars. Those are gone. With an open hi-hat, you fill the entire high spectrum. I come from a doom metal band: Always, our first record, has doom oriented drums. There’s more in life than doom metal. I still love doom metal, but you want to grow and do new things.

Overall: Souvenirs has that perfect balance of being experimental and accessible at the same time.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy physical CDs from The Gathering here. Digital albums can be purchased here.

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Review: Mastodon – Once More ‘Round The Sun

Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Genre: Progressive Metal/Rock
Released: June 24, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Upcoming Releases

By Kris Kotlarik

These days, you’re far more likely to find Mastodon performing on the indie/rock festival circuit than in club venues. Case in point, during their most recent tour, it was revealed that their last show of the tour would be in Columbus. I thought Alrosa Villa was going to be packed for one of the best shows of the year until I saw that it was at this pedestrian festival, with such amazing talents as Kid Rock and Five Finger Death Punch both headlining over Gojira and Mastodon. If you couldn’t catch the sarcasm or somehow think that lineup was solid, here’s a link to a real festival, which of course isn’t located in the United States.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make (aside from the fact that Maryland Deathfest and ProgPower USA are the only awesome metal festivals on this side of the Mississippi River to the best of my knowledge) is that Mastodon has branched out to a more accessible sound that appeals to both metalheads and fans of other rock subgenres. Essentially, Once More ‘Round The Sun picks up where The Hunter left off. This comparison isn’t necessarily a bad thing; while I’m not going to claim the latter is their best album, it’s not bad by a long shot.

The calling cards on their newest effort include highly catchy melodies at every turn, especially in the form of lengthy instrumental bridge sections. There’s also some interesting vocal and guitar distortion effects that are scattered throughout. Some songs have a traditional rock/metal structure, others are a little more ambitious, and some are a little bit more ballad-oriented. None of the songs are bad by any stretch, but a substantial chunk of them lack a certain punch in most parts to further draw in the listener.

The most satisfying song goes to “Chimes At Midnight,” which has the least linear song structure and the most unique (and heaviest) main riff, along with a solid bridge section. “Ember City” comes close, most notably for its chorus with dual vocal lines, and is also a great listen.

Many other songs have solid moments but aren’t complete tracks; for example, opener “Tread Lightly” has a sweet-sounding solo towards the end. The title track has a well-executed and fun chorus. The only track that I can seriously question is “Aunt Lisa,” which features a rather oddly-placed “Hey ho, let’s fucking go” chant that sounds like it was sung either by children or is actually the singer turned into a chipmunk. This part ruins an otherwise solid song.

The other songs all lie somewhere in between and do a good job of blending into the overall sound, which is neither a good nor bad thing. If I were to suggest other songs, I’d start with “Asleep In The Deep,” a downtempo, proggy number. The second half of “Halloween” is an instrumental jam session that ranks among Mastodon’s best.

I have a feeling that, much like The Hunter, this new effort will grow on me at some point down the line. I would also assume that much of this material will sound fantastic live…that is, if you can first wade through the horde of bros and/or hipsters.

Overall: It’s not perfect, but there’s more than enough solid parts to warrant a couple listens.

Rating: 3.0*

Review: Kishi Bashi – 151a

Location: Athens, Georgia
Genre: Experimental Indie Pop
Released: April 10, 2012
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: National Uprising – Diving For Treasure (Off The Grid)

By: Kris Kotlarik

Once in a while, I like to go “off the grid” and review albums that aren’t metal in any capacity based on the recommendations of my friends or people I come across. In this case, a woman I was talking to on a dating website asked me if I had heard of Kishi Bashi. I had not, so I decided to check out a live performance of him playing at a Seattle public radio station and was quite impressed. In terms of one man making an acoustic sound come to life with stage technology, it reminded me of Anathema‘s Danny Cavanagh and his performance at The Borderline in London two years ago, almost to the day.

The difference between the two is that Kishi Bashi, a pseudonym of Kaoru Ishibashi, is a one-man band. Playing with a violin, a golden voice and well-timed beat boxing, Ishibashi is also a singer for Jupiter One, a synth rock outfit from New York. In getting Kishi Bashi’s albums, I wanted to see if Ishibashi is as captivating in the studio as he is live. The results? In a word, yes.

Those who like Devin Townsend‘s lighter albums such as Ki, Casualties of Cool, Ghost, parts of Epicloud and its bonus disk, and perhaps even his older classics like Synchestra and Ocean Machine, should be pleased with the production on 151a. It is loaded with vocal, instrumental and electronic layers. “Manchester” is the best example of this, with a chaotic intro giving way to Ishibashi’s lovely vocals. It’s hard to describe, which is a good feeling because the music is challenging to decipher, requiring more listens. Arguably the best aspect to “Manchester” is the lyrics, in which an author writes a book but seems to deliberately hide the last page to allow the possibility for an open-ended conclusion:

The very last breath of the hero of our tale
would leave you only to guess:
Did he truly prevail in the sequel?
I guess I’ll have to write a sequel…

My favorite part’s when I die
in your arms like a movie.
It’s tragic, but now the story has its proper end.

Many of the songs have real-world lyrics; in “Wonder Woman, Wonder Me,” which sounds like a revival of the crooner era, there’s a line about Pluto being demoted as a planet and the writer is relieved following this discovery, but doesn’t know why. Perhaps it’s about worrying about something that you have no control over; if there’s only eight planets orbiting the sun instead of nine, does it really matter?

“It All Began With A Burst” has a gorgeous vocal melody that is repeated throughout the song, and the background layering bolsters it even further. “Chester’s Burst Over The Hamptons” is a short, uptempo number with an interesting synth part at the end. “Atticus, In The Desert” almost sounds like a Beatles song during their more experimental era. “I Am The Antichrist To You” and “Beat The Bright Out Of Me,” the final two tracks, are both great tracks, filled with layers. “Intro/Pathos, Pathos” is a great song in its own right with complexity that is unrivaled in this album, setting up the rest that is to come.

“Bright Whites,” which you may recognize from a Windows 8 commercial, is the least ambitious track on here. Even so, despite its accessible and rather typical Indie pop feel, it’s still a fun song with a well-crafted melody that flows with the rest of the album. That’s really the only remotely negative tidbit I can say about this album. The songs that would normally feel slow to metalheads like myself are still full of bits and pieces to keep the listener interested. As far as Indie Pop with minimal (if any) live percussion goes, this is a grandiose and ambitious album that should please most listeners.

Overall: Will engage the listener over many spins as they try to piece everything together. 

Rating: 4.5*

Bonus Thoughts: Kishi Bashi’s newest album, Lighght, released on May 13, picks up where 151a left off. It is similarly ambitious, and In Fantasia is a grandiose closer. The buildup is nowhere near as heavy in comparison to, say, the title track from Devin Townsend’s Ki, but the payoff is still rewarding.