The Gathering

West Pole

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When longtime vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen announced her departure from the Gathering after a decade of mutual musical triumphs, most fans instinctively wondered whether the hallowed Dutch group could possibly go on without their iconic, signature voice -- which is ironic if one recalls that they'd existed for nigh on half a decade before even welcoming Anneke into the fold. Then again, those were pretty obscure, unsuccessful years, and such is the powerful imprint of vocalists on the music of most any given band. So despite acting relatively quickly to acquire a capable new singer in Norwegian Silje Wergeland (ex-Octavia Sperati), the Gathering's remaining members still had lots of people to convince, not to mention almost too many available musical directions to follow -- potentially with disastrous consequences -- due to the astounding breadth of music they'd experimented with over the years. Be that as it may, 2009's indicatively named West Pole found the Gathering wisely, and probably inevitably, sounding like their typically atypical, daringly eclectic selves, and the only telltale "trend" in evidence on first inspection was a revived desire to rock, after their gradual descent into a progressive sort of mellow trip-hop (akin to a poor man's Radiohead), partly at their former singer's behest. Rocking out is certainly the agenda put forth by guitar-driven opener "When Trust Becomes Sound," an instrumental that cleverly teases the listener before Wergeland's imminent debut on the excellent, aptly named exhalation of relief that is "Treasure," which along with other subsequent offerings like "All You Are" and "No One Spoke," takes the Gathering back to the style of 1998's avant-rock masterpiece How to Measure a Planet? Even the album's mellow moments, such as the title track, "No Bird Call," and "You Promised Me a Symphony," when they arrive in a chunk halfway through, avoid the use of overt electronics beyond the odd synthesizer to remain focused on the analog (the closing "A Constant Run," in particular, suggesting U2's Achtung Baby as a likely model). Rather, their dreamy combination of ethereal minimalism and lush orchestration harks back to the Gathering's 1995 classic Mandylion, thus giving Wergeland's voice -- distinctive in its own way, yet not that far removed from Van Giersbergen's in range -- plenty of room to soar free. At the end of the day, West Pole's songs aren't consistently strong enough to categorically vouch for the Gathering Mark III's victorious return to full power; but it's safe to say that the vast majority of longtime fans will have their faith in the group's core members confirmed, while they breathe easier over the band's retreat from mundane trip-hop, back to their progressive rock strengths.

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