I think Anathema are the sort of band you need to see live to really understand the kind of emotional effect they have on people. Within the first song, they had people dancing. By the time they played Dreaming Light, I even saw people crying; believe me, it takes a certain kind of band to turn a grown man in a Cannibal Corpse hoodie into a blubbering wreck overwhelmed with emotions. It’s that intensity of feeling in Anathema‘s music that’s made them one of my favourite bands. Although I’ve had mixed feelings surrounding the somewhat recent adoption of New Age-y optimism into their sound, I’ve nonetheless come to expect a moving experience from Anathema each time a new album comes out. In this regard, Distant Satellites does not disappoint; those who enjoyed the uplifting atmosphere and soaring arrangements of their last two albums will find more to love here. In some ways it feels less bold and adventurous than 2012′s Weather Systems“, but there is love, passion and beauty woven throughout Anathema‘s latest hour of music; once again, they have proven that they’re the best at what they do.
Distant Satellites isn’t so much an evolution of Anathema‘s sound so much as it is a new spin on the formula from their last album. Whereas Weather Systems was busy and dynamic, Distant Satellites honours a more static approach. I don’t even mean ‘static’ as a bad thing either, only that Anathema choose to stick with musical ideas once they’re started with them. The songwriting is certainly accessible, but the tried, true and done to death verse-chorus format is often eschewed for a minimalist build-up of an idea throughout a composition. Anathema have shown their ties to post-rock proudly with this one. Whatever dynamic changes in song structure Anathema do offer here always feel natural; from a purely compositional perspective, the songwriting on Distant Satellites feels downright predictable. Of course, the way Anathema make such moving music doesn’t come so much from the writing itself; rather, it’s the beautiful way they perform it.
Though I’ve been a little disappointed that Anathema‘s songwriting on Distant Satellites isn’t particularly dynamic, the way they’ve arranged and executed the music is virtually without comparison. String orchestration, vocal harmonies and electronic infusions are all among the ingredients built upon the foundation; for everything it’s worth, Anathema know how to make their music isoari. Vincent Cavanagh‘s voice is in top form; Lee Douglas reprises her role as the beautiful female counterpoint voice, and Danny gets a nice word in as well. While I remember Weather Systems for some particularly excellent guitarwork, the instrumentation is generally toned down for this one; the instruments are merely vessels for the atmosphere and composition, rather than a demonstration of skill foremost. A golden exception to this is the drumwork of John Douglas, who offers the most exciting, cinematic drum performance of Anathema‘s career here.
Like the past two albums from the emotionally rejuvenated Anathema, the atmosphere here is often one of hope and positive energies. The melancholy is here still, but in far shorter supply than most of their earlier work. It’s not until the second half of the album where Anathema start to take the music down a darker path; the atmosphere is still the same, but the more nuanced portrayal of feeling is more complex, more engaging. While parts 1 and 2 of The Lost Song don’t do a great lot for me, the motifs are reprised in the third part, where light electronic timbres and a moodier tone are introduced; it changes the context of the original ideas and rewards listening to the album’s opening again through a different light. I would say the song Anathema could constitute a fourth part of The Lost Song; it continues the introduced ideas down an even more sombre path. The album’s certainly been written with a mind for rewarding repeated listens.
You’re Not Alone is probably the only song on the album that hasn’t grown much on me. I know it’s meant as an echo of the vocal-density and urgency of The Gathering of the Clouds off of Weather Systems, but it ends up feeling too cluttered for it’s own good. Firelight is the other shorter song on the album, though it’s less a song and more an extended ambient intro to the title track to Distant Satellites. This amazing song (as well as the closer Take Shelter) finally accomplish what We’re Here Because We’re Here” and Weather Systems fell short of: a satisfying climactic finish to the album. The past two resorted on underwhelming drawn-out tracks as their closers, but these last two songs are incredible. The title track is brilliantly driven by a rolling electronic beat and vocals that earn the ‘haunting’ descriptor as much as any others out there. Take Shelter is a more predictable track from the band, but once again Vincent‘s vocals steal the show and provoke chills. Distant Satellites started off a bit slowly, but by the end it’s reached the levels of mastery I’ve come to expect from the band.
Honestly, the thing I’ve had the most trouble embracing since their change of heart on We’re Here Because We’re Here are the lyrics, the ‘message’ itself. Attitudes shift naturally with age, and Anathema‘s ‘glass half full’ worldview no doubt reflects their maturity as people. Sadly the way they’ve meant to convey this optimism has always felt overbearing and sanctimonious; the lyrics on their latest three albums often feel like they’ve been drawn out of a New Age self-love handbook. They were often just as lyrically heavy-handed during their Alternative 4 depressive era mind you, but given the 180 degree progression from darkness to light, it’s felt like Anathema have been a little too assertive with their change of heart. The New Ageisms aren’t quite as pronounced this time around but it does feel like a reprise of the pseudo-spiritual love and peace Anathema have been preaching since 2010. The minimalistic song structures and focus on atmosphere don’t leave much room for the vocals or lyrics to tread off the beaten path. The lyrics are generally painted in broad strokes, covering ideas of love, tranquility, the ‘inner child’ and stuff of that ilk. It doesn’t feel like Anathema are trying to say something profound or specific with the lyrics; instead, the lyrics offer a broad context to the music itself. As always, Anathema have stored the uplifting profundity away in the music, waiting for the engaged listener to find it and come to the same conclusions themselves.
If I can step away from Distant Satellites for just a moment, I’d like to say that Anathema‘s career and progression is quite beautiful when taken as a whole. In their youths they were clearly plagued with some venomous feelings, and while that resulted in gorgeous art, severe depression has the potential to tear a life apart, to rob it of meaning and make it seem like there’s no way out. Comparing that now to the place Anathema now find themselves in, and it honestly sounds like they’ve found the happiness in themselves that probably seemed impossible years back. Though I might not embrace the way Anathema convey this newfound peace, that shift from dark to light is rather beautiful, and serves to give hope to any of us who may be fighting with demons of their own. The press release I’ve received for Distant Satellites declares that it “will surely be recognised as their finest album to date.” Although there’s always a pressure in early reviews of eagerly anticipated albums to agree with the press pitch and sing nothing but the most lavish of praises, I can’t call it the best thing they’ve ever done. It doesn’t match the feeling of paralyzing awe I feel hearing Judgement or A Natural Disaster. It feel more static and predictable than the monumental Weather Systems. Even so, Distant Satellites has dared to open my heart up again in the way only Anathema seem capable of doing; whatever its faults, it has made those feelings feel fresh again.
Anathema’s Distant Satellites is out on June 4th (Japan), June 6th (Germany), June 9th (UK) and June 10th (USA, Canada & France). Pre-order your copy from Kscope at this location. Listen to the Distant Satellites album teaser for The Lost Song, Part 3 below.
01. The Lost Song, Part 1 (5:53)
02. The Lost Song, Part 2 (5:47)
03. Dusk (Dark Is Descending) (5:59)
04. Ariel (6:28)
05. The Lost Song, Part 3 (5:21)
06. Anathema (6:40)
07. You’re Not Alone (3:26)
08. Firelight (2:42)
09. Distant Satellites (8:17)
10. Take Shelter (6:07)
* Vincent Cavanagh – vocals, programming, synth
* Daniel Cavanagh – piano, guitars, synth, vocals
* Jamie Cavanagh – bass
* John Douglas – percussion, programming, synth, drums
* Lee Douglas – vocals
* Daniel Cardoso – drums