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Anathema : Distant Satellites

Anathema’s new album is not a turning point, but it is more interesting and relevant than their last releases.

It has been a while since a release by Anathema was covered on this website. Arguably, though, this has little to do with the fact that they turned away from Doom Metal a long time ago. Much of their early Death Doom material is still influential to this day, but even after their radical change of style on Eternity (1996), many fans kept following them for the sheer quality of their work. However, after 2003’s A Natural Disaster (sometimes cited as their last worthwhile album), by way of some bizarre and miraculous epiphany, apparently they found that we should all hold hands in this world of boundless beauty and peace, reciting lines that you’d expect to hear at a Goa Trance beach festival rather than on the records of a band known for deeply personal, emotional songwriting (“Everything is energy and energy is you and me” really says it all, doesn’t it?). Fast forward into the year 2014 – let us see just how distant Anathema’s Distant Satellites are from what early fans used to love about this band, and where they are standing today.

Let me break it to you right away: the new album is no turning point compared to the two previous albums, but it is more convincing and musically interesting than anything the band has released in many years – and I am saying this as someone who really hated We’re Here… (2010). The hippie attitude seems to have been tamed somewhat and the lyrics are not quite as over-the-top anymore, giving way to topics of a more interpersonal nature which, albeit still cheesy and derivative, are more relevant and believable. Take the soaring and aptly titled “Ariel”, for instance: all three vocalists keep repeating the mantra “staring at the sun / a love so strong it hurts” to various degrees of euphoric excess, and it’s true, this has been sung a billion times before, often with more originality, but at least it is something most people have experienced once or twice and can therefore relate to. Together with the emphatic songwriting and tasteful, balanced instrumentation, this makes for an enjoyable and – dare I say it? – at times even touching listen.

Let us dwell a little on the keywords ‘derivative’ and ‘songwriting’ mentioned above. Almost everything on this album is extremely predictable once you have internalised the basic approach: the songs start out calmly, but are almost invariably arranged as a continuous crescendo with Post-Rock tendencies where everything leads up to the climax with a short coda leading over to the next song. Stylistically, too, every moment sounds like something that has been heard before, or in the words of a song title by fellow British Alternative Rock band Savoy Grand, “There is nothing new here”. Despite this, though, upon closer inspection one cannot help but be in awe of the intricate arrangements, manipulating the listener’s emotional state at will. Dramatic vocals are employed at the perfect moment with just the right amount of pathos, the string arrangements – as pop-oriented as they may be – really serve the songs this time, and all the small details and textures are meticulously combined to an emotional cocktail that, given the right mood, can be almost irresistible.

The potentially most interesting track is “Anathema”. As the title may suggest, it is a reflection on the band’s career and the nature of their musical quest as such. Its minimalism is highly effective in conveying an atmosphere of nostalgic pondering. What is most striking, however, is that it culminates in a repetitive riff which, with a different production (most notably, a heavier guitar and drum sound), wouldn’t have been out of place on their Crestfallen EP! While Anathema seemed to be denying their roots until not too long ago, they tentatively embrace them now, trying to come to terms with their musical and personal history. The Falling Deeper album with re-arranged versions of old songs, albeit a half-baked offering, was the first hint in this direction. Compared to other Rock bands who have written self-reflective songs (for instance, US-minimalists Low with their tongue-in-cheek “Your Poison” or “Hatchet”), Anathema still take themselves terribly seriously, though – there is not a trace of self-irony to be heard here which could have hinted at a healthy distance to their own creation, so at the end of the day, the self-reflexivity seems empty. And to remind us that we are still in the present and dealing with a bunch of neo-hippies bursting with energy (which, after all, is you and me), the aforementioned riff is soon complemented by Daniel Cavanagh’s trademark lead guitar whose excessive antics border on self-indulgence. Musically the track is still a strong offering, but ever so slightly over the top – something to impress your teenage Emo daughter with.

In one respect, Distant Satellites does differ from everything the band has created before: the last three tracks drift off into almost Ambient minimalism, starting with the short synth-based instrumental “Firelight”. The title track surprises longstanding fans with broken electronic beats which turn into a steady Minimal Techno rhythm towards the end, and the instruments are reduced to understated chords that flow peacefully along with the vocals. There is no climax or overblown pathos here. The influence of Radiohead’s experimentalism becomes more important than ever, transcending the boundaries of Rock music. The shrink-wrapped CD came with a sticker quoting The Guardian with the phrase “fearless sonic curiosity” – a massive exaggeration, for even these closing tracks are far from original and unique, but they make the album as a whole much more interesting and introduce a new aspect of Anathema’s sound which I would like to hear more of in the future.

Clearly, we are dealing with highly experienced musicians who know what they are doing, and can we really blame them for concentrating on what they do best? Well, as much as Distant Satellites is enjoyable, I’d still have to say yes! On the band’s earlier Rock albums such as the impeccable Judgement, every song was a sound cosmos in itself, every chord progression told its own story, every lyrical line felt like it was based on a genuine and deeply human experience. Here, most of the songs seem like reflections of (and on) each other. This is not necessarily a bad concept, though, and nobody can expect Anathema to record a new Judgement (or even Crestfallen, for that matter). Their topics are human again and their approach thus sounds more genuine this time. Most importantly, though, they have proven that they are still able to take their sound further and touch upon unexploited potential, such as that of Lee Douglas whose voice has finally been given the breathing space it deserves, taking the lead on several occasions with surprising confidence – if you can resist her performance on “The Lost Song part 2”, it’s probably safe to say that you shouldn’t even bother listening to the remaining tracks…

It is likely that Anathema will further expand their fan base among listeners of Pop, Rock and Indie (whatever that actually is). No matter which way you look at it, the fact remains that Distant Satellites is a quality Rock album and certainly better than most of the material released by comparable bands these days. Fans of the previous two albums will love it, sceptics should at least give it a chance – albeit no match for earlier masterpieces, it has enough to offer to hold your interest throughout the summer.

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Reviewer's rating: 7/10


Tracklist :
1. The Lost Song part 1
2. The Lost Song part 2
3. Dusk (Dark Is Descending)
4. Ariel
5. The Lost Song part 3
6. Anathema
7. You’re Not Alone
8. Firelight
9. Distant Satellites
10. Take Shelter

Duration : Approx. 56 minutes

Visit the Anathema bandpage.

Reviewed on 2014-07-27 by Dominik Sonders
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