(Century Media, 1997)
Back in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, The Gathering had become rather notorious among my fellow Colorado-based metal fans. Their infamy stems from a 1999 incident that the Dutch band later recalled in their song, appropriately-titled, “The Colorado Incident.” I remember that day well, although I personally wasn’t a witness to the failed gig. But several of my friends in the Denver metal scene had attended the band’s scheduled Colorado Springs show, and many people subsequently disseminated the details freely on the nascent Colorado Metal Email List. People complained about watching the two openings bands perform full sets, only to wait for hours for the headliner that never showed up.
So, the folklore went that a few witnesses had seen an RV with a hitched trailer pull up alongside the venue’s marquee earlier that afternoon. Someone, presumably in The Gathering, rolled down the RV’s window, snapped a photo of the marquee, and left. The marquee that day read, “The Gatherin.” Now, whether the band actually was fickle and superficial enough to no-call/no-show their gig because of a misspelling of their name, or if they actually had more legitimate excuses to not show up is a matter for endless debate. The bottom line is this: many people had been legitimately excited to (hopefully) see The Gathering live, and their 1997 masterpiece, Nighttime Birds, undoubtedly fueled their enthusiasm.
The Gathering had come a long way by the late 1990s. Originally a brutal doom/death metal band with growling vocals, the band first started to break on U.S. shores with the help of a young female vocalist. Anneke van Giersbergen, a 21-year-old redhead boasting a set of high-ranging and operatic lungs, joined the band in 1994 and made an immediate impact on their third album, Mandylion. On Mandylion, The Gathering presented a unique brand of doom that combined the varying tempos of Candlemass, the gothic crunch of a My Dying Bride, and the spacey atmospherics of a Pink Floyd or Hawkwind. The riffs sounded heavy and dense while maintaining an aura of sparseness that allowed van Giersbergen’s angelic vocals to easily soar over the top. Still, as remarkable and unique as her classically-influenced voice sounded in that context, fans still got plenty of pounding metallic riffs on tracks such as “In Motion No. 1,” “Eleanor,” and “Strange Machines.” Mandylion is a pure, classy doom-metal album, first and foremost.
For Nighttime Birds, The Gathering slightly tweaked and perfected their melodic, atmospheric doom sound. Led by founding members René (guitars) and Hans (drums) Rutten, the band tempered the most aggressive moments of their previous album just enough to allow van Giersbergen’s captivating vocals to shine even more. In fact, it would be no stretch to declare her showing on Nighttime Birds as one of the greatest vocal performances of all time. The band skillfully warms the listener to these delicate and, dare I say, spiritual vocal moments with the understated-yet-heavy groove of opener, “On Most Surfaces.” This tune features some simple and beautiful guitar and keyboard melodies (via Frank Boeijen) that complement van Giersbergen’s powerful vocals. But the album really kicks into gear with the lumbering groove and chiming clean arpeggios of “Confusion.” Here, Anneke flawlessly rides and rolls over melodic peaks and valleys as she sings, “Sometimes it is better to lay/don’t you think?” These vocal melodies are some of the greatest ever recorded, and I can only wish my meager words could do them any justice. René’s plaintive guitar melodies complete this emotive tune that evokes anything but “confusion” in the enthralled listener.
“The May Song” is another slow, breezy number that showcases Anneke’s commanding and entreating plea, “Pale is my face/you might want to colour/while I breathe.” This yearning love song is made all the more haunting by René’s melancholy guitar arpeggios and melodies. The Gathering leaves the tempo in low gear, but they amplify the electrified emotion in the dynamic and atmospheric, “The Earth is My Witness.” Anneke’s deeply resonating vocal lines musically embody the conflicting feelings nature must feel towards her most intelligent, though destructive, creation: “She refuses to give her up/and we close our eyes.”
At a solid mid-tempo, “Third Chance” is easily the fastest song on Nighttime Birds. It also is my favorite, one of those peculiar ear worms that warrants repeated (20-plus?) listens. Hans’ bouncy dance-hall drum beat lends exuberance to one of Anneke’s catchiest choruses to date: “I wait and I wait/but what I really hate/is the panic that stops me from breathing/my knees hit the floor/and then I panic more/until you open my door.” That universal feeling of anxious, desperate longing never sounded so gorgeous and infectious. Later, on “Kevin’s Telescope,” The Gathering look outward to the cosmos, as a young boy dreams of one day being “where the eye of his telescope has already been.” The band seamlessly interweaves soft strings and simple guitar leads to create the perfect cinematic soundscape for van Giersbergen’s dramatic lyrics and vocal lines.
Perhaps the title track best encapsulates the greatness of this album. The lumbering, almost tribal beat and somber, understated guitar melodies prepare the way for the crushing chords and sublime vocal melodies in the chorus. When Anneke sings, “When they fly/through the night as beautiful/nighttime birds,” the listener is flying right alongside the elegant birds of the night sky. The melancholy piano-based ballad, “Shrink,” is the album’s sorrowful and emotionally-devastating closer: “I shrink and shrink/until I’m gone.”
Nighttime Birds is much more than a great metal album; it is a breathtaking and unique sonic journey. Every metal fan, regardless of his/her sub-genre preferences, should own this album.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot