Wednesday, March 25, 2015

album review: 'the diary' by the gentle storm

I've been looking forward to this project since the beginning of the year.

Now long time followers of my reviews probably aren't surprised by this, but everyone else is probably perplexed by where this album came from, who this duo is, and why anyone should care. For those who don't know, The Gentle Storm is a project under the direction of Arjen Lucassen, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and creator of the Ayreon project, an ongoing progressive metal act that pulls in vocalists from dozens of the most critically acclaimed acts in symphonic, progressive, folk, and even extreme metal. One of his long-time collaborators is Anneke Van Giersbergen, frontwoman of The Gathering and who has worked with acts as varied as Devin Townsend, Within Temptation, and Napalm Death. Together, the duo decided in 2014 to collaborate on a new project, a double album under the name The Gentle Storm. Both discs would contain the same compositions, but one would be played entirely with folk and acoustic instrumentation and other was all-out symphonic and progressive metal - and both discs would tell the same story, an epic historical romance, one of the few times Arjen Lucassen has ventured away from the sci-fi epics that have been his purview.

Now on some level, I was skeptical of this. With the exception of Guilt Machine, I've had mixed results with Arjen's side projects and solo albums, having never been a big fan of Ambeon and Star One rarely hitting as strongly as I've hoped. Plus, the double disc format struck me as the duo hedging their bets - were the compositions really so strong that they'd be able to be transferred to entirely different instrumentation and maintain their impact? Granted, this isn't the first time Arjen has done this - the first Ayreon release The Final Experiment had an acoustic version as well - but I couldn't help but feel the record might be better if they had just selected the more poignant version of each track and interweaved metal and acoustic together.

But this was the format they chose, and I knew that Arjen Lucassen was a songwriter who had never made an outright bad album. This was a team of veterans in writing and instrumentation, and it certainly wasn't shying away from being an ambitious project, so I gave the double album my full attention - was it worth it?

Well, if I'm being honest... I'm a little underwhelmed by this. But the question becomes whether my feelings are rooted in genuine issues with the album or the expectations I had that certain elements could have been handled better. Now let me stress this, The Diary by The Gentle Storm is a damn good double album, but the more times I've gone through it, I've been left wondering if it could have landed a little more impact.

Now some of you are probably thinking, 'Well, if you're looking for that stronger impact, there's a whole 'Storm' disc that delivers the progressive and symphonic metal for which you're looking, you could ignore the 'Gentle' disc entirely. Well, here's the odd thing: they didn't just opt for conventional acoustic folk rock on that disc, instead going for a much more eclectic instrumental palette with more strings, woodwinds, and overall a more distinctly textured sound. The storm disc has some of these, but incorporates a heavier backing male chorus, horns, and more multi-tracking for Anneke to balance against the rougher guitars and heavier grooves. And of course the production is top-of-the-line - this is Arjen we're talking about - but again, I'm left wondering why more of the more eclectic instruments couldn't have been brought to augment the storm disc to create a more colourful and unique sound. You wouldn't have to lose the guitar solos to do this, but perhaps supplement them - it'd make the tracks longer, but come on, this is progressive metal, we're used to that! It leads to a bit of an odd setup on tracks like 'Heart Of Amsterdam' that blends folk with almost a smooth jazz feel, or 'Shores of India' with its distinctive Indian instrumentation that are trying to set unfamiliar vistas where the 'gentle' version feels more appropriate just because the instrumentation matches the period and setting better.

And it's funny, because in the majority of cases the melodies and compositions are indeed strong enough to stand up both as acoustic and metal tracks - Arjen's always had a knack for writing strong and memorable melodies that'll stick regardless of instrumentation - but there are places where the overall tone of the song from the lyrics might fit better as acoustic or electric. Now thankfully we get both, and I reckon everyone will eventually come up with their preferred version of each track for unique sequencing, but for me the gentle tracks were easy choices for the lighter and more adventurous cuts, while the storm tracks were best suited for the heavy grooves and darkness that came from peril. Prime examples are 'The Greatest Love', a song written in exultation that a child is on the way, or the child's birth on 'Eyes of Michiel' - tonally, it feels weird pairing with heavier guitars, horns and a melody that's already plays in minor chords, working better against a more stripped back arrangement. That said, there are definitely major standouts with each disc: 'Heart Of Amsterdam', 'Shores of India', 'Eyes of Michiel' on the Gentle disc, and basically any song that has 'storm' in its title on the Storm disc, where the darker grooves play to their advantage. Actually, 'The Storm' and 'New Horizons' are generally awesome on both discs, probably the album standouts in terms of composition and being able to balance different executions. Interestingly, the choice to downplay the instrumentation on both versions of 'The Moment gives very similar tracks, with the storm version taking a more gothic approach and more electric guitar on the outro which reminded me a little of Guilt Machine... which actually works pretty well, given the subject matter.

So let's talk about that subject matter, shall we? In a change of pace from most of Arjen's projects, the concept is pretty simple in terms of plot - a romance set in the golden era of Dutch seafaring in the 1600s, between a married couple, the man Joseph venturing to India on a two-and-a-half year voyage, and his pregnant wife Susanne behind, penning the titular diary. The romantic stakes aren't driven by interpersonal conflict, but by the reality of time, distance, the dangers of Joseph's travels on the seas, and Susanna's failing health. And I have to admit, there is a certain gutpunch in realizing on the final track that Joseph doesn't get back to Amsterdam on time to tend to his wife before she died, and our narrator's final entry in that diary is sadly prophetic. In other words, a pretty decent tragic story, and the fact that Anneke wrote the lyrics does lend them a certain poetic fluidity that can sometimes falter in Arjen's songwriting.

But it's also here where we run into both problems and moments of unrealized potential that irked me throughout both disks. You'd think that since Anneke is the only singer on this album that the narrative would be confined to the woman's perspective, almost reminiscent of the observer on Steven Wilson's most recent album Hand. Cannot. Erase. - except that there are tracks on this album where the perspective shifts to Joseph's POV. Now I get why - show snapshots of the storms and conflicts he faces and the locales he sees, that's a major part of the conflict and the album's momentum - but why not have Susanne describe these scenes as Joseph writes them in the letters rather from his direct perspective, allowing her to add her context and points of view? Or let's simplify this further - why didn't Arjen find a male singer for that male perspective, or sing it himself? But that's an artistic choice - if Anneke was handling all of the vocals, I can definitely respect that, she's got the pipes for it - but it ties into an issue in the songwriting, in that outside of certain scenes, the poetry gets awfully vague in sketching a more detailed picture. There is snippets where you get more exposition, but they're confined to the liner notes and never show up as spoken word moments in the music or anything to articulate the larger framing device of the album, which is the discovery of the diary hundreds of years later. Now granted, when the lyrics are parsed out the story becomes pretty clear without extra exposition, but I'm also left with characters that only seem to be defined by their love for each other, without much dimension or detail. For as much as this album is structured as Susanne's diary, we get precious few insights into her thoughts and passions beyond her love for her husband, and even less for Joseph - he leaves for two-and-a-half years, and there's nothing that assails either of their faith in each other, no questions, few moments of despair? And this ties into the album's momentum and dramatic arc - when your only real conflicts are driven by the environment and time and a relationship that seems unbreakable, the only real question is whether Joseph will make it home on time, and there's nothing either partner can do about affecting that question. It makes both of them inactive protagonists, because they have no control how fast the ship will get back home. And while you could argue the larger theme is how fragile that connection is when tied to a few letters in the face of the world, it's hard to build emotional investment in either character when we don't actually hear Joseph's reaction on his wife's death or meeting his son for the first time or more of Susanne's innermost thoughts and desires beyond unrequited love.

Look, in the end, I feel I'm being awfully hard on a progressive rock project that honestly is nowhere near bad. I'd argue the choice to split into two disks was indulgent, but it does let the listener pick the version they prefer the most, and the actual compositions are pretty damn excellent. And sure, part of this is me having high expectations for both performers, but the more I've listened to this double album, the more I wish it had a focused edit to really click with me. As it is, it's a well-executed albeit basically sketched tragedy, not either artist's best side project, but far from their worst. For me, it's a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of acoustic folk, progressive rock, and symphonic metal, but I wouldn't expect something on the level of Ayreon or Guilt Machine. Still, there's a place for a good simple love story well-told, and this is one of the good ones.

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