Flooded with Sound
There are projects and there are projects. We are all familiar with concept albums, including those conceptual in story, in musical or lyrical themes, in innovation and in experimentation. Rarely does a concept album include all of these elements; Tommy tells a great story, but wasn’t necessarily as musically adventuresome as Quadrophenia, which had less of a plot but breaks rock-and-roll ground. The Diary, the brainchild of Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) and Anneke van Giersbergen (metal vocalist extraordinaire, known for her work with Lucassen in The Gathering, with Devon Townsend, and others), shows all of these facets together in a two-CD opus.
The Diary tells the story of two 17th century Dutch lovers who communicate through letters. A sailor leaves his wife behind, and this epistolary tells their story, each communique a song. The two CDs – labeled “Gentle” and “Storm” – are carbon copies of one another, with one key difference: “Gentle” is the “acoustic” collection of these eleven songs, and “Storm” is the “metal” approach. Lucassen, who composed the music, endeavored to make these songs more melodic and orchestral than anything he had previously attempted, being sure to provide van Giersbegen with an elevated platform upon which to showcase her talents.
And talents she has; vocally, she is peerless, delivering a voice that is at once clear, powerful, vulnerable and capable. Lucassen, to his credit, outdid himself with the depth and complexity of the arrangements, especially when you compare the “storm” and “gentle” songs side by side. They are not all mirror images of each other, one with power and one without. “Gentle” begins with some creaking of wood and some light rain followed by some ominous but calm bass notes. “Storm” begins with a harsh rain, leading into a tribal, heart-stopping beat on “Endless Sea.” The “gentle” opening of “Shores of India” is a soft woodwind over a lightly bowed double-bass; the “storm” version is exactly the same notes, but with harsh brass and a violently treated bass.
The difference isn’t as stark on other songs. “Eyes of Michiel” sounds the same in both versions, with the addition of a trap kit and eventual metal guitars on the “storm” version. The contrast of the two versions of “Heart of Amsterdam” is also the intensity of the drums and guitars, and not much else. Regardless, it’s evident that much work and care was put into these vignettes. Having said that, the songs tend to drag in their indulgences and the over-complexity and over-Baroqueness of the melodies is not conducive to carrying the story. In short, you have to work for it.
If The Diary was a pair of paintings that you could look at side by side, admire the gimmick, and walk away, you might be able to appreciate it more. But expecting the listener to spend an hour with these songs – with these esoteric characters and challenging compositions – one time is a tall order; two times is downright laborious. It would have been more charitable for Lucassen to release one version of The Diary, featuring only the more effective version of each song, and then if there was the demand for it, offer this two-disc alternative.