In 2018 Dutch singer-songwriter and guitarist Anneke van Giersbergen turned her attention to beginning work on the follow-up to the debut album from her metal band VUUR. Faced with the pressures and financial implications of a full-band project, and coupled with struggles and heartache at the time within her marriage, van Giersbergen realised that the material she was creating was not ideally suited to a full-on prog-metal band. In her own words: “I instantly knew I needed to write music about fixing my life. This creative endeavour would be far too personal for a VUUR album. And it would also require solitude.” Holed up in a small house just outside her hometown of Eindhoven, and without the pressures of a band-project, van Giersbergen was able to begin work on what would become her 23rd career album: ‘The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest’.
The album title offers up a wonderful juxtaposition, as well as imagery which facing difficult challenges often brings: that you’ll come through the difficult period a stronger person, having survived whatever life throws at you. The music on offer throughout ‘The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest’ is at times heartbreaking, written by someone who at the time was facing the real possibility of divorce; ‘My Promise’ in particular is a stop-you-in-your-tracks moment which many will identify with.
‘The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest’ features the purest vocals that you are as likely to hear this year. And it wouldn’t be doing any of her previous output a disservice by saying that this is Anneke van Giersbergen’s strongest performance to date. With exquisite production from Gijs Coolen and imaginative instrumentation, while although mainly an acoustic album, this is way more than a few acoustic guitars on barstools. The use of percussion is vibrant and lends a World music tinge to some of the material; the aforementioned ‘My Promise’ has subtle Latin beats that grow with the track, while ‘I Saw A Car’ has some of the same Latin beats, but with added middle-eastern pulses. The melancholic string arrangement from Ruud Peeters on the former is mesmerising and almost steals the show.
This is van Giersbergen at her rawest, and most vulnerable, and as soon as the first strains of album opener ‘Agape’ seep through, it’s hard not to be captivated by her vocals. Again, the subtle percussion is key to the pacing, while the string arrangements are lush without being overpowering. The vocals are powerful and restrained and showcase why van Giersbergen is the go-to vocalist for so many other artists. ‘Hurricane’ continues on the percussion-heavy path, with hypnotic beats alongside a simple guitar-picking feel. The backing vocals are haunting and help give the track an air of mystery, as does the light trumpet sound which lingers in the background until it gets a moment to shine with a short solo. It’s a real slow-burning track that gets better with each listen. ‘The End’ is light and airy, with a vocal performance that floats along like a solitary cloud on a Summer’s day, while ‘Lo And Behold’ has an almost Gospel-like feel in places. The foot-stomping hand-clapping feel on the latter is particularly hard to shake and days later you might still find yourself battering out the beat on whatever is in front of you.
The closing pair of ‘Survive’ followed by ‘Love You Like I Love You’ offers up some of the contrast seen in the album title. With a throbbing percussive tempo ‘Survive’ is perhaps the fastest-paced moment on the album, with a slight Spanish guitar feel here and there, it’s bewitching. ‘Love You Like I Love You’ is a gorgeous, wistful moment complete with gentle acoustic picking and an accompanying string arrangement. It’s not hard to imagine an artist such as Carly Simon or Carole King selling a million copies of this during the ’70s.
‘The Darkest Skies Are the Brightest’ is an incredibly moving album that features an artist laying her soul bare for all to see, which couldn’t have been easy. But there is also light featured within the 11 tracks, as well as tons of strength and a glimmer of hope, especially when Anneke ends the album by stating “If I didn’t love you like I love you, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today”.
Available February 26th on InsideOutMusic, pre-save here.
Review – Dave