Review Summary: The first in a long line of excellent albums released by The Gathering, its quality and importance should not be overlooked.
While Mandylion gave us a good idea of what The Gathering was capable of, Nighttime Birds was the album that proved just how special this band is. It’s a diverse and original effort from one of the most consistently great, yet overlooked, bands in modern music.
Their second album featuring the vocals of Anneke Van Giersbergen, this one fixes all of the minor mistakes that kept Mandylion from being truly great. While that album did have its fair share of good moments, the eight tracks had a tendency of being indistinguishable (mostly running in the six-minute range and having a similar mid-tempo pace). Perhaps the band noticed this also, because it doesn’t take long for one to notice a certain difference on Nighttime Birds. The first three tracks, “On Most Surfaces,” “Confusion,” and “The May Song,” are arguably the three best on the album, each of them establishing themselves as different songs.
The opener doesn’t take long to get started; the guitars enter at the very first second, and continue for half a minute until they decide to slow things down and introduce a heavier riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Metallica’s black album. Finally, at the 1:20 mark Anneke enters, although rather unusually; her first lines sound like they belong in the middle of a verse instead of at the beginning, almost as if the intro was the first lines of the song, and if you’re not paying attention you might think you’ve missed something. From there, the song continues with several soft/loud passages full of keyboards, Anneke wailing away, and something close to a traditional guitar solo, something not often found in Gathering songs.
The second track, “Confusion,” is possibly the highlight of The Gathering’s early career. Slower than its predecessor, the track opens with a gentle guitar and a prominent bass, soon followed by Van Giersbergen, who really shows off her pipes in this song. This is a song that does what many great songs do, it builds; constantly getting heavier through each successive passage, eventually climaxing with about a minute to go, where Anneke makes the chorus even bigger sounding than it had before, hitting higher notes and holding them for a few seconds longer. If you only listen to one song from this album, it should be this one.
“The May Song” is, more or less, The Gathering’s attempt at radio-friendly music, and while it may have been recorded a few years too early, it is still a shame it wasn’t at least semi-successful. They were clearly trying to be a little mainstream here: keeping the track less than four minutes long, softening the guitars, including a catchy chorus, and featuring the most accessible part of the band, Van Giersbergen’s impressive voice. The results are a song that Evanescence wishes they could make, because The Gathering does all the things that Evanescence does, without feeling fake or generic. (The radio edit of this song, included on a deluxe edition CD, includes a third chorus and is worth checking out if you like the album version).
While those three songs are all great, that doesn’t mean the rest of the album isn’t very good in its own right, because it is; there are no real weak tracks here, and each one deserves several listenings. “The Earth Is My Witness” includes a nice string section that gives the song an epic sort of feel, “Third Chance” is a more up-tempo song with an infectious chorus, and “Shrink” is a gentle, yet haunting, piano ballad where Van Giersbergen harmonizes with herself to create a chillingly beautiful closer.
In the decade since its release, The Gathering have made albums superior to Nighttime Birds, but it remains important because it is their first great album, and it has had a great influence on bands like Lacuna Coil and even Evanescence. This is a must-have for any fan of the band or the genre, or even good music for that matter, it is truly a lost classic.