Gathering, The - Nighttime Birds (1997)
I think it’s fair to say that my relationship with Dutch outfit the Gathering got off to a particularly rocky start. I was tape trading with a couple of metalheads that lived in the Blue Mountains region of NSW (i.e. a couple of hours drive from where I live) in the early 1990's & both were obsessed with the new doom/death hybrid that had taken shape over the previous couple of years so I was picking up almost every global release of any note from that particular subgenre. On this occasion I’d been sent a cassette with The Gathering’s debut album “Always…” on one side & the self-titled debut E.P. from Germany’s Pyogenesis on the other. My interest in the death doom metal sound had already been well entrenched through bands like Paradise Lost & Winter however I struggled with “Always…” & decided fairly quickly that The Gathering weren’t for me. The news that they had gone for more of a gothic metal sound for their sophomore album only provided me with additional encouragement to keep my distance so I watched casually from afar as 1993’s “Almost A Dance” album crashed & burned with the underground diehards. However, the following year would see a new & exciting front woman heralding a new dawn for the band & 1995’s third album “Mandylion” would quickly become an underground classic. I was certainly aware of it at the time however I couldn’t quite muster the courage to entertain the idea of experimenting with a gothic metal release amidst the height of my extreme metal indulgence so I didn't get to it till many years later.
Now this takes us into the latter half of the 1990’s, a period with which I’ve been very open about my personal struggles & a time when I temporarily became disillusioned with the metal scene in general. By 1998 I’d decided to take my leave of metal altogether while I experimented with not only new styles of music but also with a new lifestyle. It would be a process of rebuilding for me & it was during this time that my brother Ben brought The Gathering’s 1997 fourth album “Nighttime Birds” to my attention. I was mostly listening to progressive rock, jazz fusion & trip hop at the time but there was something about The Gathering’s new sound that really hit a tender spot within me & began to mend the heart strings that I’d had so brutally torn & twisted by my broken de facto relationship. It would subsequently go on to become one of a few key records that helped to get me through those years &, as a result, holds a very dear place in my heart to this day. In saying that though, it’s been many years since I’ve mustered the courage to want to return to it & ever since we revisited “Mandylion” as a recent feature release I’ve been wondering just how well it would hold up without the emotional baggage that I was carrying with me back in the day.
Despite what many critics & fans will tell you, “Mandylion” wasn’t a perfect record. If you look at it closely you’ll find that it had its flaws. I went back to find out what all the hype was about in the late 2000’s & found myself being a little underwhelmed, despite recognizing it to be a very solid release & the point at which The Gathering would begin to define a relevant & artistically challenging sound. It wasn’t an immediate record for me as the most appealing material was so clearly held in the last few tracks so it took me getting used to the overall tracklisting before I could find some of the adoration that others seemed to feel for it. But in saying that, it was generally the first half of the album that was held up on a pedestal & I still fail to achieve those feelings. It was the deeper & more complex tracks that close the album that saw the band getting me close to pulling out my higher scores & “Nighttime Birds” takes this idea a little further again which offers me a greater level of appeal.
From the first seconds of opening track “On Most Surfaces (Inuit)” it becomes immediately apparent that The Gathering had satisfied some of my minor qualms with “Mandylion”. The production job & performances are vastly superior to its older sibling & there’s a more consistent level of complexity to all of the material. “Mandylion” was unquestionably a darker & heavier record than “Nighttime Birds” however the band’s new sound possessed a sophistication & class that represented a clear step up on its predecessor. The more generic & chuggy metal riffs have been replaced by more melodically expansive & atmospheric passages of musical exploration that have a dreamier quality to them that reminds me of The 3rd & the Mortal’s finest works. In fact, The Gathering’s transition in style reminds me a lot of that band’s musical journey over their first few releases in that they traded in some of their metal street credibility for a more ambitious approach which offered greater substance & depth. The simple Paradise Lost influenced guitar melodies are still intact but the execution is significantly better & the backing instrumentation is more fully realized which only increases their impact.
It’s interesting that the gothic component of the Gathering’s supposed gothic metal sound isn’t all that strong on this occasion. You can easily hear the influence of early 80’s goth rock bands like The Cure but there’s a lot more going on than that which makes The Gathering’s sound hard to categorize. They certainly don’t go overboard with the gothic theatrics like some of their competition do & that’s got a lot to do with their appeal for me personally. They have a progressive element to their sound that brings to mind Anathema’s later material even if they don’t sound all that much alike in my opinion. The fact that it’s not easy to categorize The Gathering into any clear subgenre is a feather in their cap actually as it’s a clear sign that they’ve achieved their own sound.
And this brings me to one of the most important elements in the appeal of a record like “Nighttime Birds” i.e. the stunning vocals of front woman Anneke van Giersbergen. Her performance carried the weaker moments on “Mandylion” & was the clear highlight of the record however on “Nighttime Birds” we see her reaching a whole new level with the material seemingly having been written to highlight her skill sets. The melodies & harmonies she achieves here are amongst the best I’ve heard in all of metal & the angelic hooks are greater in both number & impact. In fact, this record is the primary reason why I regard Anneke as the greatest female metal singer of all time & I can’t overstate the quality of her contribution here. The dreamier instrumentation is the perfect foil for her unique & powerful voice & the startling improvement in the technical proficiency of the musicians has enabled her to free herself of any shackles she may have maintained previously so that she can soar like a bird.
Unlike “Mandylion”, “Nighttime Birds” kicks off with one of the best couple of tracks on the tracklisting & the highlights come more regularly & consistently from there. The closing two pieces in the title track & “Shrink” are more devastating than the two wonderful closers on “Mandylion” with hooks that simply refuse to leave my brain & firmly command that I return to the album over & over again. There are no weak tracks included either. The more commercially focused & rocky “Third Chance” is certainly the least impressive of the bunch but even then Anneke manages to give it the oomph to overcome its more accessible direction. Plus, the middle of the album sports another couple of gems in “The Earth Is My Witness” & “New Moon, Different Day” which would be worthy of album high point status on most other albums.
Look, I don’t doubt that there’s an element of emotional & nostalgic attachment to “Nighttime Birds” that gives it an advantage over most of its competition but I can’t think of a gothic metal record that’s had as big an impact on me so I’m gonna go out on a limb & say that this is now my favourite release from that particular genre. I regard it as a genuine classic that has the unique potential to crossover into more commercial circles without losing any of credibility in the process. The fact that “Mandylion” will likely always be regarded as The Gathering’s finest hour is hard to understand for me personally as this album is so clearly superior in every way in my opinion.
For fans of Tiamat, The 3rd & the Mortal & Theatre Of Tragedy.