Here is the grand dilemma of critics, whatever the artform: when something is good, very good, it validates the entire pursuit of art. It makes what the critic does, important. But when something is very, very, very good, critics invariably fall into the pit of hyperbole, creating sculptures of hype that nothing could possibly live up to.
I'm on the edge of that precipice right this moment, as I strive to find the best way to describe Nighttime Birds, the new album by The Gathering. For I know that if I pour out my guts and tell you how I really feel about it, you are certainly going to feel that I am exaggerating, that no album could possibly be that good.
Well, to hell with it. Believe me or choose not to, do what you will. The fact remains that Nighttime Birds is the best album released so far this year, and very likely the best album in many years.
The Gathering's previous album, Mandylion, was a ferociously creative and beautiful piece of work; song structures were inventive and unusual, instrumentation was layered just perfectly, and the voice of Anneke van Giersbergen tied the whole thing together and made it magical. Such a bravura performance not only satisfies; it gives one a little bit of fear that the next outing will be a relative disappointment.
Not to worry. The two albums are strikingly similar in many ways, especially in terms of the band's sound: this is one of those wonderful bands whom you can recognize from the first note. The guitars are not overbearing; the keys fill in gaps in the soundscape but do not confront the listener; the rhythm section, like all the other elements, takes second stage to the greater whole, the complete sound, which is greater than the sum of its parts.
And as before, Anneke's vocals are nerve-shatteringly beautiful and triumphant. Never before has there been such a gifted vocalist: she creates melodies that are complimentary and yet sometimes contrary to the instrumentation, then ties them into the mix through her expressiveness.
The songs on Nighttime Birds are worthy of the talent that is performing them. Anneke's lyrics are dreamy, mature, and ambitious; this is poetry, and would stand on its own as such. Once those words are fused with the complex and dense orchestration, they take on another life, another meaning, and pack an enormous emotional punch.
A perfect example is "The Earth Is My Witness", a surreal vision of motherhood that, like most great works of art, leaves small gaps in the story it is telling and invites the listener to infer the rest on their own.
Mother Earth looks at her closely
She looks at her baby, and she sighs
Her hands touch her round stomach
and feel the kick,
The eyes that have seen so much, cry;
With the water she starts to rinse her face
And refuses to give her up.
On paper, this is simply great writing; when combined with the masterful music the band provides, it becomes a transcendent experience.
Another great track here is "The May Song", a four-minute exposition of what makes this band so special. There are about three distinct moods in this song, and we are led by the hand from one into the next with grace and care. An even slower, more majestic feel is built in "New Moon Different Day", a long piece that takes its time and benefits because of it. The songs on Birds become more than just songs: they are short movies that trigger a panoply of emotion in the listener each time they pass through the speakers.
I spent a lot of time studying Mandylion, and I discovered that although there was nothing on the disc that could possibly have been any better, there was one distinct moment which reached a pinnacle, the one fleeting moment that made me drop everything and stare at the speakers in wonder, even after hundreds of listens: to be specific, it was the chorus of "In Motion #1", which was reprised near the end of the album. When I held Nighttime Birds in my hands for the first time, I wondered if there would be such a moment on this disc.
There is. And it's more than just a moment, it's an entire song: the brilliant "Kevin's Telescope". This is one of the best rock songs ever written. Anneke's vocal lines have always been inventive, but she has outdone herself here. This is a masterpiece of mature songwriting that truly brings a tear to my eyes every time I hear it. The lyrics are beautiful and moving ("There is no doubt that one day he will be/where the eye of his telescope has already been/...night will pass, but he's a lot faster/no one can do him any harm."), and the music has the poise and character of a world-class symphony orchestra. I can't say enough about it.
The only real shocker on the album is "Third Chance", the first Gathering song that sounds like it was written with radio airplay in mind. Even as such, the band uses the song to give the rest of the world a lesson in how verse-chorus-verse music can still be creative and original.
So you tell me, dear reader...have I overdone it? I hope you don't think so, because I feel like I've only begun to sing the praises of this one-of-a-kind bunch of artists. If you have not done so yet, buy Mandylion and Nighttime Birds, if for no other reason than to see if you agree with me; these two albums should come packaged with all new CD players. Both are available directly from the good people at the Century Media website.