Thursday, 13 July 2017

Anathema's 'The Optimist' - Album Review

While I had been a casual fan of Liverpool's dynamic rockers Anathema for some time, it has only been during the past couple of years that I really came to love them. I picked their ninth studio album, 2012's Weather Systems, on a bit of a whim after reading plenty of rave reviews of it online. I enjoyed it from the off, but it was not an album that I turned to often at first. It took some time for the band's unique mix of dense progressive rock and almost-poppy alternative rock, which is all intertwined with somewhat gothic atmospherics, to resonate with me fully, but once I was hooked it was hard to go back. I would say I became fully hooked sometime during 2015, probably following witnessing an excellent acoustic show from the band in Exeter's beautiful cathedral early that year. It is certainly one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to, and the band's grand music - even in the sparser acoustic arrangements that were showcased that night - really fitted the grand setting. It was around this time that their tenth album, 2014's Distant Satellites, really began to click with me too. For some reason I did not get that album as soon as it was released so I never had the chance to review it properly (although I did say a few words about it here). I love the album now however and, while I have since gone back and purchased the vast majority of the band's discography, I still consider Weather Systems and Distant Satellites to be my favourite Anathema albums. I was not going to make the same mistake twice so I made sure I pre-ordered their latest album well before it's release and it became one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A frankly stunning show in Cardiff last November, which saw the band preview some of the material that ended up on this new album, definitely heightened my interest; so I was very excited when my copy of The Optimist finally arrived. Anathema are a band that have a career you can split into distinct sections, and I believe they are currently in their fourth main chapter which started with We're Here Because We're Here back in 2010. The band's current sound is typified by mournful piano lines, repeating melodies that often cause the song to build towards an emotional crescendo, and the increased vocal presence of Lee Douglas. The Optimist almost feels like the ultimate conclusion of the sound the band have been crafting over the past three albums and I feel like this might end up being one of the band's career-defining releases. Unlike the rest of the band's more recent work however, Anathema have dipped back into their past somewhat with The Optimist, which is conceptually a sequel to 2001's A Fine Day to Exit and continues the story of that album's protagonist. This leads to a few darker, more overtly 'rock' orientated numbers here which mix in well with the soaring melodies that characterise Anathema's current sound. The electronic sounds that were experimented with on a few numbers on Distant Satellites return here too and are greatly expanded upon with founding drummer-turned-all-round-musician John Douglas making the most of his arsenal of electronic percussion. Songwriting as always is dominated here by guitarist and pianist Danny Cavanagh, but a few choice contributions by John Douglas and frontman Vincent Cavanagh help to diversity the album's sounds. Production here was handled by Tony Doogan, in his first collaboration with the band, who's work with post-rock bands like Mogwai may have influenced the more experimental elements of The Optimist.

The album's opening piece, the short soundscape 32.63N 117.14W (the co-ordinates to the beach on the cover artwork of A Fine Day to Exit and the starting point for this album's story), follows the album's protagonist out of the sea and back into his car. The car's radio is heard before the man settles for some skittish electronic beats that lead nicely into the album's first proper song Leaving it Behind which opens with sub-Nine Inch Nails grooves before a a dark, chiming guitar melody kicks in and Vincent Cavanagh's trademark howling and raw vocals begin to croon over the top. Jamie Cavanagh's (twin to Vincent and younger brother to Danny) melodic bass playing acts to create subtle depth, before the song explodes into a frantic and dense rocker with punchy drumming and swirling guitar melodies. Drumming duties on the album are split between John Douglas and and Daniel Cardoso, with the former also contributing keyboards and various percussion. The song is centred around a strong chorus with Vincent Cavanagh's distinct vocal melodies which manages to sink in after only a few listens. In many ways, Leaving it Behind harks back somewhat to the band's earlier days, in particular 1998's Alternative 4, but the next song Endless Ways is very much in the modern Anathema mould and focuses on Lee Douglas' stunning vocals and Danny Cavanagh's sparse piano playing. While Vincent Cavanagh will always be the band's frontman, vocal duties are more or less split evenly between himself and Lee Douglas now, and this gives the former chance to expand his guitar and keyboard playing too. In classic Anathema fashion, the song starts out slowly with just vocals and the piano backing, but the gradually builds up adding layers of keyboards and choppy guitar rhythms while never losing the basic beauty of the initial melodies. Vincent and Danny Cavanagh have become quite a guitar duo over the years and have a way of being able to mix rhythms and chord progressions together to make for a deep but melodic sound. This approach is also used on the album's title track, but sees Vincent Cavanagh once again taking the lead with his fragile falsetto vocals resting upon a bed of chiming piano lines. Lee Douglas adds sweet harmonies throughout, but this song really allows Vincent Cavanagh to show his emotional side with a gorgeous vocal display. The song gets more overtly 'rock' as it moves along, and a strong guitar-led instrumental section towards the end showcases one of the only true moments of lead guitar prowess on the album with a hypnotic melody that really gets under the skin. The electronic elements of the opening couple of numbers return on the piano-heavy instrumental piece San Francisco. While the piece goes on for a minute or so too long, there is no denying the beauty of the piano playing and the retro synth sounds that are used throughout too for extra spacey melodies. It leads into Springfield, a piece which is largely instrumental and features only a couple of lines of lyrics repeated over and over by Lee Douglas while the song builds around her with guitars, piano, and synths all acting in unison for a huge enveloping sound that oozes with subtle power. This song really typifies Anathema's modern sound, and would be a great gateway song for potential new fans of the band. The guitar soundscapes that define the band's sound are very present here, and that is what makes the song so powerful.

After the emotional climax to Springfield, Ghosts definitely tones things down a little with Lee Douglas' ethereal vocals backed by a doomy piano melody and a more traditional string section. The heady orchestral arrangements help the emotional punch of the album to be retained however, and their simple but powerful melodies really make the song what it is. Unlike many of the band's other songs, this one never really builds up to a big climax, instead opting to stay simple with a relaxing drum rhythm and Lee Douglas' exemplary vocal performance. Can't Let Go is almost the antithesis of Ghosts with an upbeat rock feel, somewhat poppy melodies, and Vincent Cavanagh's vocals instead of Lee Douglas'. The chiming guitar lines and punchy drums help to inject some much-needed energy into an album which is often happy to move along at quite a slow pace. This is no bad thing, but the odd burst of higher-energy rock really helps to give the album a more dynamic feel and stops things from becoming too samey. While the main riffs and rhythms of the song remain throughout it's duration, there are subtle changes throughout which give the song a complete feel. Abrasive lead guitar lines arrive towards the second half of the song and this adds a little discordant feel that clashes nicely with the song's more upbeat vibe. Close Your Eyes is Lee Douglas territory once again, and the rumbling piano backing and cello lines really help to bring the best out of a vocal performance that takes on a rather smokey - almost bluesy - feel. This bluesy feel continues during an instrumental section later on in the song with a solitary trumpet melody that sits atop the sparse drumming and piano lines. The Miles Davis/Louie Armstrong feel with the horns is something new for the band, and it really helps to add a new dimension to this album and makes this little song stand out from some of the more 'traditional' numbers here. Wildfires sees Danny Cavanagh take the lead vocally in a rare outing in that context for him and his deeper voice works well with the heavy effects that are put on it. At first he mostly repeats the album's title over an electronic and piano-led backing but this soon morphs into a more heavy piece with crashing piano chords and distorted guitar notes that are probably the most abrasive heard on an Anathema album for sometime. While nowhere near as heavy as the band's death/doom roots, it is good to see that the band can still rock with the best of them when it is required and this is something that I would like to see the band expand on more in the future. The album's final piece, the lengthy Back to the Start, is definitely very representative of the band's current sound however although the sparse acoustic guitar intro creates something a little different initially before the familiar piano sounds and restrained drumming comes in to back Vincent Cavanagh's mournful, dark vocals. Songs like this really show why Anathema are one of the best modern progressive rock bands, and take things that bands like Marillion and Radiohead do and put their own stamp on them with their unique and instantly recognisable sound. The closing parts of the song, characterised by a soaring orchestral score and Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas howling the song's title with raw emotion, is a perfect ending to an album that is a true journey - both in a literal concept sense and a musical sense - and one that really manages to capture the imagination. I wondered after Distant Satellites were the band would go from there and whether or not their current sound could be expanded upon over another fresh-sounding album. Well, the answer to that is yes and The Optimist is a real gem and one that will more than likely be in my Albums of the Year list come December.

The album was released on 9th June 2017 via Kscope. Below is the band's promotional video for Springfield.

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