Sound — 10
The Gentle Storm is a musical project comprising the instrumental talents of Arjen Anthony Lucassen (Ayreon, Guilt Machine) and the vocal prowess of Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering). Their debut album, "The Diary," is conceptually one of the most daring and unique things I have ever heard. It is a double album with both discs having the same songs, but in completely different arrangements. The first, entitled "Gentle," has calmer, more minimalist, folk oriented versions, using traditional percussion instruments and woodwind sections. The second disc entitled "Storm," contains heavier, symphonic, progressive rock and metal oriented versions, more in the line of Ayreon and Lucassen's other musical projects. The two albums complement each other perfectly, making for a breathtakingly captivating listening experience.
Lucassen's musicianship is, as always, exceptional. His ability to write captivating, powerful compositions is unmatched. "The Diary," however, is quite different from anything he's ever done before. It's a lot more controlled and focussed than some of his previous work and employs very folk-oriented and simple melodies. The most interesting thing about this album is the musical shifts between the two versions of the songs. Simple changes like the hammered dulcimer on songs like "The Greatest Love," being replaced with a guitar or a single violin section beings substituted for a whole orchestra are part of what give this album it's charm. At no point do you feel like you are listening to the same same thing twice.
The vocals on this album are really put put it over the top for me. Anneke van Giersbergen delivers one of the best vocal performances I have heard in a long time. Her understanding of dynamics and contrast are exceptional. From the calm soulful chorus on "Endless Sea," to the simple yet strong "Shores of India," to the powerful melody on "The Storm," her singing is brilliant. The vocals transition perfectly between the two albums as well. Though the words and melodies are the same, she manages to portray a different emotion with each version.
Lyrics — 9
Lucassen usually writes most of the lyrics for his projects and for me, they were always their downside. He is a fabulous musician but not a great lyricist. Though his concepts were good, the lyrics themselves were always either complex and overwritten or annoyingly awkward. For this one however, Anneke wrote all the lyrics and did a great job.
"The Diary" is a concept album following the fictional story of two lovers in 16th century Holland. The songs are essentially letters passed between them and diary entries that the woman made as her husband was away at sea. The lyrics don't explicitly tell this story but instead represent certain events and emotions that they were going through. They are more thematic than plot-driven. They are simple and evocative and complement the music well.
Overall Impression — 9
To describe "The Diary" in a word, it would be "sophisticated." The instrumentation is organic, not too elaborate and mastered to perfection. It's tight, controlled, unique and sees both Lucassen and Anneke at the best they've ever been. The two versions of the album go together brilliantly with one never overshadowing the other. As someone who is not particularly a fan of folk music, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the minimalism and precision of the "Gentle" version, possibly more than "Storm." I don't know whether future releases (if any) will be in the same double-album style but I really hope they are. All in all, "The Diary" an interesting, unique and exquisitely executed project and one of my favourite albums of this year.
The standout tracks are "Endless Sea," "Heart of Amsterdam," "The Storm" and "New Horizons."