ROUND TABLE REVIEW
Tracklist: When Trust Becomes Sound (3:53), Treasure (4:06), All You Are (4:34), The West Pole (6:35), No Bird Call (5:38), Capital Of Nowhere (6:35), You Promised Me A Symphony (2:54), Pale Traces (7:46), No One Spoke (4:32), A Constant Run (7:43)
Alex Torres' Review
Wow! Quite extraordinary! Very impressive indeed! The Gathering’s The West Pole is a remarkable achievement for a band that lost the iconic Anneke van Giersbergen after its last album, 2006’s Home. Whilst the songwriting has always been credited to the band as a whole, it is fair to say that Anneke was a key element in the band: it was she who wrote the lyrics and sang on the album still considered by many to be the band’s best, Mandylion, and it was that same iconic voice that carried the band all the way from that 1995 high. The effect of her loss on the spirit and morale of the band would have been fatal to many others, but The Gathering have returned with a vengeance, showing that they are bigger than any one individual, with this excellent album that deserves not only to retain their existing fan-base but extend it even further.
Anneke Van Giersbergen’s presence within the band was such that it is fair to dwell a little on her replacement before discussing the album and the songs themselves. Norwegian Silje Wergeland, previously from the band Octavia Sperati (I don’t know their music I’m afraid), is that singer; and not just a singer because, taking on the Anneke’s full mantle, she has written the lyrics for eight of The West Pole’s 10 songs. The replacement decision for the band cannot have been easy: indeed, Capital Of Nowhere is sung by Anne van den Hoonegen (to her own lyrics) and Pale Traces is sung by Marcela Bovio. The opening number When Trust Becomes Sound is an instrumental, so Silje’s voice adorns 7 of these compositions: more than enough to be the focus of fans’ attention and to be a deciding factor in the album’s fortunes. So, how does she do? The short answer is - she does great! Now the longer answer: Anneke van Giersbergen she is not; her voice sounds more frail and less confident but, crucially, has a warmer timbre that, for me, is able to carry deeper emotion than Anneke’s, and that is a very significant factor that affects these songs. It is a factor that transforms the mood, even when the lyrics and music are not dealing with happy subjects, in such a way that the listener feels embraced by the music, cocooned almost, as it delivers sweeps of spine-tingling sensations. If you listen, and listen carefully, then you will be consistently moved by the music and Silje’s singing. Whilst only time will reveal how she fares in live performance with the band and Anneke’s old songs, at least on the strength of The West Pole she is more than a very effective replacement.
And so to the album itself. I find it simply wonderful. Not only are the individual songs extremely well crafted but so is the album itself, in terms of pacing and sequencing of the music. The West Pole starts at a fairly high tempo. Now, I am not a The Gathering completist; my collection is book-ended by Mandylion and Souvenirs, but the pace that the band use for the first three tracks seems rare if not non-existent in their previous music. It works superbly. The metal-derived, raw-edged guitar riffing that dominates When Trust Becomes Sound would be doom-sounding at a lower tempo, but here it provides a joyous start: an insistent and catchy riff that keeps you hooked during its relatively short duration; some mega-phoned vocalisation that is introduced low in the mix sufficing to keep the interest sharp. It is, in effect, an instrumental, and it is a brilliant choice of opening number, sure to lift everyone’s mood - it makes me smile from ear to ear every time that opening subdued feedback kicks in that riff! The tempo slows for the title track and is maintained for the subsequent four - and in this substantive section the musical revelation for me was the inspirational use of keyboards and bowed instruments (violin, viola, cello). These instruments are also used on a couple of the higher paced opening tracks but their emotional impact is enhanced in this slower section. Frank Boeijen’s keyboards playing sounds more inspired than ever. The bowed instruments add beautiful musical colours and textures. Listen carefully - the music is sublime. Cleverly, the high tempo returns for the last two tracks. In particular, the album’s very ending is just as inspirationally delivered as its start: your bodily rhythms have risen to the increased tempo of No One Spoke and the opening of A Constant Run when René Rutten’s handclaps, low in the mix but extremely effective, raise the already heady mood and you hear out the album, surfing on the crest of an euphoric sonic wave.
Most bands that have survived as long as The Gathering, celebrating their twentieth birthday this year, have changed their musical style to an extent over their careers. This can be difficult for some fans, in particular those who have picked up on a band in its early years. Certainly, The West Pole album is not a metal album and is closer to the musical direction taken by them in recent years: the development appears to be a lightening of mood which, for me, enhances the music; there is more subtlety, more creation and more beauty.
Before finishing, I’ll highlight just a few more specifics of some individual tracks in more detail. Metal-derived guitar is most prominent in the five higher paced tracks: when present, the keys and bowed instruments here provide adornment without taking centre-stage. The opposite is true on the slower songs, although the lengthy, instrumental latter section of Capital Of Nowhere is an exception with metal-derived guitar creating a darker mood, building in intensity to the song’s conclusion. Treasure, Silje’s first appearance on a The Gathering album is a fine showpiece for the emotion that she can transmit through her singing - it’s a powerful combination in association with the adorning orchestration and often makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end! All You Are’s alternation of low and high intensity verse-chorus is very effective. The environmental protest No Bird Call is very prettily orchestrated. The harmonies in the opening section of Capital
Of Nowhere are stunning, very ethereal, other-worldly, very beautiful. You Promised Me A Symphony is Silje solo on vocal and grand piano. Well done The Gathering for allowing her to make it their song! It is beautiful and probably the explanation why the album has ten tracks as opposed to the nine that the band had previously announced some time back. Pale Traces has some fine rhythmic work, more gorgeous harmonising and orchestration, and is another one that gives me the goosebumps!
The West Pole is an exceptionally good album showing a high degree of inventiveness. It is not perfect - for instance, I think some improvements may have arisen had the band been able to record together in the same studio, reaping the benefits of team synergy - but it is nevertheless excellent. It will repay careful listeners: hopefully they will be many.
Geoff Feakes' Review
The Gathering will certainly never be accused of selling themselves short with their website describing this latest release as “nothing less than a piece of masterwork!” To be fair to the band, given that this is their ninth album in a career spanning 20 years they should be given credit for knowing a trick or two when it comes to recording. It’s been very well publicised that Anneke van Giersbergen departed in 2007 after 13 years fronting the band and has since been replaced by another female singer Silje Wergeland. Otherwise the rest of the line-up remains intact from 2006’s Home album, namely Rene Rutten (guitars), Marjolein Kooijman (bass), Hans Rutten (drums) and Frank Boeijen (keys).
What effect if any Silje’s presence has on the overall sound I really can’t say because The West Pole is my introduction to the band. For those more familiar with their previous work the opening track When Trust Becomes Sound is short on clues being a raw instrumental guitar thrash which left me wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for. It certainly undermines the bands pedigree displaying a youthful brashness that could have come from any one of a number of garage bands. Mercifully things improve 10 fold with Treasure and the introduction of keys (albeit sparingly) and engaging vocals which reminded me a little of The Corrs’ Andrea Corr. With a memorable chorus this has all the makings of a radio friendly single. The uncompromising rhythmic onslaught remains however continuing into All You Are with a guitar sound that has more jagged edges than a truck load of broken glass.
The title track The West Pole is the first in a sequence of mellower songs displaying a more refined side to the band. Lush sounding violins feature prominently during No Bird Call and Boeijen really comes into his own with You Promised Me A Symphony. It’s a wistful piano and vocal duet with understated but beautifully judged playing from the keyboardist. The lengthy Pale Traces continues the mournful mood, a song that would not sound out of place on a Mostly Autumn album embellished by rhapsodic strings. The tempo moves back up a gear with the energetic No One Spoke and continues into the rousing and aptly titled finale A Constant Run. The busy rhythm, catchy chorus and edgy guitar sound brought back memories of New Order and A Flock of Seagulls providing a suitably uplifting coda.
Silje’s light and airy voice compliments the bands approach perfectly and contrasts nicely with the abrasive guitar tone. She effortlessly conveys the hummable melodies and adopts a low key delivery to add a melancholic air to the proceedings when called for. Despite what I’ve read about the band their grungy wall-to–wall guitar sound to my ears has its roots in the post punk of the late 70’s and the US North-West scene of the early 90’s. In the final analysis however I like my prog with a little bit more instrumental colour and finesse although in the case of The Gathering I use the term prog lightly as I’m sure does the band themselves.
Menno Von Brucken Fock's Review
The Gathering are amongst the Dutch pioneers of alternative rock, one could also call it female fronted rock and sometimes even gothic rock. The band is celebrating their 20th birthday this year and The West Pole is their ninth studio album. For many years fronted by Anneke van Giersbergen (Agua De Annique), they had to find a replacement when Anneke decided to leave in 2007. The West Pole is the fruit of new energy, new ideas and a great new talent on vocals: the Norwegian singer Silje Wergeland, also playing grand piano on the album.
The first track is an instrumental one, a bit of a surprise with Rutten’s hammering distorted guitar chords. It sounds quite simple but in fact it is the ultimate statement as if they are telling people: we’re not dead, we’re alive & kicking! In the mid tempo song Treasure, we can appreciate Silje is a great singer and there’s much in her singing that reminds of van Giersbergen. Still the guitars are distorted and driving until the orchestrations by Frank Boeijen take over; the final ‘word’ is for Marjolijn Kooijman’s bass. In All You Are still distorted guitars but this time more mellow and René Rutten is plucking rather than playing chords as we can hear them played in the more powerful choruses. The title track begins with subtle plucking of one guitar but soon bass, drums and orchestrations are added and there are very symphonic parts in this majestic piece of music. No Bird Call in the first part is almost an ambient piece of music, with solely keyboards. Distant rhythm patterns and Silje’s dreamy voice contributes to the mysterious melancholic atmosphere throughout the track in spite of soft drumming and sliding guitars. Plucking on a clean guitar, the high pitch vocals by guest Anne van den Hoogen and the piano all contribute to that same laid back atmosphere in the next track: Capitol Of Nowhere. In the second part more distorted and echoing guitars and floating sounds from an organ in the vein of Pink Floyd. The grand piano accompanies Silje in the beautiful ballad You Promised Me A Symphony. Maybe a bit odd, but for me Pale Traces could have been a track by Agua De Annique so musically not too different, at least partly. However not Silje but special guest Marcela Bovio (Stream Of Passion) sings the lead vocal. The last part of this track there also some violins. After so much laid back spherical music, it’s time for something a bit more up tempo. In spite of a very nice more quiet interlude, the driving beat and guitars are back in No One Spoke. In A Constant Run great melodies are combined with the driving guitars and the song has a very catchy beautiful chorus, in the last part again an exquisite symphonic instrumental part, carried by guitars and a mix of mellotron-samples and piano.
The West Pole is a great come back and defines alternative rock in the Netherlands at its best. Not too heavy, great atmosphere and fine melodies. It will surely appeal to a much wider audience than just fans of gothic rock and it will be a real pleasure to go out and see them live. Anneke van Giersbergen will not be forgotten but the band has made an excellent choice with Silje Wergeland as their new singer.
ALEX TORRES : 9 out of 10
GEOFF FEAKES : 7 out of 10
MENNO VON BRUCKEN FOCK : 8 out of 10