Massive Attack

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.

Review: Devin Townsend Project – Z2 (Special Edition)

Disclaimer: There are two discs to this album: The pop-oriented Sky Blue, and the Ziltoid-themed Dark Matters. The two disks will be reviewed separately, as they are completely different from each other and could have easily been packaged separately, a la Deconstruction and Ghost, which were released individually on the same day. There is a bonus disk to Z2 which contains the music of Dark Matters without the dialogue, which I believe raises the overall profile of Dark Matters.

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal, Alternative Metal, Pop Metal
Released: October 27, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

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Sky Blue

“Sky Blue started life as a compromise, and I thought I’d be able to phone it in, just shit out another Epicloud so that I could do my Ziltoid thing. After I’d committed to it I realized it was just not resonating, but it ended up being something I’m incredibly proud of; even more so perhaps than Dark Matters. The process forced me to really think about where I was in life. …

Amidst its writing, a bunch of people I knew died – It’s life, right? Everybody has that. It can be grim, but amidst that I’m trying to write a follow-up to something as positive-sounding as Epicloud, and I hated it. That’s why Sky Blue ended up about being depressed. The whole point of the record is that you get through it, don’t you?”

This, via Devin Townsend in an interview with The Quietus, explains everything you should know about this record going into it. If you’re expecting an Epicloud clone, you won’t find it here. Make no mistake, there are clearly some pervasive pop influences on this record, much like Epicloud, but the lyrical themes are completely different and show far more emotion than what felt like a forced effort on the first disc from that album. Also, Anneke van Giersbergen is back, but takes much less of a lead role on this record than on Addicted and Epicloud. She is still used effectively and shines when given the lead.

The best example of Anneke’s subtle use, and quite possibly the best overall track on both discs, is “Rain City,” which could give any DTP track a run for its money. Remember the theme from House written by Massive Attack? Picture something like that but with stunning vocal melodies by Devin and Anneke, and a lyrical reference to “Bastard” off of Ocean Machine for good measure. It eventually drifts off into ambiance, segueing into “Forever,” a more mellow continuation of “Rain City.” This track could have fit on Casualties Of Cool (it has a similar vibe to “Broken,” but the choir has been replaced by a mob of Devin Townsend vocals) and even has some subtle flute in the mix.

Similarly emotional, and significantly heavier, is “A New Reign.” It starts with some lush Townsend vocals before becoming gradually heavier. At about the 1:55 mark, Devin brutally growls “Where did you go?” For the next minute or so, it takes on a similar feel to Star One‘s “It All Ends Here,” which I raved about because of its emotional relatability. In this case, Devin, with stellar backing vocals by Anneke, sings about the loss of someone who I can only assume was close to him. I liked it on first listen, but it didn’t fully hit me until a few listens later.

In contrast, “Silent Militia” is on the short list of the catchiest tracks in Townsend’s discography. The chorus, with a layered army of Anneke’s vocal takes, is crafted around “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” by Dead Or Alive. And I don’t mean that it has a vague resemblance to that track; Devin has stated this outright. Add some blatant pop elements in a metal disguise that include a snare drum pattern that makes you wonder when the bass will drop, and a Lady Gaga-sounding post-chorus (sung by Devin, no less), and I have have absolutely no idea why I like this song so much. But I can’t stop listening to it.

While we’re mentioning the lifting of song structures, the title track seems to be a product of Devin having listened to “DJ Got Us Falling In Love” by Usher a bunch of times and feels even poppier than “Silent Militia.” Surprisingly, I don’t hate this track, mostly because the lyrics aren’t themed around trying to get girls at a club. Plus there’s the fact that the music was crafted by talented musicians instead of a team of hack writers.

The remaining tracks, while not as stellar and/or catchy as the aforementioned tracks, are still pretty good with only a couple minor gripes here and there. Anneke’s “Ya Yi Ya” vocals in “Rejoice” grow old pretty quickly; unfortunately, they continue throughout the track. Because of that, I consider “Rejoice” to be the weakest track on this disc by a considerable margin. “Universal Flame” is almost as catchy as “Sky Blue” and would have been considered as a standout track if not for an out-of-place bridge section that is unnecessarily poppy and doesn’t contribute much to the track.

There was some controversy surrounding “Fallout,” one of the more uptempo tracks on this disc. Devin sang on the original take, but replaced his vocals in the verses with Anneke’s because he “didn’t want to hear [him]self there” and is “sick of [him]self lately.” Personally, I believe he made the right call in swapping out the vocals, not because his voice sounded terrible on the original take (it doesn’t), but because Anneke’s take fits so much better with the tone the album sets. Whereas Devin’s take is bombastic, Anneke’s is more subdued and does a better job of blending in with the music. At any rate, I like the balance it creates between Anneke and Devin, who feed off each other in a big way here.

“Midnight Sun” has a similar but more melancholic feel to “Where We Belong” off of Epicloud and is a solid track, with its highlight coming in the bridge section, led by a soaring, yet simple, guitar lead. I thought I would hate “Warrior,” which starts with what sounds like a child saying “I’m a warrior!” But I am quite fond of this Anneke-heavy track, with the only issue being some funky sounds coming from the hi-hat. It sounds a bit distorted, and that bothers me a little bit.

“Before We Die” is a fitting climax to this album, as it lyrically revolves around overcoming the difficulties of life, including loss. It is one of the tracks that the “Universal Choir” was asked to participate on in advance of this album, and it works really well here. It feels bouncy and celebratory, as it should, before mellowing out drastically. The closer, “The Ones Who Love,” shows a mellow Anneke and some light ambient layering. These two tracks, like “Rain City” and “Forever,” are an air-tight pair, but I would pick Rain City/Forever as a better representation of this album.

Overall (revised): Sky Blue hasn’t held up as well I expected it to, as only a handful of songs get consistent play two years after its release. It’s still a solid album, but doesn’t provide the punch that normally comes with Devin Townsend releases. 

Rating: 3.5*

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Dark Matters

This album is a lot harder for me to digest than Sky Blue, partially because it’s much harder for me to sit through the entire album in one go thanks in large part to the incredible amount of dialogue. It’s also worth noting that Chris Jericho, voicing the role of Captain Spectacular, sounds like Numbuh 1 from Codename: Kids Next Door. And I’m not really sure what to make of that, because it sounds even campier than it is probably supposed to sound.

On the bright side, Dominique Lenore Persi of Stolen Babies is an absolute force in the role of the War Princess, which is why “War Princess” is my favorite track on this disc. Her vocals are stellar, and the dialogue here feeds well with those vocals. The War Princess is the mother of the cute but kind of dumb poozers, and she only sees them as pawns in a giant army. Following Ziltoid’s abduction of one of the poozers with the intent on taking it to Earth, the War Princess and one of the poozer generals engage in the following spoken exchange:

Poozer: But your majesty, if we attack the humans now, we’ll surely lose more than half of our forces.
War Princess: I’m sorry, there must be some sort of misunderstanding. Let me try and explain this again: You see, we are going to invade the earth, and you will follow.
Poozer army, as a choir: We shall follow!
War Princess, in a brutal scream: For I’m your queen!

The track itself is a marching plodder, but everything Persi does on this track, paired with the fitting musical vibe that Townsend creates, is pure gold. I would love to see an album in which Devin Townsend collaborates with Persi in a similar way that he has worked with Anneke van Giersbergen over several albums. As much as I love Anneke, Persi’s screams, paired with her solid clean vocals, make for an even more dynamic listening experience. There are only a handful of women in the metal multiverse that can scream as well as Persi does, and none of them have the clean vocal skills she does.

The more I listen to “Ziltoid Goes Home,” the more I like it. I originally wrote that it was the best track on this disc (“best” and “favorite” are mutually exclusive in this case), which is pretty significant given how this album has grown on me over time. With its blazing start, angelic choir arrangement and airy sections that remind me of Infinity, this stands out as a must-listen for this album, especially since there is no dialogue to speak of. For that reason, this could have (should have?) been the single from this disc.

“Ziltoidian Empire,” the track before “War Princess,” is the most proggy track here and also features some of the heaviest music on either disc. Especially of note is another stellar line by Persi when she realizes her poozer is missing. The plot thickens, and a brief explosion of blast beats accompanied with Devin chanting “I am nowhere; I am no one” is one of the truly mind-blowing parts on this disc. Alas, it only lasts ten seconds! The rest of the track has a bunch of dialogue with some interesting music to go with it.

“Deathray” and “March Of The Poozers,” the two tracks detailing earth’s invasion, both work on their right without much dialogue interference. The former is a scaled-back rendition of “Ziltoidia Attaxx!!” off the original Ziltoid and has a nice, simple guitar solo to go with it, while “March Of The Poozers” is really catchy and significantly slower than most of the other tracks on Dark Matters. The vocal melodies here are surprisingly crafty. I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but the poozers come off as one-dimensional characters so it was nice to see what Devin could do with a track dedicated to them. “Earth” is also a good track, somewhat evoking the vibe of “Solar Winds” in that it becomes increasingly heavier as it progresses while using a repeating pattern.

I have mixed feelings about the rest of the album, especially the end. “Through The Wormhole” is almost four minutes of the cheesiest dialogue ever conceived (and nothing else), and “Dimension Z” is merely okay as a closer, especially in comparison to “The Greys.” Again, like “Before We Die,” the universal choir was a nice touch, but it doesn’t pack the kind of punch that “The Greys” did. Unlike the farce ending of the first Ziltoid, though, there is some continuity in the story that ties into Casualties of Cool and gives hope for a future album with Townsend and Persi.

The first two tracks feel somewhat drawn out and a tad slow, but work well together. “From Sleep Awake” is a grandiose display of cheese, with some Anneke fluff added for good measure. “Wandering Eye” also has way too much dialogue and grates on me at times, with a brief section of music that sounds like “The Mighty Masturbator” from Deconstruction that makes it bearable.

I figure the best way to look at it is by comparing it to the first Ziltoid album. It’s hard to tell whether or not this holds up to the original, and at this point I’m not sure it even matters. There are some great moments on here, but aside from “War Princess” and “Ziltoid Goes Home,” none of these tracks stand out nearly as much as the music from the first album, which was far less concerned with dialogue than this one. And the dialogue isn’t nearly as funny this time around. What this album has going for it that ZTO doesn’t is its near-pristine production value and the use of just about everything and everyone under the sun, complete with orchestration and choirs, to create a powerhouse of sound that is best enjoyed at obscenely loud or super-soft volumes.

As for the special edition bonus disc, which contains the music of Dark Matters without the dialogue, I think its inclusion was a brilliant move. It cuts the album down by almost eight minutes, and the entirety of “Ziltoidian Empire” becomes a gem without the dialogue because the proggier sections become much more clear. The essential dialogue, such as the narration on “Deathray” and the aforementioned exchange on “War Princess,” is left intact, but most of what could be considered unnecessary has been cut.

One minor gripe is that there is far less silliness in the booklet’s liner notes than on the first Ziltoid album. But that third disc alone is worth the price of admission.

Overall: Both discs have their merits. I’m sure some people will take the tracks from the two discs and customize their own Dark Matters as they see fit. And if arranged the right way, it rivals the original. 

Rating: 3.5*