It’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.
Musically, 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.
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 Storm. Storm‘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