Review Summary: And I found my way back home
Legendary acts have to break a piteous quantity of ice upon emergence from long periods of inactivity, but there’s something unassuming about The Gathering that dispels those kinds of pressures. Since their rainy-day opus Home
, the Dutch pioneers have tended away from dramatics and turned their songwriting to more pensive fare; they have an unparalleled knack for adding weight to wistfulness and they do remarkably well taking this at their own speed. Their latest adventure Beautiful Distortion
fits this pattern so comfortably that it’s a comeback in name alone, brushing off a near-decade of studio absence and knuckling down right where 2012’s Disclosure
left off. From the oscillations of brightness and gloom in its emotive chord progressions to its steady orbit around a midtempo comfort zone, the classic Gathering sound is all over this thing (thanks in no small part to returning producer Attie Bauw, of How to Measure a Planet
credentials). Opener and welcome-back single “In Colour” evidences this with its angelic vocal melodies and dreamlike current, and by the end of the track, returning fans should find themselves content that the band retain their magic and turn their attention to what this album specifically brings to the table.
To that end, it’s savoury stuff, if perhaps a little conservative. In stark contrast to The West Pole
’s cyclical jams and Disclosure
’s oneiric epics, Beautiful Distortion
rests a disarming proportion of its weight on lengthy chorus sections (and the occasional winding coda). Its instrumental side is trim to the point of leanness: drummer Hans Rutten shines with his steady-handed foundation, but the remaining accompaniment is unobtrusive to a fault. There’s always been something heavily autumnal about The Gathering post-Souvenirs
, and this now extends to arrangements equivalent to trees midway through shedding their leaves. It falls on vocalist Silje Wergeland to carry the record as such, and let there be no doubt, she’s its unequivocal success story, rising to the challenge with her most confident performance to date. In my mind, her willowy voice was always a successor rather than a replacement for long-time vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen’s rich tones, and it’s a joy to see her cement her place in the band once again with such conviction. At its best, the album hangs on her every word, the resonance of each chord change acknowledging some emotional undercurrent in her delivery, each line a fresh angle on an ongoing thought process. “In Colour” is once again a lovely example for this, but it’s my personal favourite “Black Is Magnified” that really makes her case with its gorgeously airy chorus, strong enough to land a highlight on any Gathering record. It’s the best of a tuneful bunch: solid songcraft and strong melodies see Beautiful Distortion
through in fine form.
It’s just as well that it sticks so closely to the basics: the album also packs a handful of unconvincing songwriting quirks. Each track becomes so entrenched in its flow that any attempt to shake this up momentarily falls a little flat - take “In Colour”’s distorted climax, individually inoffensive but an inconsequential side-attraction in the wider scheme of the song, or the crunching guitars in “Grounded”’s second verse, a poor match for that track’s sublime chorus and bridge. This pans out better when the band apply it on a macro level - “Pulse of Life” does a great job kicking off as the album’s peppiest track and concluding as its most spaced-out - but it ties in to a more serious shortcoming: with a modal length of six minutes and an unwavering dedication to midrange tempos and straightforward song structures, the album as a whole initially borders on homogeneity in its pacing. Frictionless sequencing further camouflages the distinctions between these otherwise excellent tracks; each is full of heart, but they have so much overlap as to risk cancelling one another out.
All this makes for a shaky first impression rather than a firm deal-breaker. My early misgivings about this record were amplified by mercilessly high standards as a long-time fan, and I found almost all of them assuaged as I spent time with each song on its own terms; “Weightless” in particular is a delightfully understated track that benefitted to this end. Beautiful Distortion
is a lovely addition to the Gathering discography as a whole and an especially satisfying consolidation of everything their Silje era has come to stand for. Its minor hiccups and languorous flow belie a veteran act shaking off a little rust rather than anything fatal, though I’d still hesitate to recommend it as a starting point for newcomers. But forget that - The Gathering are back! And they are now derusted! And they still sound marvellous and still reward repeated spin upon spin upon spin; they may not have (quite) outdone themselves this time around, but they still sound like a classic act with the potential to do so. As far as icebreakers go, goodness knows I’m satisfied.