The Gathering – Sleepy Buildings

22/06/2004 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2004
Century Media
14 Tracks:
English lyrics

Obviously Century Media intend to siphon off as much from The Gathering as possible, so here we have what will probably be the first in a long line of dregs squeezed from the Gathering vat. However, if the future holds releases like this one, then people should be more than happy to part with their money. My only hope is that the level of quality continues and we aren’t expected to be thrilled in the future with scores of B-sides and ‘as yet unreleased’ material.

After Souvenirs a lot of us weren’t sure where The Gathering were going to go, but maybe that’s one of the joys with sticking with such a progressive band over the years, you never know where they’re going to take you next. As in so many of these cases, unless their next work is really genuinely awful, the chances are that you’ll end up liking it whatever it is, and even if you’re really not sure about it you can convince yourself that it’s a masterpiece ahead of its time and that neither you nor the majority of fans have the insight to understand what an enigma of an album it is, but you’re fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to hear it anyway.

Though that may be somewhat true of Souvenirs, it is not the case here. Nor is Sleepy Buildings the next stage in the evolution of The Gathering’s sound, but a live acoustic album comprising of some reworking of old numbers and a few new tunes. So The Gathering come on stage, everyone is told to sit down and behave themselves – you can’t have crowd-surfing and bottles being thrown at acoustic gigs – and then they proceed to play one of the most fantastic sets I have ever heard.

I’m generally cynical when it comes to live albums. The recording industries rub their hands with glee and can’t get enough of the ‘die-hard’ fans who absolutely have to get everything that bands come out with. For instance, I’m a big Radiohead fan and I have to get everything that they’ve ever produced, however, as a result I’m quite indiscriminate, I’d even buy a recording of Thom Yorke shitting into a teapot if it were available [now that’s progressive]. However, Sleepy Buildings is no live album to be cynical about. It should never be done the disservice of being thought of as just ‘one of those’ live albums that the label releases to flesh out the band’s back catalogue [can you say Superheat?] because it is nothing short of 14 tracks of sheer acoustic bliss. This is really Anneke laid bare and for the first time we get to hear her in a tailor-made acoustic setting. These unplugged albums may make quite a few bands nervous since there’s very little to mask the vocal inconsistencies and not every singer passes the live test with flying colours. However, although going off a few times, Anneke sounds as gorgeous as ever, and exhibits a rare trait – a development in the sound of her voice. After all, she has been in this is game a while now, and as a result she sounds smoother and more mature. A lot of singers do have the advantage of having a voice that can change and mellow over the years, depending on how they’ve treated it and what they’ve been singing. They say that jazz singers ideally reach their vocal peak at around age 40, and though I dare say that other singers have really timed out [Cadaveria’s vocal chords must look like over-barbecued bacon rinds], Anneke has developed wonderfully, and I’m sure there’s further to go.

The are some truly fine moments on this album, the piano reworking of Saturnine, the quiet chorus of Eleanor, and the way that Anneke sings My Electricity is as perfect as on How To Measure a Planet. But the beauty of this album doesn’t stop there. The Mirror Waters is six minutes of bright, shimmering acoustic bliss whereas the title track is three of the best minutes you’ll have in your life. Material of this quality makes me think that The Gathering have almost completely transcended any musical category that they have delved into. However, it’s hard to really pinpoint where Sleepy Buildings fits. Sometimes it’s rocky, sometimes it’s almost jazzy, but then The Gathering do produce music that defies categorization, proving that we don’t have to stuff music into a box and label it so that we can all enjoy it.

There is something genuinely special about Sleepy Buildings, and something that at the moment makes it stand tall above anything else I have heard this year. 2004 has been particularly devoid of decent music and a lot of us are standing round scratching our heads wondering what has happened to the world. This album crept modestly into the market at the beginning of the year but now stands plainly and un-snobbishly above any other album I have come across in the last six months. It is an inspiring and elevating journey through some of The Gathering’s best moments. I didn’t really have high expectations for this, but I am shocked and thrilled at how The Gathering can consistently prove that they are some of the best in the business. As far as entertaining and uplifting performances come, this is pretty close to a ten.

After Forever – Invisible Circles

15/06/2004 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2004
Transmission Records
12 Tracks
English Lyrics

A lot has changed since the flawless artistry of the Gothic behemoth that was Decipher. I think AF will always be haunted by the fact that they made two brilliant albums with Mark, but since then seem to have had an intense amount of difficulty equaling, or even bettering them. Floor and Mark were always the main creative forces behind the music, but now that Floor is soldiering on without him, Invisible Circles wants to be the big triumphant breakthrough into independence, however, this album comes across as nothing but a fat and bitter single mother desperately trying to convince us that she can go it alone and has moved on, and that that bastard was just holding her back anyway. Exordium might have raised suspicions that things were not going as well as they could be, but Invisible Circles is not so much of a warning shot across the bows that something is awry, but a huge, clumsy cannonball of Gothic haughtiness, smashing its way through the top end of the scene and making it hard for us to ignore a hankering for the better days and one or two quiet embarrassingly blatant flaws.

First things first, Invisible Circles is a concept album focusing on an average dysfunctional family, the constant arguments of the parents and the effects that these have on the child. Not so much a case of physical abuse here, but mental. The former would have been a little too much for the band to take on, so they went for the softer option. As to why they felt it necessary to bring this subject to our attention through the rather unusual medium of their music is a moot point. Maybe from a musical point of view they were trying to do something different, trying to work something novel into the clichéd metal format, or maybe they were just bringing something to our attention that they felt they had the authority to speak on. Mark Jansen previously wrote songs about finding your centre in life and not wasting your precious time with trivialities, and now that he’s gone it seems that AF want to have equally deep things to write about, but they’re not really sure what these should be.

In spite of this, lyrically, they bring the subject off rather well. The words that chronicle the events and thoughts of a young girl as she tries to deal with her parent’s marriage falling apart are cleverly put together and in some places are quite touching, but they do not belong on this album. AF seem to have forgotten quite a basic tenet that you can’t put just any lyrics to any music. As a result the whole CD comes across as being some kind of metal musical rather than a carefully executed expose on the difficulties of childhood in a crumbling family. As well as that, the points that are being made in each song are relatively similar, with only about four different variations on the theme really being covered. It starts out with the girl having to deal with her parent’s anguish at life and with each other [compounded by her birth]; her means of escapism from this social nightmare by spending most of her time on the internet; the hope of a reconciliation between her parents, and the final warning on the album that if she ever has kids herself it’s likely that she’ll screw them up too by having a broken marriage and mistreating them [hence, the invisible circle]. This is rather an apocalyptic ending to a story that I had hoped was going somewhere positive, instead, after track 12, the story just seems to throw its hands up and say “life’s a bitch” before stopping without a glimmer of hope.

Maybe Invisible Circles is not just a story though, but an example of ‘what happens’ among many families, but if there really is little to be done about situations like those shown here, why bring it up at all? Previous AF lyrics were valuable inasmuch as there was something there you could take away with you, something positive, there was a sense of discovery and revelation in each song, but here things get progressively worse until the final bomb-blast which is the album’s moral, Life’s Vortex. As well as this, it’s hard to take the topic too seriously when reading through the album’s lyrics because on every other page, as well as the deep and evocative lyrics and faux diary entries, is a picture of a random band member in black and green PVC doing a karate kick or looking meaningfully at the camera. I also get the feeling that though Floor has the perfect ability to get inside this child’s mind [for her own reasons, I’m sure] the album’s lyrics fall down where they show a lack of understanding in their subject. Digital Deceit goes on about how it’s bad for lonely children to spend too much time chatting to people they’ll never meet on the internet without really understanding the necessity for something that can make a lot of lonely kids quite happy and is probably their only means of release from social entrapment. It’s at times like this when artistic license almost borders on being insulting to the touchy topics it’s trying to address.

So it’s unfortunate that AF have tried so desperately hard with the album’s disappointing lyrics when the music itself, the song structures and layers, are so damn good. It’s a real shame because at first I didn’t notice the music so much because I couldn’t ignore the triteness of the lyrics. I am convinced that if the song topics were different we would have a very good album here, but when I come across lines like “stop dreaming and wake up, your silly world is not for real” and “a flash: see, but you won’t forget, a game, play, play, and hear and see” I just want to scream. Musically there are some very impressive parts to the album. Beautiful Emptiness, Sins Of Idealism, Digital Deceit and the delightful Eccentric are fantastically written and played and we can see that in their musicianship, AF have certainly not lost their flair. The old formula is adhered to pretty much by numbers, with choirs, strings and some beautiful thumping bass being once again the order of the day. Floor’s singing is next to perfect, though in spite of the fact that she can hit a note perfectly and she is doubtless one of the best female singers in metal, her voice is lacking a certain character here and could be more expressive. It seems she has two default settings, quiet and full-on, with no real subsections to the colour of her singing. Maybe it’s because she’s supposed to assume a different character for this album that she seems quite indifferent about the lyrics, though she is note-perfect.

Invisible Circles can easily come across as a very enjoyable album. If you stick it on and listen to it a few times, maybe even finding some clever elements in the song structures, you’ll be pleased with your purchase. However, this is not the level that the album wants to be appreciated on, it wants to make a real statement, the only problem being that after listening to it a few times I still can’t work out what the statement is. Some marriages go wrong, children get upset, and people take their rage out on others. So what, we knew that already. Putting it in a musical format doesn’t do anything for the problem apart from maybe fine-tuning these notions in other people’s heads. Invisible Circles is quite pompous in this way, it likes to think that it can be enjoyed and savored as a cordon–bleu masterpiece when it is in fact a KFC bargain bucket. From now AF should just stick to making excellent metal, and not try to carry too much of a message with it.

I appreciate the fact that having the chance to sell albums to the masses is like having a soap-box through which you can speak to people and if you’re going to say something you might as well have something worth saying, but for me it really didn’t work this time. You can pick out of this album the elements that appeal the most to you, and it’s likely to be the music rather than the subject matter. The two just seem to have been rammed together like badly matched jigsaw pieces which only fit because they’ve been forced to, but it isn’t a comfortable or natural fusion. AF do show that they still have the genius and wizardry to make brilliant albums, but unfortunately this isn’t one of them.

Butterfly Messiah – Eternal

14/06/2004 § Leave a comment

CD Info
2003
Fossil Dungeon
12 tracks
English lyrics

Butterfly Messiah first came onto the Gothic scene proper in 2002 with Priestess, an album that was neither here nor there as far as electro went. It was a gesturing stab at the genre from people who obviously knew where they wanted to go, but hadn’t even started packing the car up yet. Butterfly Messiah have a cult following as one of the up and coming acts from the Gothic Industrial genre. No metal here, but dark, sometimes dancey electro beats with synths and ethereal, soaring female vocals. So those of you who pride yourselves on being the most open-minded of people because every so often you might mix in the odd Gothica CD with your metal purchases to be really kooky, well, you can now go further and take a few strides in a different direction.

After hearing Priestess, which was surprisingly lauded by the Gothic press in spite of its banality, I wasn’t too sure about how this band would fare on their next release. However, maybe Butterfly Messiah were the victims of First Album Syndrome because this time round they’ve come up with something a lot better. The sound on Eternal is more rounded, mature, and actually has a direction whereby Priestess was a lost child in the Industrial realm, wandering round and hardly knowing what to do with itself. Eternal is more grounded, the songs are more self-assured, and carry a certain belief and confidence that the numbers in Priestess couldn’t brag about.

The strength of this album lies in the assured heaviness of the synths and how they generate a dark, sometimes sinister, yet energetic feeling throughout the songs. This is shown nowhere better than on It’s Time, one of the best Industrial tracks I have ever heard, Shannon’s vocals elevating what could otherwise be quite a black and trenchant number. But this is what Butterfly Messiah seem to do so much better than other bands. So often with these kinds of electro songs, the murky, grim mix of keyboard slush ends up bogging down the entire musical edifice and we’re all left feeling depressed and rather sickly. I’ve had enough of power noise making me feel like I’ve eaten twelve black forest gateaux. Shannon, however, has the ability to lift up a song no matter what the instrumentation seems to be doing, so the band has the power to have a field day with the grittier, darker side of electronica. The only problem with It’s Time is that its best features are its worst features – it’s so good and popular that the band could well get sick of it if they aren’t already, and the fact that it stands out above the other tracks on Eternal like a goth in a Ku Klux Klan meeting means that nothing else really touches it. This is clearly the territory that BM need to visit more often, unless they end up turning against It’s Time for fear of not being recognised for their other tracks, and doggedly biting the hand that has fed them, bought their albums and sold their tickets at random rivethead club nights in Florida.

It all still good, though. On the rest of the album, not only are we served up a dish comprising of rather dark growling synths, but there are some nice EBM sounds in there as well, vis-à-vis the title track and Ascension. There’s also some quiet repose in Believe [probably only jammed in for the sake of giving the album some variety], the harsh, abrasive mechanical chords of The Circle and the beautiful two-toned and bubbly Falling Stars. Butterfly Messiah lay the foundations for their sound in eerie, mysterious Industrial, but are also not closed off to throwing in different elements. Surprising then, that in spite of this, each track on Eternal does not come across as being particularly dissimilar from the one before it. Musically it’s unclear what the aim of the album is, whether it’s to relax you, uplift you or want you to go mad on the dance floor. My only guess is that it attempts to be an all-rounder, keeping one finger in every pie that it can, but failing to do anything particularly clever with ethereal music, which is unusual since When Autumn To Winter Resigns was the only good track on Priestess.
Still, I get the impression that BM are a band who are well aware of the importance of developing their sound and I’m sure that Eternal is just one step on a long road of self-discovery for them. Like metal, the Industrial genre is dominated by male vocalists, so though Epsilon Minus, Ayria, The Azoic and Icon Of Coil all have their place in femme-fronted Industrial, no other band apart from BM has the ability to exploit the darker and richer sides of the electro scene with such bravado. The only shortcoming of the band is where they try too hard to do things which are actually outside their scope, as in With Roses, which is an embarrassingly disappointing experiment in spite of the lyrics which are rather good. Nevertheless, Eternal is a beautiful and unignorable rush of darkwave Industrial beauty, and one that many of you would do well to open your minds and wallets to. I get the impression that this lot will be around for a long time, and each step will bring new elements and new improvements. A very welcome credit to the genre.

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