The Gentle Storm - The DiaryIt’s not news that I’m a big fan of Arjen Lucassen’s output from the last 5 or 6 years. Starting with 2009’s unparalleled Guilt Machine, Arjen has released a string of records that I love. In full defiance of Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™, the “poofy-haired Dutchman” has seemingly upped his game on every release: a great solo release, a seriously enjoyable Star One disc, and a stellar Ayreon album which landed #2 on my Top 10(ish) of 2013. So it was with unabashed enthusiasm that I began my countdown when I heard he was working with Anneke van Giersbergen, formerly of The Gathering, on a project entitled The Gentle Storm. The project is a fascinating idea and there isn’t a single other musician alive aside from Lucassen to whom I would entrust such a task. The record—which is simply one full-length worth of material (roughly an hour)—is recorded in two different styles. Disc 1—or in this case, Sides 1A, 1B, and 2A—is Gentle, a full-length concept album done using primarily orchestral instruments, including a real double bass, piano, and acoustic guitars. Disc 2 (sides 2B, 3A, & 3B) is Storm, which are the same songs produced in a style much more akin to the most recent Ayreon record in tone—progressive rock, occasionally cresting into metal, with different arrangements.

As an album The Diary is a story of two 17th century lovers, separated as the man—Joseph Warwijck—leaves his wife—Susanne Vermeer—in the Netherlands while going abroad for two years, communicating with her only via letters. While separated, Susanne discovers that she is pregnant with their son, and tragically becomes sick while Joseph is on his way back. The flow of the record cannot explain the entire story—which is more complex than can be captured in 11 songs—but picks up episodes of communication in each different song. The story follows these two separated lovers whose letters continue to miss each other, and culminates with a gorgeous, but tragic moment (“Epilogue: The Final Entry”). The letters are littered with feelings and impressions; “Shores of India” blends orchestra with sitar and hand-drumming with reflections of the wonders of discovering an exotic place. “The Moment,” aches with Susanne’s discovery that she is ill, while “Eyes of Michiel” pulses with the joy of discovery and awe at the glories of the world so far away from Amsterdam and the man’s newborn son. “New Horizons,” the record’s penultimate track, is a hopeful, yet heart-wrenching track from a dying woman to a man who doesn’t yet know that she is even sick. Anneke’s lyrics are subtle, smart, and well-written, and the after delving into the story I can’t help but get a bit verklempt on the record’s bittersweet close.

The Gentle Storm 3Musically, The Diary shows off the strength of Arjen’s compositions, demonstrating his deft use of melody and his honed sense of harmony. The compositions border on neo-classical, but straddle a plethora of styles, and it is precisely this ability to straddle so much variation but make it distinctively his own which makes The Diary such a radiant success. Gentle, the folk disc, is among his finest arrangements to date. What separates the music from other things he’s previously written is his freedom to play with sounds and textures. Gentle uses 40 different instruments, including sitar, french horn, with a sound that sounds like a small a chamber orchestra. There are no keyboards used on Gentle, only a piano, and the sound is subtle, rich, and stunning.

The range of tonal variation and the ability to powerfully convey feelings and emotional crescendos shows up on songs like “Cape of Storms,” which pulses along with a stand-up bass at its heart, thrumming the ocean’s depth. “Heart of Amsterdam” shines, with an a folk melody carried by violin and with dulcimer underneath, but gives way to a swing feel that Anneke’s voice transforms from beautiful to transcendent. “Eyes of Michiel” pulses with energy, showing off the range of Anneke’s vocals and Arjen’s writing, while the combination of the percussion—drums that sound like casks and a creaking ship—and ebullient fiddle and recorder which evokes a ‘pirate song’ feel that so many fail at, but which shines here. Similar to the feel that enraptured me on A New World, the nearly minimalist intimacy of Gentle‘s arrangements gives me goosebumps.

On the flip-side, the subtle crescendos and nuanced, intimate sounds of all the textures gives way to something far more epic in scope. Where a single violin might have carried a melody, instead an orchestra takes the counter melody, the use of a full choir takes the whole sound up to epic levels—working effectively on tracks like “The Storm,” to really push the music to epic proportions. The production is wet, and where hand-percussion was used, the drums are handled by Ed Warby who manages the dynamic demands with alacrity. Tracks like “The Moment,” a heart-wrenching song and subtle song on “Gentle,” gives way to an epic build with keys and 8th note double-bass—which evokes the sound from The Theory of Everything. The record breaks out into genuinely driven, heavy music on “The Storm,” which not only sparks with epic energy, but which shows off Anneke’s power and vocal control. “Eyes of Michiel” carries the melodies with heavy battery support, and brings harmonized melody and counter melody to guitars, and here again, the drums transform the song into something almost introspective and joyous to a powerful cascade of sound. Smartly, Anneke’s vocals are mixed back and the heavy material is quite bass heavy. The guitar tone is crisp, while backed by Warby’s fat drums and a bass that never gets lost in the mix of a dense record.

TheGentleStorm7 web

What amazes me most, though, is that the first few times I put this album in, I just listened to it from start to finish. Instead of feeling a desire to choose one or the other, my brain treated The Diary as a whole record. Sure, it was the same songs being repeated: but take a song like “Shores of India” or “The Storm” and compare them and you’ll find that Arjen’s ability to transcend styles with writing is complete. Lucassen doesn’t do things in half-measures, and The Diary exemplifies this point effectively. Arjen isn’t alone, either, as Anneke shows off her diverse vocal strengths by delivering amazing performances on both Gentle and Storm, showing both grace and power in equal measure. Furthermore, having received the LP mix to review, I have to say that the production on this record is the best he’s ever done. Similar to Steven Wilson, Arjen is coming into his own in his later years, and this is as true of his writing as it is of his production. His range—the wide variety of instruments used and styles balanced—is demonstrated here, where everything sits in a perfect place. Handling orchestras and sitars and full choirs is a challenging task, and both Gentle and Storm are exemplars of taste and brilliant touch.

If I had to choose, I think I like Gentle better than Storm. When moving from a production that is so beautifully textured and rich, with songs that move me deeply, and a sound that makes me want to just lay on my back and absorb their beauty, it’s tough to make the jump to StormStorm‘s sound, by necessity, is simply less dynamic. The use of keyboards to do some of the work that is done by real instruments in Gentle undermines those dynamics. This is a consequence of “metal.” As plenty of bands have shown, it is extremely difficult to balance orchestration, and different sounds with the pummeling of drums, heavily compressed guitars, and the volume necessarily involved. This doesn’t mean that Storm is bad, though: because it’s also brilliant. However, when my ears have been so spoiled by all that intimate, dynamic music, the sound feels a bit more canned. And in some ways, it leaves me longing for Arjen to figure out how to blend the heavy sounds with the rich, dynamic diversity of the lighter ones on future records.

Minor quibbles aside, The Gentle Storm is a resounding success, and one of the finest records that you’re going to hear this year. While I have loved Arjen’s other material in the last few years, this is as close to the adoration I felt for Guilt Machine since 2009. The amount of work put into this album—and yet the speed with which it came together—is astounding. The combination of Anneke’s beautiful vocals and excellent performance with Arjen’s writing and a huge cast of musicians has resulted in something that I imagine they’re all truly proud to have been involved in, and that is truly unique.


Rating: Guilt Machine/Guilt Machine
Vinyl DR: 13 [Gentle], 12 [Storm] | Format Reviewed: 24-bit FLAC [vinyl master]
CD DR: 10 [Gentle], 7 [Storm] | Format: v2 mp3
Websites: arjenlucassen.com | facebook.com/thegentlestorm
Label: InsideOut Music
Release Dates: EU: 2015.03.23 | US: 2015.03.24

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  • brutal_sushi

    Im very very excited by this. Im wondering where Lucassen will go next. Guilt Machine 2.0 (crosses fingers)

    • Monsterth Goatom

      On This Perfect Day was… perfect imo, and I continue to go back to it. I’d love to see another Guilt Machine release, but it’s been what, six years? Arjen seem like an artist who’s always looking for a new challenge.

      I just couldn’t get into Theory of Everything, but I do come back to it now and then hoping I’ll find what I’m missing. Great review, AMG.

  • lacsativ

    Tagged with 4.5 and 5.0? I can’t wait to hear this.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    As if I wasn’t hyped enough for this record…

  • GooberMan

    Guess we know what’s record of the month then. Guilt Machine out of Guilt Machine. Heh. Finding it hard to disagree.

    I saw them do some of the tracks live last month, the songwriting still shines through in a pure acoustic format. The production is well good. Anneke’s vocals gives me spine chills on The Endless Sea storm version – but weirdly not the gentle version. I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’ll certainly result in plenty more listens until I work it out.

    • It’s interesting, the songs work differently on the different CDs. The Endless Sea on Storm is definitely MORE powerful, but I love it on both.

      • GooberMan

        I’m waiting for the artbook version to arrive. I always feel a bit distanced from Arjen’s stuff until I have the lyric book in my hand with all the extra stuff that can’t fit on the album. It’s a great listen, but I won’t fully “get it” until I sit down and work it all out completely.

        • Looking at the booklet now. It’s definitely deep stuff, and he knows how to use the format to really push his story. I love it.

  • Jeff Kent

    I’m not normally a fan of Arjen’s (over) production, but it works for this project…and Anneke is just dreamy.

    • And Gentle isn’t overproduced. It’s just fucking luuush.

      • Jeff Kent

        I feel like Arjen and Devy are both guilty of a little TOO much production, but given the Eastern feel of this I’d say it’s warranted here. I will be listening to this a lot in the coming weeks.

  • Stefano Kevin Prince Vitali

    It’s difficult to fail when you pair the one and only Anneke (seriously, I’d recognize that voice in a million) and the poofy haired Dutchman, currently enjoying a streak of fabulous records. Can’t wait to listen!

  • Dave

    I’m very pleased to see the vinyl get its proper due. A lot of the Ayreon vinyl is sadly not that spectacular.

  • Wilhelm

    I used to love Anneke’s vocals, mainly when she was younger – I thought she had a very natural sound to her vocals but anymore I’m just tired of hearing her sing.

  • RDGEEK

    Still getting it in my ears, as it only arrived yesterday.

    I appreciate this review, but it’s *really important* to clarify that the “story” depicted in the recording isn’t something invented by Arjen and Anneke! It was real, and the protagonists were real people, and the story of the diary is the story of a real object. That reality, I think, is a big part of what makes this whole project so special. In particular I think it’s cool that the subject matter isn’t something “epic” that we all have heard about. It’s an intimate glimpse at the lives of relatively unknown real people who lived a long time ago, and that’s not something you get every day in the form of a popular music recording.

    I would love to more about the genesis of the project but haven’t really found anything yet where one or both of them talk about how it got started.

    • tomasjacobi

      As far as I can see from interviews with Arjen and Anneke and from the album credits, the story IS invented by the band even though sailing letters do exist from the period.

      • RDGEEK

        Yes, the lyrics are a dramatization of a series of actual letters and an actual diary. That’s all I was trying to clarify.

        • tomasjacobi

          Do you have a source for this?
          I haven’t been able to find any indication that it was based on a real story. In one interview Anneke says she found out later that actual letters do exist from sailors from the period, but nothing about the events portrayed on the album being based on actual people.

          • RDGEEK

            The information in the CD booklet seems very likely to be describing an actual diary and actual historical people (Joseph and Susanne). There’s no indication in the “Historical Background” section there that the characters are made up people. That’s my “source”, I suppose. :-)

          • tomasjacobi

            Ok. well I hate to disappoint you then, but it’s a fictional story. The only true part of the story is the larger historical context. The story is written by Anneke and Arjen and the “timeline” is written by a guy named Perry Moree. It’s very well done, but that doesn’t make it real :-)

  • I love Arjen and I love Anneke, but something about this record left me completely unimpressed. Maybe my expectations were insanely high to begin with, but I just can’t make it click and I really don’t have the willpower to keep trying to make it so.

    • beurbs

      Everything seems so overwrought on this album, it’s like they’re trying really hard to be impressive but there’s nothing original on it and nothing cool about it. The lyrics (which everyone keeps going on about) don’t really say anything important either except vague mushy rambling

  • Jaba

    Damn. I’ve just ordered the 3LP version after seeing this review (well, seeing the bottom section). I’m spending way too much money on vinyl nowadays!

    • De2013

      Same happened to me, only with the 4 cd version! It must be some voodoo spell they jinx their reviews with!

  • Merijn Kooijman

    I’m usually not digging high pitched female vocalists, but I definitely hope I will get used to the singing on this one, because the music is fantastic.

    By the way: “verklempt”? :S xD

    • What, you don’t like my bad Yiddish?

      • Merijn Kooijman

        It’s quite achenebbisj indeed. Not polyrhythmic enough ;).

        • I’m a guy, not a djentleman.

          • Martin Knap

            you must be one of those meshuggahs.

  • JL

    This is good but Anneke sounds much better singing over Devin Townsend’s music.

    • krisdaschwab912

      Devin and Arjen are both taskmasters and get exactly what they want with their collaborators in the studio. I do agree that Anneke sounds better with Devin, but her sound with Arjen fits just as well.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    I only discovered Guilt Machine recently (on an AMG best of list), it’s amazingly good, I was hooked before the end of my first listen, but this…On first listen I couldn’t make it the whole way though. I felt like I was trapped in an overly dramatised history channel vision of a middle ages hoe down…Sure it sounds lush, her voice beyond beautiful and the story is a singularly excellent concept for a record…but…I’ll give it a dedicated headphone listen maybe the immersion will help me buy in

  • Ralph Plug

    Brilliant record once again. Lucassen is at the top of his game again, and Anneke can make any album shine.

  • Nahuel Benvenuto

    why so many spoilers with the story? in albums like this is important not to spoil anything

    • What? This story has been plastered all over the internet. I’m not writing about Game of Thrones, here.

      Anyway, sorry I spoiled the story for you. Knowing the ending actually increased my enjoyment of it, so I guess different strokes for different folks.

      • Nahuel Benvenuto

        i only know that is about a woman sending cards to her husband who is at the sea, i prefer to know the story asi it develops on the album

  • A wonderful record. Expectations were high, but Arjen and Anneke have met them in grand style. It’s a lovely record and I find myself drawn to the less metallic version more than the heavier one. That said the violin/guitar intertwined solo on the “Storm” version of Heart of Amsterdam is absolutely killer.

    It’s so refreshing to hear a collaboration where the lyrics and music work so well together to tell such a moving story. Both evoke emotions and locations so well – a rare treat. And as others have mentioned – it’s a true story and deserved a respectful telling. The CD booklet goes into more detail and is a great part of the package.

    Oh Anneke how I love thee, let me count the ways… :)

  • robpal

    Great review AMG, as usual. I actually stopped believing that Arjen can drop a record which will not be at least very enjoyable. He just HAS it. Doesn’t matter if it’s Ayreon, Star One, Guilt Machine, The Gentle Storm or solo work, he always has both his trademark sound and an infinite well of ideas at the same time. Probably will end up in my year-ending Top 10.

    For prog lovers — new PANTOMMIND is out today. As good as always, check it out.

    And, AMG, I’m waiting for Enslaved’s “In Times” review!

  • FutureBeyondSatan

    Great review. Anneke sounds stunning. With this, and the new Kingcrow, it will be a perfect Spring.

    • BaboonKing

      There’s a new Kingcrow album on the way? Awesome news, thanks for the tip!

      • FutureBeyondSatan

        Checkout the teasers on YouTube. Sounds excellent. Let’s hope for 3 slabs of perfection in a row!

  • Thatguy

    Thanks from me AMG – great review

    I won’t be getting the vinyls – you, and many others, have failed to persuade me that any alleged better sound is worth the trouble/expense/space – but I will be getting this and I may have missed it but for this review

  • Doomdeathrosh

    Yup, Guilt Machine/Guilt Machine indeed! Never heard of a band or artist alike try something like this before, and boy have they nailed it! Brilliant Review!

  • RuySan

    I thought that there was never enough Anneke in my life, but after looking at that silly cover, maybe I was wrong….

  • Juular

    I am amazed…. I’m sure you are aware of my love for Arjen at this point, and I honestly never thought I’d see the day you’d give another album A Guilt Machine out of Guilt Machine. Fuck. I’ve been sleeping on this one – for dumb reasons, I’m admittedly burnt out on Anneke after her repeated forays into Devin Townsend’s music where I don’t think she truly fits – but I’ll be giving this a go around the sun soon enough. Wonderful review.

  • Jeff Kent

    I tend to agree. My capacity for listening to extreme metal (or any extreme music) is limited, though I do enjoy it and have definitely broadened my extreme metal horizons since coming here. I like that AMG has varied tastes and that I can generally trust the reviews to be honest and informative.

  • Nick Green

    Wonderful review – nailed it. I found this album a grower… Being used to the more flamboyant Ayreon style, at first I struggled to hear a similar depth in this… but it’s there, oh yes, it’s very much there. It’s just that Arjen gets more sophisticated and subtle with every year that passes. The story is pared back to the bone, yet somehow as vivid and touching as any he’s made before. Despite apparently being such ‘intellectual’ music it’s really all about emotions. As always.

  • Nate

    It’s basically a rule that anything that Arjen or Anneke puts out can be nothing lower than a 4. It’s a law of physics.

  • Nate Sweet

    I like this album but I really think it could of improved in several ways.

    First of all in many of the songs the “storm version” didn’t really improve anything and just took away from the emotion in the song. It might have been better to pick and choose which versions to include and have a mixture instead of 1 way or the other.

    But the biggest complaint I have is the fact that they didn’t use a Male singer at all! Especially considering the fact that this was supposed to be letters sent between a husband and wife it would have enhanced the story atmosphere of the album greatly to have a male singer singing the letters that were penned by the man. While I certainly loved the singer’s voice it did kind of lose its impact on me hearing the same thing constantly throughout the album. (even moreso since I listened to both versions back to back)

  • MPS

    I don’t know what’s with this Album, as I’m usually the Black / Death / NWOBHM kind of guy. But even if I have some issues with the musical arrangement, that voice is *blasting me away*. It’s so amazingly beautiful that I can’t stop listen to it over and over again.
    What bugs me a bit is that everyone I know can’t stand listening it. Even my wife (who is more into Prog Music from Genesis, Marillion and such) would rather listen to Inquisition than to Gentle Storm. That’s so strange!