Review Summary: You learn about it
It’s easy to take quality control for granted when you’re dealing with the best bands in their field, and the Dutch experimental rock group The Gathering were very much that. The tailend of their era with the iconic vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen is up with my all-time favourite music; their 2003 masterpiece Souvenirs
was a stunning transmutation of vintage trip-hop into rock music, startling in its fidelity to both the source material and the band’s trademark gothic atmosphere, while 2006’s Home
was a deceptively morose unpacking of this sound into a more versatile alt-rock framework. The Gathering have more than enough classic albums to play pick ’n’ mix with, but these two are easily on par with their central opus How to Measure a Planet?
in my book. If any phase of any band’s career warranted an unexpected archival unpacking, this one certainly did - and so it was that the band dropped Blueprints
, a two-hour outtakes compilation, in 2017, with three years of hiatus behind them and an ongoing state of semi-activity ahead. Praise be. What to expect?
Well, in many ways this compilation is exactly what you’d imagine for a collection made up primarily of demos and early mixes. All these tracks have traces of future greatness yet sound decisively incomplete to anyone familiar with their final forms - shock horror! There’s a certain curio value in hearing future stunners like “Alone” or “A Noise Severe” in a skeletal state, the former not yet fitted out with its sweeping coda or driving beat, and the latter’s focal bassline almost totally absent (it pops up as a guitar lead in the second verse; stepping stones!). However, there’s very little about these that warrants more than a cursive inspection, yielding little more than moot confirmation of developments that lead to a familiar final form. It’s occasionally interesting to hear different, usually clunkier, lyrics crop up as on “A Life All Mine”, or the band experimenting with alternative tones, as on “Fatigue”, “Forgotten”, or the almost bemusingly rocky draft of “Shortest Day”, but the appeal here is very much a one-stop affair; it’s easy to see why these configurations were left in the past.
What I think is
interesting about Blueprints
, and perhaps revealing to the band in a wider sense, is the numerous points at which these early versions’ incompletion stems less from underdevelopment and more from overstuffed or unfocused arrangements that would find themselves streamlined in the interim. “Waking Hour”, “In Between“, and, especially, “Disarm” (later “You Learn About It”) contain most, if not all, of the motifs that would eventually brush them against perfection, but the band hadn’t yet zeroed in on their importance. These versions are washed out in overdrive and uneasy gothic chord progressions, yet simple acts of subtraction would later give van Giersbergen the space she needed for her voice to guide the rest of the band rather than running head-to-head with them. The same applies inside of the instrumental department - a few notes less on the guitar line “Waking Hour”’s gorgeous shoegaze coda would go a long way - and within some of van Giersbergen’s own lines. “These Good People“ is one of the early versions closest to completion, and it would later stand both as one of the band’s best and one of the strongest forays into ominous downtempo ever pulled off by a rock band, but the difference afforded here by a single surplus line in her refrain is astronomical; “we’ll play a song…” croons van Giersbergen, one line too many in a chorus that would later thrive on suggestion and empty space. The song trips over itself and goes from a masterpiece to a misfit in the space of a heartbeat.
It’s moments like this where Blueprints
’ real value comes into play: as an informative secondary text that clarifies exactly how contingent the final versions were on the focus and restraint the band clearly had to implement. This compilation is teeming with half-formed ideas and frequently sounds muddled as such, but, crucially, the band already had the core sound of Souvenirs
down to a tee here; the issues they would later smooth over are primarily linked to writing and arrangement issues. I’ve always respected The Gathering as a highly innovative band and more or less assumed that the mechanics of basic songwriting were second nature to them in the wake of their textural and stylistic exploration. As such, it’s interesting to hear the former struggling to keep pace with the latter here; it makes it easy to appreciate how much discipline they exercised in paring their tracks down to their core qualities, displaying great sensitivity to what textural flourishes were necessary and engaging, and which constituted muddiness and excess. From this perspective, I think this is comp is a worthwhile insight to the band’s production and writing processes that casts the original albums in a new light without demystifying their established attractions.
’ quotient of non-demo songs winds up in comfortable B-side territory. Most of the unreleased tracks are instrumental skits that show a decent charting of the trip-hop palette, but none of these are particularly memorable aside from “The Intangible”, which would have made a decent interlude for Souvenirs
had that album required one. The remaining songs show clearer potential; “Debris” is an enjoyable greyscale rocker cut from a similar cut to “Monsters”, though less cohesively realised, and “Mokaka” is a pleasant enough rewinding of the band’s spacier How to Measure a Planet?
sound, kitted out in a darker palette. Opener “Blister” is probably the strongest of these pieces, a little disjointed but at once airy and foreboding in a way that catches the classic Gathering spirit in a way comparable to the much-loved “Frail (You Might As Well Be Me)“. None of these tracks are exactly revelatory in their placement alongside the demos of future classics, but there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to trace their relation to band’s toolkit from this period. A certain satisfaction
is probably the best way to sum up this release: it’s very much one for the deep-divers and it was hardly destined for staple listening, but it’s a rare glimpse at the foundations of a band who once seemed like they’d give us nothing but towering peaks.