Combining the pedigree of Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gathering) and Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, Star One and many more), The Diary was always going to be an interesting prospect.
Forgoing the Ayreon science fiction/fantasy themes and celebrating Holland’s rich past, the album is set against the background of the Dutch East India Company and the 17th-century Dutch ‘Golden Age’. We follow two lovers, Susanne and Joseph, and their separation, longing, desire and some cruel maritime vicissitudes via a series of letters.
However, rather than a single album, we get two discs with essentially the same tracks – one using a largely acoustic/folk/world music interpretation (Gentle) and one which takes an almost Trans-Siberian Orchestra approach, utilising a lot of big orchestral bombast, a cranked-up rock band and hefty choir (Storm). Also, apart from piano, there are none of the keyboards and synths we’d usually expect, Lucassen opting instead for a dizzying range of acoustic instruments to provide the various requisite textures and sounds.
There are extended instrumental sections on both iterations of the album, but whether it’s the trading flute and fiddle solos on the Gentle version of Heart Of Amsterdam or its Storm equivalent (with ribald electric guitar and a rather more frenzied violin), there is the sense that much work has gone into showcasing the story and van Giersbergen’s impressive voice. She throws herself into this project with gusto, turning in terrific performances throughout – channelling tender sadness in tracks like The Greatest Love and The Moment, while also successfully embodying Joseph’s struggles at sea (she sings both characters) in tracks such as Cape Of Storms and The Storm.
The ‘same songs/different instrumentation’ idea is mostly enjoyable and effective – Shores Of India serves up some real Indian/Middle Eastern character on Gentle, with Beatles-esque drones and tabla. On Storm it’s swathed in brass and strings, guitar and a hard-hitting drum part from long-time Lucassen collaborator Ed Warby. However, the device can occasionally feel a little forced. The Greatest Love and The Eyes Of Michiel are, by their nature, more tender, more gentle; the Storm versions just go for the expedient of play them louder.
Minor quibbles aside, whether it’s the jazzy jig of The Heart Of Amsterdam (on Gentle) or the slow build to epic proportions of Cape of Storms (on Storm), there’s plenty here to intrigue and entertain, and more than enough to suggest that this could well be just the start of an imposing and fruitful musical partnership.