Any review of an Anneke Van Giersbergen record or performance has to start with the simple statement that her voice is a gift.
From quiet, pensive work like her half of “The Diary” (her collaboration with Arjen Lucassen under the name “The Gentle Storm”) to her heavier work with VUUR, Devin Townsend or Lucassen’s Ayreon, her clear, powerful vocals have a tendency to elevate the song without ever becoming intrusive or overbearing.
Such is the case with her new record, “The Darkest Skies Are Brightest”. Written and recorded in relative solitude over the course of almost two years, the record is a distinct departure from her two previous solo albums, “Everything Is Changing” and “Drive”. For those following her career, the back story is well-known: following the extensive efforts surrounding the recording and tour for her metal band VUUR, she found herself deeply invested (financially) in the project, and saddled with the pressures of following up the debut with another album and tour. Around the same time, her marriage hit troubled times. The byproduct of this turmoil, the album is emotive and personal; instrumentation is sparse, mainly acoustic guitar, percussion and Anneke’s voice in harmony. None of this is to say the overall tone is somber. Lyrically, the album has more moments of positivity and hope than sadness and heartache. There’s a fierceness to this record, a determination that comes through in almost every song.
The album starts with the first three singles, and all three songs give a good glimpse of what is on offer. “Agape”, the third single, starts the album, and sets the expected mood, given the subject matter. Somber, just her voice and an acoustic guitar, the piece is, as she says, “meditative”. Lyrically about unconditional love, the song is hopeful but tempered with a dash of reality. The second song, and second single, “Hurricane”, is musically darker; starting with a propulsive rhythm and a droning, double-tracked vocal. The rhythmic propulsion continues in the next song (and third single), “My Promise”. The song has a sort of cadence, almost childlike in the delivery of the verses, but expands into a beautiful chorus, highlighting her powerful, crystal clear voice.
The rest of the album plays out like a series of snapshots on a journey of discovery rather than any set narrative. Not a concept record in the sense of “telling a story on a timeline”, the work seems more a thematic work, with songs that seem to dart in and around the themes of love as saving grace, the pain, and fear of potential loss, and the salvation from trial by metaphorical fire. There is nothing musically transcendent here, but that’s clearly not the point of the record. The music serves as a platform for the message at hand, and it does so magnificently. The music subtly adds beauty where the message demands it, and likewise adds subtle aggression when warranted.
It misses the point to go through song-by-song on an album like this; it isn’t a linear story, and many themes arise and circle back later. Some songs – the aforementioned “Hurricane” – work in metaphor, the music, and imagery in the lyrics conveying the message. Others, like “The Soul Knows”, are firm statements of self-realization and an affirmation of the self-confidence to fight for that which one holds dear. Some are downright upbeat; “Keep It Simple” presents a message of journey (seemingly the first steps of the long road from dark back to bright) in a more jaunty way, ending with a marching drum pattern and a multi-layered vocal. Others are more plaintive; “The End” asks bluntly if this is where the relationship has come to ground. Beautifully sung, the vocals wonderfully convey the wistful nature of the lyrics without being cloying.
And that’s the real essence of the record. Regardless of what emotion is being conveyed, this is a beautifully crafted yet very personal album and should be approached as such. The arrangements are uncluttered and concise, and it is worth noting that the two high points of the record, “Lo And Behold” and “Love You Like I Love You” are the shortest songs on the record. The former, a straight-up profession of commitment, boasts an arching chorus that is powerful and evocative. The bridge to the song has Anneke’s finest moment on the record, her voice rising and resolving, symbolic of the finality of the lyrical statement, “you’re not alone”. “Love You Like I Love You” closes the set with layers of acoustic guitars and orchestration perfectly setting the stage for Anneke’s voice, both solo and in harmony. The perfect conclusion to such emotional work, it is beautiful, honest, and bold, much like the artist delivering the message.
Songwriting: 4 stars
Musicianship: 5 stars
Originality: 4 stars
Production: 4 stars
Overall: 4.25 stars
- My Promise
- I Saw A Car
- The Soul Knows
- The End
- Keep It Simple
- Lo And Behold
- Losing You
- Love You Like I Love You
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