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The Gathering - More Mature, Less Metal, More Popular Than Ever
Posted on Wednesday, April 12 2006 @ 01:57:43 CDT by Duncan Glenday
Progressive Metal

Once upon a time there was an obscure little heavy metal band called The Gathering. They've gone now - yet they're selling more than ever. You see - the line up has changed. Oh - most of them are still the same people, but they have changed!

One of the clearest glimpses at The Gathering's wonderful musicianship and versatile compositional skills was the all-acoustic Sleepy Buildings. It wasn't the most exciting record, but you could tell that these were truly fine musicians when they re-crafted much of their all-metal back catalog into delicate, masterfully played unplugged pieces. But that record was also the first hint that the band was moving slowly but deliberately away from its metal roots.

Sea Of Tranquility's Duncan Glenday spent an hour talking to siren Anneke Van Giersbergen, whose angelic vocals, launched a genre, spawned a legion of copycat bands, and still define The Gathering's sound today. And foremost among the conversation items was how The Gathering's music changed the genre, and how they then left the genre behind.

As I reviewed Gathering's A Sound Relief DVD in November 2005, something struck me as odd.

Long ago these guys used to be a standard heavy metal act, and when Anneke joined them their new sound was female fronted heavy metal. This was unique - hard-as-iron instrumentation, gloomy songs, distorted power chords snapped off the bass strings in time with a double-bass kick, and over the top of it all floated a gorgeous soprano. And so, a whole new genre was created. Call it what you will - Anneke calls it simply female-fronted metal - it was new, it was melodic, it was heavy, and damn, it was something special!

And here's the odd part: Dozens of other bands have since emulated that 1990s female-fronted metal sound - and as they capitalize on The Gathering's successes, The Gathering themselves are moving away from it - a sort of role reversal where the hen flew the coop leaving the chickens behind. The band members have matured, and so has their music. It's more refined now, the songwriting and the performances are more sophisticated, the song structures are more progressive and intellectual - but at the same time it's also more mainstream . White Willow, After Forever, Nightwish, Lacuna Coil, Evanescence and Edenbridge - among others - are continuing to develop the genre. Have Anneke and company lost their edge?

"When we were younger there was less diversity in our minds, and in our lives and in our music", Anneke tells me. "But as we grew up we had all these influences on our lives, and in our music. That's the evolution ... and our audience has grown with us." So I ask her how she would describe the music the band plays today. "Well we eat from a lot of different tables, you know? We're very influenced by the indie pop-culture. I think you could call us doomy rock, pop, alternative. So now you know exactly nothing," she laughs! "It seems we're still appreciated by the metal crowd, but now we're also very much appreciated by the pop culture."

Well yeah - but I'm trying to get her to agree that although the metal heads of the world still feel a sense of proprietorship over the band, the music itself is no longer metal. She finally comes around, with "Okay - not really, no - but we have that background, you know? When the guys started the band they listened to Celtic Frost and bands like that - very heavy influences, but the melody was very important to those bands. And at the same time they listened to a lot of Floyd - so there's always been a dark atmosphere, based on beautiful melodies. We still have that now - you can make that as heavy or as light as you want, and the metal crowd will like that dark edge. But you couldn't really call it metal, no."

And the newest CD Home, scheduled for release in April 2006, is still further from the band's earlier heaviness. I've reviewed Home here. The quality of The Gathering's albums is unequalled and their new CD will be one of the most polished, professional records on the shelves in 2006. But you won't find a hint of the progressive metallic sounds that first put them on the map. It's still progressive in that it's well layered, there are interesting time signatures and well managed tempo shifts. But through all of that, it has a radio-ready quality - so I draw her back to her comment about the audience growing with the band.

"Oh they've changed very much! It used to be almost all boys, the metal and rock crowd. They're still there but we've gained a girlie audience now," she laughs. "Which is quite nice for me - it makes it more pleasant. And the Floyd crowd seems to really like it too, and the progressive music crowd, and a lot of students... When you come to a Gathering show it's so diverse, it's amazing!". Following that line of thought, I asked her about the time they played the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The band played the same set twice, wearing the same clothes, in the same day - and selected the best clips from the two shows to produce A Sound Relief. And I ask about the demographic makeup of that crowd. "Oh, it was amazing! When we played the shows for the DVD I think there were about five or six hundred people there - and there were 30 different nationalities! Funny - everyone's so different, but they all had the same thing in common - the music." I ask how they knew about those nationalities. "Oh - there was a fan meeting in one of the rooms at the theater, and they signed in."

From this it is apparent that after a decade and a half the band is still the gathering point for a huge fanbase. But surely that fanbase could be bigger? So I ask about Evanescence, the American band that most of us consider to be a cheap clone of Mandylion-era The Gathering - with one big difference: Evanescence made gobs of money off the style of music Anneke and the guys developed. "Oh fantastic band, but, it's hard to say that they're a clone. We all came from the same background. Ten years ago we were one of the first. Evanescence took one aspect of female-fronted metal and built on it, and became a bigger than we'll ever be."

I ask "How do you view the difference between their music and yours?".

"Well if you listen to Mandylion there was a specific feeling - maybe because we were one of the first bands doing that kind of music. But we've moved away from that because we felt like taking a different angle. Within Temptation did the same thing - they took it to a whole new level..."

"But doesn't it bother you that Evanescence had the success you should have had, if you'd had the right marketing and promotion?"

"No - we don't feel sorry. We didn't have a big record company then, but they did tell us what we could do to sell a lot more. You know - Do this, wear that, do these shows and festivals - and we didn't like that. For us it was about the music. For example at one time when we had a single in the top-40 in Holland, we were asked to do some stupid things on TV - the idea was to get a lot more fame, and status in Holland. We decided not to do those things because we believed it should all be about the music. So we could have been bigger - it was a decision we made. Of course you want to sell it, and live off the music, and be bigger every year - but not at the cost of 'everything'. Billboard is just not our thing - we just like full venues, we like people to come back, and for people to look forward to our next record. We aren't interested in 13-year-olds who listen to one band this year then forget all about them next year and go on to the next band..."

And I take all of that to be Anneke-speak for 'we didn't want to sell out'. And if that is true, then all credit to The Gathering for staying true to their vision. But has the lack of fame and fortune hurt them? Does she or the rest of the band have a day job, or do they get involved in side projects?

"No - this is our day job, this and our little record company that only sells our own CDs. We have some employees, and I sometimes do singing projects on the side, but that's very low key - I just do it for fun. We aren't rich, but we do live off their music."

"And are there plans to expand your label? I mean that would be an ideal way for you to leverage a lot more income off the band's name."

"No!" she exclaims. "No, no plans to sign anyone - that's an office job - and as musicians we aren't very good at that sort of stuff", she laughs. "It's just a vehicle for The Gathering to make our music. Of course, for the DVD and for our next record Home we got help from The End - for distribution and so on. They know what they're doing..."

"So who does your cover art? Someone within your record company?"

"Yes - we come up with the ideas, we do it ourselves, then we get graphics company to work with us on it."

"Where does the name "The Gathering" come from?

I'm a Scotsman who can speak a little Dutch and has all of The Gathering's CDs, so I'm a bit embarrassed to hear her say "Well you must know the movie "The Highlander"? The 'church' where all the immortals came together was called The Gathering. The guys in the band loved that movie, and that's it!" Well - jeez - I should have realized that! So I hustle her onto another topic.

HugoPrinsen, was always viewed as a steadying factor in band-life - but recently left The Gathering after 15 years. He was a serious, intelligent artist who would be hard to replace. "You mentioned that you were glad to have a more 'girlie' audience. But tell me about your new bass player, Marjolein Kooijman." Are you pleased to have another 'girl' in the band?"

"Oh she's a great asset! It was weird to see Hugo go. And when we looked for a replacement we had all these phone numbers, but we knew we didn't want any session musicians. We needed the kind of person who would make the commitment. Our guitar player Renee's girlfriend had this friend. She did work as a roadie for us once, as a guitar-tech. And we know that she's funny, and loud, and laughs a lot - she's fun. and we liked her. We knew she played guitar, but we wondered if she could also play the bass. So before we started the auditions - she was really our first audition - she played some of the songs better than we did! So we called her back same evening. You know, as a female, it's just natural that I've always been the eye-catcher in the male-dominated world of our music. But another girl gives us a sort of bridge - it's more balanced now, and there's more unity..."

"And two girls in the band obviously helps you broaden your audience demographic?"

"Yes - our whole group dynamic changed, and that will come into the music, and into the crowd"

The Gathering's Current Lineup

"So where is Hugo now?"

"Well he has a second kid already, and he lives with his wife and family, and he's working at a movie theater, and he's just started making some music again."

I ask Anneke who her favorite Dutch bands are - and am surprised that she doesn't know of many besides Within Temptation and After Forever. "Golden Earing was big, of course, the only really big band to come out of Holland - we're quite proud of them - but modern Dutch bands..?" Turns out she and some of her bandmates are listening to a lot of Sigur Ros right now, so let's see if that atmospheric influence ever permeates their music.

"You know, in my review of the DVD I made a big point about the fact that The Gathering used to be into extreme metal, then it was female fronted heavy metal in an almost goth vein - yet on the DVD, there were flowers on your mic stand! I mean, flowers! What's that all about?"

"Aahh - " she laughs. "Ja, I'm such a girlie!"

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