In the chilled European landscapes along the North Sea, where you can hardly stroll the woods without the ghost of a Viking whispering about how “restless” he is, it takes more than a growly singer and distorted guitars to make music heavy. Bands like the Gathering and Opeth sound just as dark after they’ve stripped off metal’s obvious conventions.
Early on, the Gathering spewed forth a power-chord assault disrupted by frequent time changes and keyboard melodies befitting an episode of Transformers. Yet, even way back in their 1991 liner notes to Downfall: The Early Years, they revealed a paradoxical link between prog-metal and new age by thanking Vangelis.
When lead singer Anneke van Giersbergen joined in 1995, she tore death-metal’s wall of pretense down once and for all. Her liquid, ornate melodies threw all instruments into question. Frank Boeijen pulled his synths into the shadows where they’d haunt more eerily. Guitarist René Rutten, no doubt suffering from carpal tunnel by then, replaced hammering sixteenth notes with woven licks of crafted ornamentation. But the grandiose drum fills, dissonant harmonies, and well-placed headbanger riffs still remained. Nowadays, Hans Rutten plods out Sabbath-slow drumbeats to a swelling shimmer of cymbals. Hugo Geerligs’s bass retains the underlying metal pulse too, freeing the guitar to cry out and the keyboard to envelop. Mumbled conversations and street sounds work as ambient noise.
Van Giersbergen’s lyrics make only a vague impression—”Ask your maker” here, “I will hunt you” there. “We are sitting in a chair.” Huh? Who cares. She could be saying anything and it wouldn’t matter, in the same way Elizabeth Fraser’s lilting Cocteau Twins gibberish rendered lyrics irrelevant. But van Giersbergen’s voice sounds more like Kate Bush, or Pat Benatar. She has pop appeal; my roommate even makes infuriating comparisons to the Cranberries and Alanis Morissette. And coupling a beautiful female voice with scary macho instrumentation crosses genre boundaries—a maneuver proven commercially successful by Evanescence’s clumsy American approximation.
The Gathering’s new live record, Sleepy Buildings: A Semi-Acoustic Evening, displays one new song among many older ones, all played with muted instrumentation: less distortion, a softer drum touch. So what’s with all these raging death-metal rockers exposing their tender skins? Perhaps they’re simply progressing through the classic stages of grief: first anger, and now submission. Cheesy analogy, sure. But what’s metal, if not cheese?