Anathema - Distant Satellites - Round Table Review
In terms of progression their latest release sits neatly alongside the previous albums of the last four years and doesn't stray too far from the established, and slickly produced sound which is distinctively theirs. Certainly there is evidence that the production and creativity has adopted a slightly different, more streamlined approach than Weather Systems. However none of the soaring emotional drama that Anathema have made their trademark sound is missing. If anything it seems that it has been taken to new heights with this outing.
The opener, The Lost Song Part 1, part of a three part suite, absolutely confirms this. Rising from its delicate opening tones, it quickly gathers pace and intensity as the layers interweave and build, culminating in a payoff that has the ability to move and soften the toughest of hearts. It's a tried and tested formula for main writer Danny Cavanagh which is magnificently matched with the brilliance of brother Vincent and the gorgeous voice of Lee Douglas.
There is purity and innocent spirituality in the sound contrasting with a hopeful yet melancholic tone, which runs through the Lost Song pieces and tracks such as Dusk (Dark is Descending) and Ariel. The depth of the material does reveal itself after several listens as the essence and mood keeps changing and throwing new possibilities at you. In a sense, the album takes the way you are feeling and plays to that as if it was written for your benefit. If it were a painting, it would be abstract, possibly a Rothko (all that layering) and would present a unique viewpoint to every viewer. It's this element of its cleverness that gives each listener their own unique experience. In a live concert you can clearly see this effect, etched on the faces of those in the crowd, their reactions revealing the individual potency of the music.
Yet as each track plays and we are drawn into each one, the slow intimate openings that bookend around the climactic climb feel all too familiar and it does seem that we are repeating the same experience again and again. Whilst it is doubtless that it is worth the experience anyway, the repetition begins to become a burden to the album's overall success. The pattern is broken with the inclusion of the short but effective You're Not Alone, a track which in itself may seem like filler to some but in reality this is Anathema stretching out into other areas will perhaps a more art rock / Radiohead approach.
The title track from the album is evidence of a marked shift into new territories whilst retaining the feel of an Anathema song - the atmosphere and presence within it feel edgier and more experimental. Based around a more programmed pattern of loops and ambient textures the track builds in force and intensity. Rhythmically there are similarities to the feel of Gabriel especially with the purposeful pounding from Cardoso on drums, but the sonic qualities and the construction is very much from the bands own styling.
Closing the album is the rather beautiful and pulsating Take Shelter, another blend of electronic rhythm and glorious symphonic bluster leaving no doubt where the future of the band can go after this release. Indeed it's possible this album will stand as a bridge from the start of the rebooted 2010 Anathema and the album to follow this one. The opportunity has been laid down now for the band on this release and the creative peak of this era has been achieved so the door is open to progress into new musical dimensions. For certain, the huge fan bases will still be following on after this rather splendid release.
I admit that I'm not too familiar with the band's back catalog. I am familiar with their last two studio releases, We're Here Because We're Here and Weather Systems. These two albums feel like two halves of one masterpiece. They work together brilliantly and showcase a band at the top of their game. Both records sound beautiful and are full of optimism and hope. I don't know if I pair them together because I discovered them at the same time, or if they truly do share a lyrical and musical DNA. Whatever the case, they are two wonderful records that I hold in high regard in my collection. They are the exception to my typical prog tastes. While most music in a similar style tends to bore me, I am captivated by what Anathema are doing. To me, that is a sign of a truly great artist- that they appeal to everyone and are the best at what they do, transcending even their own genre.
This leads me to examine why they are such the exception for me. I believe the reason is that there is incredible passion behind the music. The lyrics are spiritually and emotionally deep and resonate with me. The band excels at creating a mood and atmosphere in their musical pieces and building in intensity, eliciting an emotional response. Even though on the surface the music seems simple, there are hidden layers that are constantly being revealed.
This brings me to their new album, Distant Satellites. My first thought when I was getting ready to listen to the album for the first time was, "will this continue in the same vein as their two previous releases, or will it be an indication of a new direction for the band?" The answer is, strangely, both. Anathema have managed with this new release to sound both familiar and experimental. This seeming paradox is, for me, the theme of the album. It is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. It creates a sense of familiarity and warmth, while also touching on new sounds that seem to indicate a new direction for the band. The negative of this is that it makes the record a little disjointed and I can't keep away the feeling that this album has no sense of identity. It is a transition album, and therefore it doesn't have the maturity and depth their previous two albums had.
This definitely doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot to love on this new album. All three parts of The Lost Song are definitely in line with the sound of their previous two albums. The first part has an exciting drum beat with a repeating keyboard motif that builds and builds in intensity. The second part is a beautiful display of piano, acoustic guitar, and the heavenly voice of Lee Douglas. Her voice manages to be both haunting and angelic- a vital part of Anathema's sound. Part three is part one's darker cousin, where the sound is similar yet noticeably less hopeful with both Vincent Cavanaugh and Lee Douglass singing this time. Ariel is a sweet ballad sung by Lee with beautiful piano and strings before Vincent joins her with the full band. The buildup is magnificent, and this song seems the most like it could fit on their previous two records. The track Dusk (Dark Is Descending) could perhaps be a good name for the theme of the album. The repeated guitar phrase is dark in nature, almost foreboding. This is the noticeable chance on the whole album- dark is descending on the band, making for a more moody, depressing sound.
While the first half of the album sets up a darker mood for the band, the second half showcases the more experimental nature of the record. Anathema is all about emotion, with Vincent's crying vocals and intense strings. One of my favorite parts of the record is the guitar solo among the backdrop of the strings and drums continuing to build and build. You're Not Alone is a quirky song- the first time on the album where I almost felt iI was listening to a different band. It is an interesting mixture of an electronic drum beat with heavy guitars, creating an intense wall of sound. Distant Satellites once again features the electronic beats with the haunting vocals of Vincent. It almost reminds me of Radiohead. It is a perfect example of the new sound of the band, which still retains certain familiar elements the band is known for. The melody is fantastic and I'd consider this track a highlight of the record. The record ends with Take Shelter which again uses the new electronic beats, along with the familiar soaring vocals and uplifting strings that evokes a glimmer of hopefulness amidst all the darkness.
Distant Satellites is an album that tries to be both familiar and new. At times it succeeds at this balance, but overall it leaves me a little confused about who the band is at this moment in time. The record overall seems much darker than their previous two albums with only some glimpses of hope. The incorporation of electronica elements is interesting, but for me has mixed results. At times, the beats are complex and interesting and add something unique to the sound of the album, at other times to effect can be a bit jarring in comparison to the sound the listener is used to hearing from this band. There are a variety of highlights throughout the album, however, and fans of the band will certainly find much to enjoy. For others not familiar with the band, I would recommend starting with one of the two previous albums before tackling this one only because this album feels less cohesive as the band is still discovering where they want to go. I would call this album a transition album, but boy what an interesting transition it is- I'm excited to see where the band goes from here.
In the absence of objective aesthetic criteria by which to judge the quality of music, any criteria we use are either arbitrary or irrational (usually both). And, as a reviewer, the best I can offer is an assessment of how well an album has satisfied my own arbitrary criteria which, in Anathema's case are my emotional response, the quality of the performances, and cleverness and innovation.
Which is a long-winded way of setting things up. Now, on to the album itself. Distant Satellites neatly divides itself into two parts, as it builds on the formula that has paid dividends since A Natural Disaster, namely, a strong main melody and an intense crescendo over a few minutes followed by a coda of some description. The Lost Song trilogy clearly owes its existence to Untouchable off Weather Systems. The Lost Song might actually be a stronger work, boasting some terrific drumming from newcomer Daniel Cardoso outlining a catchy syncopated riff in 5/8. It carries much the same emotional punch as Untouchable, and part 3, perplexingly placed two songs after part 2, is an extremely satisfying conclusion, which benefits from the length of the build-up across nearly fifteen minutes.
Splitting the trilogy is a pair of songs very much in the spirit of songs off We're Here Because We're Here and Weather Systems. Dusk boasts some fine vocal work by Vincent Cavanagh while Ariel starts as a gossamer ballad delivered with great delicacy by Lee Douglas before the seemingly obligatory (although by no means out-of-place) crescendo.
The first part of the album draws to a close with the eponymous Anathema, a song transparently about the band's career. It merges sections from two different songs (as was mentioned by Vincent) but it is impossible to tell- it all just fits. And sounds beautiful.
You're Not Alone flags off the second, shorter act. This act of the album relies quite heavily on electronics and, unfortunately, You're Not Alone does not start things off particularly well. It sounds experimental, slightly contrived and is mildly jarring, a situation exacerbated by the fact that it comes after a lush and exquisite sextet of tracks.
After a quick breather, in the form of Firelight, things pick up again. Distant Satellites is not the most immediate song but is one of the most interesting songs to appear on an Anathema album for many years. Heavily reliant on electronics, penned by former drummer, now "electronicist" (if I may), John Douglas, it features some stellar vocal moments and, unlike the canonical Anathema song, does not have a grand crescendo despite being the longest single track on the album. The acoustic version premiered at their performance in London in May, although superb, demonstrated how integral to the song the electronic arrangement is. It is not there simply to be different.
Take Shelter is the closer and a gem of a song. Once again, the minimal, ambient, electronic arrangement works to the advantage of the song, creating an atmosphere that captures the essence of modern Anathema ("so pretty, so sad" as someone once described it to me). A lovely end to a lovely album. How does it fare by the criteria of assessment I mentioned earlier? Well, the songs are just beautiful. Emotional response- check. Daniel Cardoso's drumming, and Vincent Cavanagh's vocals are top notch, not to mention the quality of the arrangements by the Cavanaghs and Douglas. Quality of performances - check. The syncopated main riff of The Lost Song and the natural incorporation of electronics go a way in satisfying the final criterion. The verdict? Excellent.They've done it again. Make of that what you will.
Firstly it's a great cover; minimal yet somehow very evocative indeed, showing a touch of class even, which all looks good as a starting point.
Anathema have evolved from a more thrashy influenced band into more of a mainstream progressive band lying somewhere in a melting pot of modern day Marillion, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson's solo material, which extensive use of ambient soundscapes with a lot of "openness" in their music, A fairly minimalist sound essentially with effective use of both the female voice of Lee Douglas and with forays into a denser and more urgent sound at various points.
Opener The Last Song falls into three parts, parts one and two open the disc and part three occurs midway through, much is made of Danny Kavanagh's openly transparent and emotive lyrics, this piece roars along at a rapid pace and sounds simply fantastic with a great vocal line it's an excellent statement of intent, in effect declaring "this is an important album so listen up"
The Last Song, Part 2 opens with a simple yet elegiac piano motif before strings and Lee's ethereal voice floats in over the top vocalising rather than singing distinct words, its gentle and highly effective, before she breaks into song, "In a lifetime there's a moment to awaken" with a trembling yet flawless vocal showing why she is so highly regarded, this is a far more sedate piece that The Last Song, Part 1 but together they open the album in style
Dusk (Dark Is Descending) follows opening with a repeated guitar arpeggio over which Vincent sings of being taken away from this place because I don't belong here, over descending chords Leigh joins in singing a counterpoint to Vincent's impassioned vocal behind them both the band sweep in bring some really oomph to proceedings before a gentle piano interlude and vocal emerge, then the intensity picks up again with some jangling guitar chords as the song draws to a close on a sustained chord.
Ariel is next opening again with Piano and Lee's plaintive vocal singing of how "found you in the dark" mid-way through Vincent's voice joins with Lee's and it's a mournful song enhanced by the orchestration that fills the song with its balance of light and shade, singing of a love so strong it hurts.
The third part of The Last Song follows, opening with an electronic drumbeat and treated piano and bass over which Vincent sings about needing you to hold on, again lee's voice adds a contrast to Vincent's impassioned voice whilst in the background the electronic groove carries on relentlessly and gathers impetus, it's a cracking track and shows Anathema's resolve to chart their own course on this album and not merely reproduce Weather Systems again.
Next is Anathema, a self-titled piece with more piano and orchestrations opening and setting the mood. This is overall a fairly sombre album, a dark album as it explores some deep themes and this song is no exception. It does however feature a great guitar solo wailing away over some very lush sounding strings before fading to a solo piano. This song has a great use of melody as indeed does the whole album.
You're Not Alone follows with a treated vocal from Vincent set over a repeated piano riff and electronic dance music beats which shouldn't sound good but when the fast guitars start riffing along it sounds fine to these ears. Firelight follows and is an instrumental piece that bridges You're Not Alone and title track Distant Satellites which continues the ambient drum beat with sustained keys over the top and Vincent's vocals, this is a different type of prog as it mixes different rhythms and styles to create almost a dancebeat progression over which everything else is laid, some readers may find this too much and too different but personally I think it works very well indeed, this is a very pared back, uncluttered sound with plenty of space in the mix and it sounds gorgeous to these ears.
Closer Take Shelter continues in this vein with more muted keys and ethereal voices, sounding not unlike Coldplay's XY or Embrace's Out of Nothing album in parts, then that electronic drumbeat comes into play again adding sparse rhythm to a very minimalist track before branching into a more urgent drum pattern before fading away on keyboards
I have to say this is an album that has grown on me dramatically over the listens that I have had of it, being a mature work, one that is not afraid to try new avenues, sounds and approaches and I've been very impressed by it, enough so that I must go back and hear Weather Systems and Universal albums for myself and indeed reacquaint myself with their previous works.
So in short highly impressive stuff, different at times but stick with it as it will take a few spins to click but when it does... bold, brave, different.