I’m about as far from a nationalist as you can get, but for metal I make an exception. In the Netherlands, for a country 17 million strong, the amount of metal icons is remarkably low, with Ayreon probably the most famous example from our little patch of Earth. But we did produce some big names among female vocalists, and none more so than the insanely productive Anneke van Giersbergen, whose angelic voice featured on a wide array of guest performances, three Ayreon albums, numerous Devin Townsend collaborations, The Gentle Storm and of course quirky doom goth icons The Gathering, where her upward trajectory began. Seeking more focus in her musical escapades, she decided to relegate her more quiet acoustic side to her solo name (formerly Agua De Annique) and concentrate her progressive metal tendencies in new project Vuur (Dutch for ‘fire’). The debut sees her reflecting upon the myriad of cities she has visited in her musical career, and the duality in feeling each metropolis has left her with. Can Cities measure up to her storied back cataloge?
The album opens with “My Champion – Berlin,” which sets the tone of grandeur with a booming modern riff, sprinkling a light dusting of djent on the guitars much in the vein of Voyager. This is darker music than the Aussies, however. Anneke’s voice is measured and morose, yet infused with the stretched syllables and grandiose notes of gospel. The darkness increases further with “Time – Rotterdam,” which decreases the pace further and finds the lyrics mourning better days long past. Light breaks through the clouds by the time “Freedom – Rio” rolls around, as gentle acoustics mingle with soaring choruses and excellent solos courtesy of Jord Otto (ReVamp) and Ferry Duijsens (Agua De Annique). When the music takes off so triumphantly, Anneke reveals the influence Devin Townsend had; more than once I felt the presence of Epicloud and Transcendence, like the majestic “The Martyr and the Saint – Beirut” or the dynamic “Days Go By – London.” The drums are equally versatile, provided by the ever reliable and multidimensional Ed Warby (Ayreon, Gorefest, Hail of Bullets) who punctuates the quiet and slow moments expertly and pushes the speed and technicality to the limit when the high velocity material kicks in.
But of course, the center stage is for Anneke, and her voice only gets stronger with age. She seems to be able to sing any style; soulful quasi-opera, gentle lilts and powerful belting all come to pass, demonstrated in order of magnitude in the slow build of closer “Reunite! – Paris.” One fear of mine before listening: bands centered around one person carry the threat of that person becoming the sole interesting feature. This is where Vuur sets itself apart, as the songwriting is excellent, balancing catchy melody with grandiose harmonies and versatile song structures. The only aspect I did not take to right away is the pacing, which drags a tad on the first couple of tracks. While it supports the initial darker sound and majestic gait, it feels a little low on energy. But once I sat down with the album on a quiet, unrushed day, this clicked as well, and I could appreciate the way the album opens up slowly but surely. That is dedicated albumcraft, rather than a playlist of songs.
The production is not quite as remarkable as the songwriting and the performances. Devin is another inspiration here: the sound is bright and clear, but the attempt at a wall of sound during the episodes of triumphant grandeur limit the dynamics. Furthermore, while the bass is audible, it is definitely underrepresented, diminishing the low-end. The drums, on the other hand, have a higher presence than usual, befitting the status of their man on the skins, but occasionally distracting from the virtuoso performances on the guitars. Of course, Anneke is mixed highest, but this is neither a surprise nor truly unwelcome given the quality of her voice. Overall, I’d call the production modern and adequate (adequate de Anique?) but not quite up to the level of excellence exhibited by the rest of the album.
Because make no mistake, In This Moment We Are Free – Cities is truly excellent. Compared to her back cataloge, it has the melancholy from The Gathering with the emotional engagement from The Gentle Storm and the triumphant heaviness from Devin Though it’s as clean as ever, it may well be the heaviest music she has put out to date. All those previous outings have long since demonstrated Anneke’s voice, but it’s the well-considered buildup, smart songwriting, and excellent cast of fellow musicians where Vuur goes above and beyond mere expected quality. This is one album where I can grin and say: “Yes, that band is from my country, and they are fucking awesome!”