The Gathering - How To Measure A Planet?
Century Media
Atmospheric/Progressive Rock
Disc 1: 9 songs (53:50) Disc 2: 5 songs (49:29)
Release year: 1998
The Gathering, Century Media
Reviewed by Goat

Space, as drugged-up psychedelic Jazznaut Sun Ra once said, is the place. It’s out there, a long way above our heads, a big black terrifying endless nothing that will boil the blood in your body and turn your lungs inside out without so much as a by-your-leave, as has been duly documented by the cold alien likes of Darkspace. There is also, if you’re in a more cheerful mood, a bright, friendly side to space, a way of looking at it that doesn’t leave you wanting to crouch in the corner and gibber madly. You see, space is also a vast cosmic duvet for our ickle baby planet Earth, a comforting wrap that lets just enough life-giving solar radiation through, decorated with the faraway twinkle of many billions and billions of stars. It’s fuelled the imaginations of a million men, been the inspiration for many great works of art and feats of ingenuity that would stagger those born but half a century prior, and it remains largely unknown to mankind, a great unwritten map that we have barely begun to jot notes on. Somewhere out there, far beyond our dusty friend the Moon, far beyond the remnants of moisture discovered on Uncle Mars, beyond even the great neverending storms that rage silently and eternally on Grandfather Jupiter, lie the secrets to every great question ever asked. Doesn’t it boggle your mind? It does mine, and it also clearly did The Gathering, for although their fifth full-length doesn’t focus exclusively on space, it does have the effect of placing both the listener and protagonist of the album there, a gentle cradle, a fantastic seat for looking back down on the world and marvelling at it, weighing it in your mind, measuring it.

I make no apology for that long, self-indulgent introduction, as those in the know would agree that it fits this album not only thematically, but also stylistically. How To Measure A Planet? is a long, self-indulgent album, spread across two CDs and over an hour and a half of music, not so much a thought as a treatise. Yet in some ways precisely because of that it’s utterly brilliant, and as much as I enjoy certain other albums from The Gathering (if_then_else would be my next-best choice) this is their ultimate masterpiece. The band have never to my knowledge fully explained the concept, and good on them for that, as it’s one that is easy to work your own interpretation of with the obvious theme of travel, something simultaneously so great and vast for all of humankind yet individual and personal. I could describe this as the soundtrack to a life lived to its full, the aural journal of a trip to the stars or the exploration of a new planet. But, as The Gathering metaphysically ask, how would one go about doing that? How to describe a life? How to explain a space voyage? How To Measure A Planet? This album is the answer to those questions and more besides.

Like all great works of ages, it’s not something that can be absorbed easily by the casual mind. It took me a while to appreciate it properly, first attracted by the bouncy immediateness of Liberty Bell, but put off by the sheer volume of the album as a whole. Headphones, darkness, a comfortable chair, and uninterrupted time are necessary to really appreciate this; trust me, the investment is rewarded. Opening track Frail (You Might As Well Be Me) is achingly beautiful, initial spacey breathiness turning at once ambient and post-rock, as gentle percussion and guitar melodies stroll in, Anneke van Giersbergen’s delightful voice a perfect companion to the lovely music. There’s a stunning melancholic feel to the track as a whole, betraying the band’s Doom roots and setting you up for the start of an emotional as well as physical journey. Great Ocean Road follows, humming electronics leading up to an upbeat yet restrained song that mixes near-Industrial percussion with alt-rock jamming a la A Perfect Circle, lyrics describing the subtle longing of humanity to get away from their homes and travel, whether ‘trapped into the freedom of an aeroplane’ or jumping into the deep, fading out at the perfect moment. The slow, tumbling limbo of Rescue Me is a personal favourite, intermittent guitar riffs describing the rise and fall of longing in the lyrics, effortlessly atmospheric to the point of touching on Hawkwind territory with some of those keyboard effects. I’m amazed, as ever, by the sheer thought that went into even the placing of tracks on this album, My Electricity’s beautiful vocal-led love song followed by the aforementioned Liberty Bell, a euphoric trip with Anneke as she launches into space, and even finds danger exciting when the craft reaches superheat. It’s one of my favourite songs ever because of the sheer optimism and delight in this cheerful imaginary space travel, coming through so clearly in Anneke’s barely restrained gleefulness. The lyrics refer repeatedly to ‘sitting in the chair’, both the listener at home and Anneke in the spaceship sharing this moment of transcendence – even the music video is fantastically fitting, showing Ms van Giersbergen bouncing around a spaceship – what more could you want?

As you’d expect, the following Red Is A Slow Colour is something of a comedown, the return home after that amazing space voyage to find darkness and chaos awaiting you. I always find it hard to enjoy because of that, although it’s undeniably a great piece of music, troubled yet as melancholic and lovely as ever – the orchestral tint to the second half of the track is wonderful, as is the following psychedelic backing to The Big Sleep. Marooned’s jealous protagonist is just as emotionally stirring as the dreamy music , and the nine-minute Travel that closes the first CD is even better, slow, touching on ambient, and never less than absolutely captivating. The second CD has been criticised for being unnecessary by some, moving away from the style of the first CD towards a more experimental, ambient style, yet I love it just as much, the opening lighthearted South American Ghost Ride barely having any vocals aside from occasional ‘ah-ah-ah’s, drawing you in perfectly for the following Illuminating, the band at their uplifting best. You can’t fault Locked Away or Probably Build In The Fifties, either, the latter especially yearning and desperate, yet it’s the twenty-eight minute long title track that people focus on, a progressive tour-de-force that takes time and patience and really has to be allowed to work its magic by itself. Anneke sings wordlessly and intermittently, her voice just another instrument in amongst the band, forming a post-rock-styled unity that deserves a review all of its own. As a closing piece to the album it’s amazing, twisting and turning in completely unpredictable ways and never once becoming dull.

If you’re looking for some way to damn The Gathering with faint praise, then you could call that their biggest achievement here, making over an hour and a half of atmospheric, ambient-touching music that never loses its listeners’ attention. Of course, that is quite an achievement, yet the band deserve more praise, I think, considering how genuinely fantastic an album this is overall. How To Measure A Planet? truly takes you on a journey, breaking those earthly chains that tie you down to our planet and setting you free to roam, to wander, to measure your life against the planet’s. Wherever we travel when we sit and explore with our minds, using music as some metaphorical drug to help escape our surroundings and seek worlds new, the journeys are rarely as vivid and beautiful as this, rarely so emotionally weighted and realistic in its portrayal of the human imagination juxtaposed against everyday human life. Whatever you come away with after hearing this album, you’re guaranteed to be changed in some small yet essential way, an experience that deserves to be hailed for the masterpiece that it is.

Killing Songs :
All, my personal favourites being Frail (You Might As Well Be Me), Rescue Me, My Electricity, Marooned, Travel, South American Ghost Ride, Illuminating, Probably Built In The Fifties and of course, Liberty Bell
Goat quoted CLASSIC
Other albums by The Gathering that we have reviewed:
The Gathering - Disclosure reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
The Gathering - Mandylion reviewed by Charles and quoted CLASSIC
The Gathering - The West Pole reviewed by Goat and quoted 70 / 100
The Gathering - Nighttime Birds reviewed by Charles and quoted 91 / 100
The Gathering - Home reviewed by Ken and quoted 75 / 100
To see all 12 reviews click here
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