Thursday 11 March 2021

Anneke van Giersbergen - The Darkest Skies are the Brightest (2021)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Folk
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 26 Feb 2021
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Anneke van Giersbergen, former lead singer of the Gathering, returns with an atypical release that's a soft acoustic singer songwriter album. It's apparently inspired by the Japanese artform of repairing a broken object, often ceramic vessels used in the tea ceremony, with precious metals, the point being to treat things that are broken but repairable as merely going through stages of their lives and even celebrating the imperfections. This had ramifications in van Giersbergen's own life and it apparently helped her immensely.

Well, I say it's a soft acoustic singer-songwriter album. Much of it certainly is, van Giersbergen's voice reminding of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, but even purer than the former and with more soul than the latter. There are strings here in addition to the acoustic guitar and hand drums, such as on Agape, the opener that features the title in its lyrics, and The End. I'd suggest that these feel new rather than old, but then both Mitchell and Collins were always contemporary to their times. Maybe this will feel old a decade or four from now. Of course, some songs, such as Losing You, which omits the strings, are timeless.

The structure of these songs is more interesting, though, and many songs, starting with the deep and meaningful My Promise but firmly underlined with the poppy I Saw a Car, reminded me of Rickie Lee Jones in their subtle quirkiness, and once I recognised that, the entire album took on that flavour, if to different degrees. My favourite song here fits this well too and that's Keep It Simple, with a subtly sassy groove, stripped way down from what's on Hurricane, and some neat cello and even neater vocal harmonies.

Talking of Hurricane, it's so overtly played that it isn't really soft at all, even if it remains technically acoustic. Halfway through, after Coos Zwagerman joins on trumpet, the groove expands to remind of Kate Bush and that's never a bad thing either. This is a busy acoustic song with vehement drumming from Martin Bosman but it's glorious. The brass is a great touch. The bouncy Survive is overt too but still acoustic.

This isn't what I expected from a solo Anneke van Giersbergen album, but it's a really strong release. I know a lot of people think of acoustic releases as being a very particular sound that's rather confined in its emotional reach, but that really doesn't have to be the case. Quite frankly, it doesn't have to be the case on a singer songwriter album featuring a single person on voice and acoustic guitar, because there are a lot of textures that can be drawn on, but this is a fantastic album to repel that thought, as it's full of admirable variety without ever feeling the urge to plug in.

And this also makes me wonder how a lot of symphonic or gothic metal singers might sound in a very different context. One of the reasons why Floor Jansen was so fascinating on the Beste Zangers show was because she sang in so many different styles. That show really ought to reach out to the agent of Anneke van Giersbergen, because she'd be perfect for it too, between what she's done in the Gathering and what she's done across this album.

And how pure can a voice be? What she sings on Losing You is so pure that it's a frozen morning in the sun before anyone's touched it. It's utterly pristine. This album may not be at all what Gathering fans are used to from her, but it's a fantastic album. I hope they check it out.

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