The question was: can The Gathering survive the departure of one of the most versatile singers of all female fronted bands ? The answer is a clear yes, Silje Wergeland (from the norwegian band Octavia Sperati) replacing Anneke Van Giersbergen with a style which is somewhat similar and works well with the band, even though no one will forget Anneke, at least with this record.
Anneke’s departure was scrutinized because of the stunning influence she had acquired over the years, leading the evolution of The Gathering from their metal origins to the alternate/experimental band of recent years. If her influence was in doubt, it is enough to listen to her own solo effort Air by Agua de Annique to realize how much of her inspiration went into The Gathering. In this sense, following her departure was more akin to replacing Neal Morse in Spock’s Beard than Tarja Turunen in Nightwish.
In my mind, it is the Spock’s Beard model that applies here and The West Pole evokes the same kind of transition as the immediate post-Snow efforts from the Beard; familiar sound, in a sense free from a dominating influence, but also a little more repetitive, having more difficulty looking for a direction. As a result, all the tracks are good but I don’t hear yet a classic stand-out track in the lot. Perhaps a matter of getting used to the new balance.
To be clear, The West Pole is no Mandylion or Nightime Birds and The Gathering is still a way off from those glory days. But the energy is there (the wall of guitar sound of the first track When Trust Becomes Sound) and the delicate lace is there too (the completely Silje Wergeland written and composed You Promised Me a Symphony).
The most promising aspect of the new record is the extent to which Silje has already integrated with the band. Not only does her work mesh well with the guys (and gal) but she has penned seven of the ten tracks, suggesting she is game for the challenge.
With this recipe in place, not only is The West Pole a very enjoyable record but it is also a transition album that suggests a bright new life for the band.
UPDATE: in fairness to the band, five months later, I must say that The West Pole grows on you. While it is not Mandylion or Nightime Birds, it does recapture a lot of the raw, hypnotic energy of those early gems, energy perhaps a little lost in the latter, more intimist Anneke-years albums.