If you haven’t heard of Anneke van Giersbergen on her own, you’ve more than likely heard her on one of Devin Townsend’s solo cuts (“Grace”, “Hear Me”, “Kingdom”, etc.) or alongside fellow Netherlander Arjen Anthony Lucassen of prog metal outfit Ayreon. While van Giersbergen adds a beautiful element to Lucassen’s ongoing conceptual odyssey and Townsend’s manic, transcendent experimentation, Anneke on her own is a totally different experience. Her original recognition came as lead singer of The Gathering in the 1990s, eventually leaving in 2007 and doing a number of collaborative and side project albums before starting her solo career with Everything Is Changing in 2012. Eight years since her last studio solo effort Drive and three since Symphonized, her live collaboration with Residente Orkest The Hague comes The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest, an eclectic record fuelled largely by marital turmoil and the mounting cost and responsibility of her metal project VUUR.
Anneke has since stated that making the record helped her sort out a lot of things, including her marriage, and the delicate but limitless depth of Darkest certainly reflects the therapeutic internal dive van Giersbergen took to come out with a clear head and heart. “Agape” opens up with a layer of tender acoustics, striking a healing tone amplified by the staccatto strings that are laid overtop soon after. “Hurricane” is a bit darker and more back-to-the-land, a track focused more on facing, true to the song title the eye of the storm, while “My Promise” is more international in sound and gives the most vulnerable insight into her temporary separation and the indestructible feelings that remained throughout. In contrast, “I Saw A Car” is pleasantly simple on the surface in its lyrical matter; its melodically loaded chorus balancing off much of the relative minimalism of the rest of the track. Further demonstrating her masterful dynamic awareness, the initial easiness of “The Soul Knows” gradually gains steam up to a climactic drop-off in concert with Anneke’s search for clarity and direction, while the somber “The End” remains largely and appropriately stationary.
“Keep It Simple” reprises some of the folky, wheatfield vibes of “Hurricane”, working its way to a vibrant choral ending backboned by a modest but effective snare groove. “Lo and Behold” is significantly more percussive, the driving stomps and claps providing the perfect vehicle for Anneke’s pledging of eternal love, carried once more by well-balanced layers of acoustic and orchestral stringery. “Losing You” is thematically similar and, being a guitar-based track for the most part demonstrates how creating a sonically bottomless song doesn’t require limitless instruments- in many cases, less is better. In sharp contrast, “Survive” is incredibly lively, driving, groovy and centred as much around the health of the planet as the health of her relationship. It’s a good jump to make after a number of highly emotional and mellow tracks, and shows an underlying progression throughout the album of gradual mending, reflected song by song until peace and happiness is once more achieved. The logical end point of this current comes with the closer “Love You Like I Love You”, a final easy acoustic number that sees Anneke making a more full and confident promise of devotion, acknowledging her imperfections along with how much her bond with her husband, however estranged it was at the time of writing defines her. Honest and open artistry, and effective steps towards personal healing if there were ever any.
The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest is what you would call the complete package and a fine example of artistry in the truest sense of the word: open, exposed, lively, varied and undeniably true to form. Each one of the songs carries its own story within the greater narrative, all together creating a record you can fully get lost in, appreciate, feel and use as your guide through any sort of similar situation you might find yourself in. It bears repeating: Anneke in metal is great, but Anneke alone is an entirely different and exciting experience, and it’s a good thing that she keeps her solo output sonically separate to really let her unique identity as an artist shine through. The only complaint to offer is why we don’t get more solo output from her (besides from her commitment to VUUR among other things), because anything like this delivered every couple of years would be a treat to look forward to.