(InsideOut Music, 2015)
That voice. It appears like a beacon, a solitary guiding light hovering above the approaching shore. The ears of the famished listener are soothed and caressed by its sweet melodies, all the while reeling from its sheer sonic power. As with the mythological Sirens of Homer’s day, this entrancing voice has the ability to lead men to their untimely demises -- or, more likely -- musical ecstasy.
The bearer of this magical singing voice, in case one is wondering, is the inimitable Anneke van Giersbergen. Van Giersbergen, best known for her decade-plus stint with Dutch doom metal/atmospheric hard rockers The Gathering, is a supremely-talented vocalist. Not only was she one of the first female vocalists to grace the underground metal scene in the mid ‘90s, she is still arguably the best pure singer around. Her range is staggering; she cleanly hits the ear-piercing soprano highs, then seamlessly shifts into a soothing lower register. Van Giersbergen’s vibrato is as unwavering as her tone pristine, and she sings the poppiest of melodies with the beauty and precision of a classically-trained opera vocalist. Additionally, her bright smile and infectious on-stage attitude has helped to make her an iconic figure in the international rock and metal scene.
It’s no surprise, then, that Van Giersbergen has stayed productive and prolific since her 2007 departure from The Gathering. From releasing more pop-oriented solo material, to recording multiple albums with the Devin Townsend Project, to providing the voices behind main characters on Ayreon albums, she has been giving fans plenty of opportunities to enjoy her beautiful singing. Her latest album offering is Diary by The Gentle Storm, a symphonic-metal collaboration with Ayreon mainman Arjen Anthony Lucassen. This ambitious project serves as both a concept record and a double album, and it is, for the most part, a compelling listen. Musically speaking, The Gentle Storm interweaves folk, classical music, and symphonic metal (think Nightwish) influences within the vast umbrella of a historical-fiction love story. While Diary may not be the heaviest or most exuberant record, it does feature enough power and emotive dynamic contrasts to keep the listener interested.
The first standout point is the fact that Diary is a double album. But it’s not a typical double album; it features two versions of the same songs on the respective “Gentle” and “Storm” halves of the record, both using identical vocal tracks. As suggested by the titles of the album sides, the “Storm” half features relatively heavier, metallic versions of the songs, while the “Gentle” side showcases a softer, acoustic/light strings-oriented approach. For the purpose of this TML review, I will naturally focus on the “Storm” half, though there is nothing inherently wrong with the “Gentle” versions for mellower moods.
Secondly, the lyrics depict the expansive concept of a 17th-Century love story between Joseph, a young officer and sailor with the Dutch East India Company, and his wife Susanne. The tale centers on the emotional love letters the couple send to each other while Joseph is out travelling the world, encountering enemy (British) ships, making delayed deliveries, and generally engaging in myriad varieties of nautical mischief. In the course of all this inconvenient rigamarole, Susanne gives birth to their lone son, and later gets sick and dies. Shockingly enough, this story is less than intriguing to me, but the whole melodramatic love-letter motif helps van Giersbergen’s passionate vocal performance ring especially true.
It is the music, of course, that matters most, and the core team of Lucassen and Van Giersbergen have mostly succeeded in creating a brooding and melodic hybrid of symphonic and folk metal. In addition to Lucassen, who handles all the guitars, bass, keyboards, and hammered dulcimer, The Gentle Storm features over a dozen other acoustic musicians, not counting the Epic Rock Choir. These various string, wind, Irish bouzouki, etc. players lend a sense of depth, dynamics, and originality to Lucassen’s simple-but-crunchy guitar riffs. Speed and aggression is not the prevailing course of these songs, but rather a sense of groove and deliberately dramatic themes. Naturally, it is van Giersbergen’s stunning vocals, too, that lift these songs above the standard symphonic metal fare.
Diary is best digested as one cohesive piece, but there are some individual highlights. Opener “The Endless Sea” sets a melancholy tone with pounding cellos and van Giersbergen’s haunting vocal melodies, before its segue into a lush, crushing crescendo. The jig-like “Heart of Amsterdam” evokes a lilting and celebratory mood, while the Middle-Eastern melodies of “Shores of India” combine with Lucassen’s percussive palm-muted guitar riff to envelop the listener in glorious drama. That said, the pervasive somber melodies and slow grooves are the order of the day, and the general lack of variety in tempos and moods could be seen as one-dimensional. As a result, individual tracks tend to blend into one another rather make a powerful impact as distinct songs.
Last September, I had the pleasure of seeing the almighty Anneke van Giersbergen and The Gentle Storm (minus Lucassen) perform live at Progpower (also later with Devin Townsend). I was spellbound. Next to the live performance and the first several The Gathering albums, Diary is quintessential Anneke.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot