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Creative, classy and highly refined "symphonic metal" outfit from Holland. First album (Always, 1993) was a fairly straightforward death metal album, although heavy use of keyboards made it stand out a bit from other such albums at the time. Followed by Almost A Dance (1994), an album which saw the departure of "growling" vocalist Bart Smits. Smits was replaced primarily by Niels Duffhues, a strange choice for the band; Duffhues' punk-ish tone was decidedly out of step with the music, and the album was largely written off as a result. A shame, because many of the songs on Almost A Dance are quite well written. The album also featured occasional vocals by Martine van Loon, a low-key singer with a pretty tone but one that seldom took to the forefront of a composition. It would appear that the seed had been planted in the band's head to try their uniquely compelling songwriting style with a passionate female vocalist; the result was the addition of the incomparable Anneke van Giersbergen, an incredible singer capable of stretching miles of emotion out of each and every syllable. The next album, 1995's Mandylion, remains one of the very best heavy metal albums ever recorded. van Giersbergen's poetic and haunting lyrics, paired with the band's orchestral ruminations, resulted in darkly important songs that seamlessly blend from one to the next. The follow-up, 1997's Nighttime Birds, acts as a companion piece to Mandylion: similar in tone and delivery, Birds is filled with the melodic and adventurous play that has become the trademark of this very important band. Superheat and If-Then-Else followed in early 2000. After a break with Century Media following the release of If_Then_Else, the band took time off before going into the studio to work on the 2003-released followup Souvenirs. The Gathering will be of interest to more than just heavy metal fans: they have the potential to appeal to countless different audiences, from metal to progressive rock to anyone who values excellent songwriting and powerful female vocalists.