The first half of 1995 was a special time for yours truly. Having been told by my peers in high school that metal was all but dead, I was able to prove them oh so very wrong. In doing so, I was able to discover a whole world of interesting music kept under the metal umbrella. One band that Metal Maniacs pushed quite fervently in their Aural Assaults section was a six-piece atmospheric group known as The Gathering, who were releasing their third album, Mandylion, with their third vocalist, a charming young woman by the name of Anneke van Giersbergen. Little did I know that not only would I be blown away by just how beautiful and uplifting the music was, but I never thought in my then-18 years of existence that Mandylion would be what I call a “soundtrack album.”
Saying that The Gathering were a band that was trying to find its footing was putting it quite mildly. 1992’s Always… was lumbering doom/death metal with an extremely guttural, but sadly uninteresting, performance by then-vocalist Bart Sears. 1993’s Almost a Dance would hint at what was to come with its immediate successor, but it was bogged down by some absolutely horrendous vocals and goofball lyrics. But Mandylion was where The Gathering got the formula right. As soon as “Strange Machines” kicks in, you can hear traces of their doom metal sound, but it feels a lot more positive. That positivity goes into full throttle as soon as Anneke starts singing. Possessing one of the most angelic voices in all of music, let alone metal, her performances provide a stark contrast to the heavily doom-drenched music of her bandmates. Her voice acts as a vessel, carrying the listener across the skies and away from any worries or fears.
Something that has always bothered me about the reception of both The Gathering, and specifically Mandylion, is that they got lumped into the “dark metal” bin that was all the rage in the mid-90s, thrown into a supposedly neat capsule that also contained Moonspell, Samael, and Tiamat. First, this is a lazy way to categorize a band (especially since none of the above sound like each other, and they also only had the fact that Century Media was their label as a unifying factor), and secondly, despite the heaviness of the music, Mandylion isn’t dark at all; to the contrary, it’s an uplifting, beautiful album. “In Motion #1” has a playful, almost chime-like melody performed by keyboardist Frank Boeijen that, along with Anneke’s voice, can calm the most thunderous of hearts, especially in the chorus. Closer “In Motion #2” sneaks in that chorus again so fluidly that it’s ingenious. But the centerpiece was easily “Sand and Mercury,” containing beautiful guitar melodies by René Rutten and Jelmer Wiersma, and some of the most heartwrenching lyrics and performances by Anneke. The Waldemar Sorychta production was as pristine as it could get, with each instrument given allowance to shine properly, while Anneke’s beautiful singing sat in the forefront.
But like so many of the best records, it’s not just about what a good album Mandylion is that makes it so special, but also about my personal attachment to the record. Not only was this a beautiful album in its own right, but it arrived at a time where things were turned upside down in my life. My dad got incredibly sick and ultimately needed quadruple bypass surgery to live. Not only that, but he also ended up laid off from his job while recovering, forcing my mom to work three jobs to keep a roof over our heads, as well as me working and giving what little I made to my family to help out. Mandylion (and “Sand and Mercury” in particular) got me through one of the worst times of my entire life, as it was the only positive force I had at the time, and I am eternally thankful for its creation.
Personal context aside, Mandylion is an essential album for those who want to take a breather from the heavier, darker, more evil side of metal. It’s one of the last truly metal albums that The Gathering would create (save for 2000’s comparatively average if_then_else) and a great introduction to one of metal’s most talented and most optimistic female voices it’s ever seen, and I’m very proud to be the one to induct Mandylion into the Yer Metal Is Olde Hall of Fame.