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#TBT: THE GATHERING'S Mandylion is an Ethereal Trip into a Dreamland

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. Today's 27th TBT features a band with a stunning career spanning almost 30 years. The current success of The Gathering can be attributed to an album that garnered the attention of a whole new fanbase. A modern classic, Mandylion propelled The Gathering into the start of their lengthy and successful career.


'#TBT: THE GATHERING'S Mandylion is an Ethereal Trip into a Dreamland

Release Date: August 22, 1995

Record Label: Century Media

I'm so glad that the term 'female-fronted metal' is now out in the world as a reductive turn of phrase. If you want to read in-depth about this topic, I refer you to a recent article from Metal Sucks that poignantly covers the topic. I regretfully admit to using the term in my days of early music journalism. It was easy to use, and I assumed that people wanted a familiar orientation to relate to before diving into the success of an album or the uniqueness of a group. As a guitarist and songwriter for over 20 years, I can tell you that putting gender before talent is one of the most insulting things you can do to a dedicated musician. "You're good, for a girl" is a phrase I hope to never hear again unless it's made in a cheeky jest. And even then, we'd better be drunk and/or good friends.

The Gathering is a band who should not be reduced to 'female-fronted metal'. Frankly, their 1995 album Mandylion would still be great even if they had chosen a male singer. The record would have a way different feel, of course, but it speaks to the strength of the songwriting and the welcomed edginess and surprise that female vocals bring to the record.  The songwriting on Mandylion is unique and not often found in modern metal. Staying unflinchingly slower to mid in tempo, Mandylion remains soft and approachable throughout, eschewing harsh 'doom' elements such as growls and tinny, over-delayed guitar solos. The overall sound of the record is unapologetically reminiscent of the 90's. With it's mid-range, choursy guitars and reverb-laden vocal tracks, Mandylion feels like a beautiful trip into mist-woven woods that will have you indulging in wistful daydreaming.

For a little background on the band, The Gathering formed in October 1989 in Oss, Netherlands by two brothers, Hans and Rene Rutten. Mandylion is their third studio album and the first to feature Anneke van Giersbergen on vocals. Their first two albums are sonically different beasts and feature male vocals with female backup. Honestly, they're not bad albums but they feel immature and unfocused. They leveled up their songwriting and found emotional vision in Mandylion. The record marks a distinct change for the band. Hans and Rene both remain in the band today as the two original and surviving members.

Let's take a look at the value of Anneke van Giersbergen vocals on Mandylion. Van Giersbergen, singer for The Gathering for over a decade, is a bar-none, stunning vocal talent. The ease with which her vibrato ends each phrasing is just beautiful. Take a look at this deliciously 90's live performance of opening track "Strange Machines":

It is of course not the finest quality audio track, but I wanted to include a live performance on purpose so you can hear how genuine her vocal ability is. She sounds just like her recordings. The effortlessness of her talent is jaw-dropping. The changes of mood created with stylized drumming and intensifying riffs, combined with the playful, magical synth at the end make this song arguably the most popular track on the album.

Mandylion is extremely successful at establishing mood. Track "In Motion #1" is a fantastic example of this concept:

Critics have described The Gathering for decades as 'doom' and 'goth'. The trouble with these labels is that while they do describe elements of the music, it just doesn't do the syrupy, ethereal quality of the music justice. There is an official music video for a track on the album (and you all know how I feel about official music videos) for the song "Leaves":

Of course, the track is edited down to approximately 4 minutes when the album version is closer to 6 minutes runtime. But, this was a time when music television actually played music and tracks over 4 minutes wouldn't fly; they were simply too long. What I am struck by in the video is the youthfulness of Van Giersbergen. She was barely 20 at the time of the recording of Mandylion. There is something about the innocence of the lyrics combined with the sheer confidence of her voice that gives The Gathering and Mandylion the 'lightning in a bottle' feel.

There are a variety of musical elements in each song on Mandylion. These surprising dynamics keep the album from being repetitive and invite you to stay interested and to continue listening. In track "Eleanor" you'll find double bass moments, syncopated riffs with drum hits, and clean, deep alto vocals.

Is the album perfect? Of course not, but I love it for what it is. The lyrics leave something to be desired in depth, but the content is so fitting with the indulgent, wistful feeling that permeates throughout Mandylion.

While 2007 saw the amicable departure of Van Giersbergen from The Gathering, she has continued on in many personal and side projects such as Vuur. If you love her voice like I do, recommend checking out her work with Devin Townsend. Her vocal talents have only improved with time, and she still has her signature clear, mid-range powerhouse vocal style. While she and The Gathering, whose 'new' singer Silje Wergeland have found success in their respective paths, Mandylion will remain a fan and cult fave.

And for my record-lovin' folks – Mandylion will become available on vinyl! You can preorder it here (but beware, US buyers – the shipping is bananas).

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