The Gentle Storm is the latest project from Dutch maestro Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon and Star One, among others) and singer Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering and Devin Townsend, also among others). While most of Arjen’s projects have infused prog rock and metal with a heavy folk influence, for The Gentle Storm’s debut album The Diary he has taken the unusual step of releasing two versions of it together in one package. For an incredibly thorough and in-depth analysis of the ‘Gentle’ first disc, containing folk versions of all the songs, check out Evermind’s top-notch review! I have the privilege of taking on the ‘Storm’ second disc.
First thing’s first, this is certainly not the “full-on metal onslaught” that the album’s promo material describes it as. I was all ready to have my face shredded to pieces, so was a little surprised to be met with a disc that is, in fact, very balanced. This is absolutely not a criticism, by the way, but I think is important is setting sensibly expectations. The tracks on this disc are all very much rock songs, but they still include plenty of folk elements in keeping with the vibe of the Gentle disc. The album is somewhat akin to Ayreon in tone and style, but with one important difference: no synthesisers! Arjen’s music has almost always made use of synthesisers, be it leads sound or atmospheric pads, but what allows The Diary’s Storm disc to distinguish itself from Ayreon in particular is how much more organic it sounds.
This is just one of the features of the way Arjen has put the album together that, for me, makes it a success. Unlike the Ayreon or Star One projects which have had a strong sci-fi narrative, where synthesisers are very fitting, The Diary is a story set in the 17th century about a sailor who embarks on a two-year voyage, leaving his wife at home. The concept and lyrics of the album tell the story through the letters that the two characters write to each other, which given the era would have been the only way to communicate. This old world vibe is told very nicely through Anneke’s lyrics, which are very touching at times and mark a welcome increased contribution compared with her other recent collaborations with Arjen and Devy. The acoustic instrumentation (on both discs, it should be said) is appropriate and lends authenticity to the story.
So, what about the quality of the Storm disc specifically? Well, while I perhaps wasn’t as blown away by it as Evermind was by the Gentle disc, it really is a very good listen. Right from the first time I heard the album I noticed and enjoyed the instrumentation for the reasons above. Not as diverse as on the Gentle disc, perhaps, but the heavy use of strings and piano creates a very natural sound that feels genuine to the story, even when also rocking out with electric guitars.
The songs themselves are for the most part great as well. For me personally, the majority of the songs are slightly better on the Storm disc – the rock style gives them a little more power and Arjen is the master of infusing his rock music with folk styling. While they’re not my favourites on the album, the opening two tracks Endless Sea and Heart of Amsterdam are great examples of this – very enjoyable folk rock songs.
My own highlights are Cape of Storms and The Moment, both of which contain terrific melodies and luscious orchestration, and have a superb way of building up from soft beginnings to climactic endings. I do find it funny that my favourite songs on the Storm disc are also two of the softest, but they really are gorgeous and I have such a soft spot for music that builds up in the way that these do. The last full song on the album, New Horizons, is another really good one, though I struggle to decide whether I prefer the Gentle or Storm versions because both are so good.
Some of the songs don’t work quite so well on the Storm disc, though, most notable and ironic of which is the title track The Storm. Having heard the Gentle disc first, where this song was a real standout, I was and still am rather underwhelmed by the Storm version. It’s not bad, but it really does feel to me like a great folk song with a metal style awkwardly crowbarred in. The riff doesn’t quite work and the song as a whole doesn’t quite hang together. That’s probably the worst offender, and even that is still a decent song, which is a testament to the quality of the album.
Of course, I can’t properly review this disc without talking about Anneke’s vocals, which are as lovely as ever. On the Storm disc especially, she nails everything, with just the right balance of power, sweetness and emotion. She’s never really been one to go over the top with huge soaring operatic vocals; her strength lies in the delicate timbre in her voice and the artistry with which she chooses to sing out or hold back, and this album is another great example.
All in all, The Diary is a solid album and the Storm disc in particular is very strong. Purely my own personal preference, but I find that for almost all the songs I have a clear preference for which I enjoy more (except New Horizons, curse it!). I therefore expect that I will create a single-album playlist picking my favourite of each. However, this was an experiment that allows each listener to pick their own favourites, and as is evident from the reviews that Evermind and I have written, both discs work very well on their own. Another fine addition to Arjen Lucassen’s growing catalogue.