Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre has been home to some great shows over the past few years, but I don’t know if it’s hosted any I’ve been excited over as when Anathema was announced to play there. A longtime favourite of mine, Anathema were a band I never thought I would see live. To have French shoegaze masters Alcest and the ambient duo Mamiffer in as supporting acts only served to make a great evening better. With expectations already high, it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, at the Rickshaw Theatre or anywhere else. In a word- and I don’t use it lightly- it was magical.
Opening the night was Mamiffer, a decidedly ambient-inclined act arguably best known for being the most recent project of former ISIS frontman Aaron Turner. Even by the time Mamiffer went on stage, the theatre was starting to get pretty crowded. With Turner’s post-metal heritage commonplace throughout the crowd, some were indeed surprised to hear the night open on such a soft note. Mamiffer’s music is detached from metal, conventional structure or even melody. Instead, the partnership of Turner and Faith Coloccia has spawned something focused almost entirely on texture. The construction of sound itself seems to be the part of music that gets the shortest straw each time in live performance, but Mamiffer’s ambient set was one of the best-sounding I’ve ever heard, even in a theatre with a fairly inconsistent track record for that sort of thing. Comparisons could be made to the darker side of Sigur Ros, or the minimalistic and sombre tone of a funeral march. For a duo, Mamiffer are able to construct a pretty vast wall of sound, as beautiful as it is foreboding and ominous. Although I would have normally suspected such an ambient band to be better suited for solitude and headphones, Mamiffer’s drawn out atmosphere made for a perfect overture to the rest of the night. By the end of their set, it was clear that whatever non-believers there were at the start had been convinced. Strangely enough, Mamiffer was also the loudest band on the bill.
Although Alcest tends to polarize metal audiences for their supposed excess of ‘prettiness’ and melody, a great part of the audience seemed to be there for the French act. Although they’re often mislabelled as black metal, the vast majority of the band’s catalogue delivers an atmospheric blend of post-metal and shoegaze, the likes of which have been copied by plenty of bands since. Having seen Alcest before when they toured here with Enslaved a few years back, I knew what to expect from them; ambiance, atmosphere, and a sense of pride invested in their decision to move ever-further from metal conventions. In keeping with the excellent precedent set by Mamiffer, Alcest’s performance enjoyed some of the best live sound I’ve heard this year. Placing an emphasis on material from 2012’s “Les Voyages de L’Âme”, Alcest’s music was remarkably upbeat and melodic for a metal show. Smoke machines were certainly not underused, and the band’s introversion resulted in a stage presence well suited to the music. Although I have never felt as close to Alcest’s third album as with the first two, the title track from “Les Voyages De L’Âme” was probably the set’s highlight, particularly the gorgeous instrumental break in the middle. Although Neige’s screams were excellent, they felt painfully underused on this set, popping up only once. By contrast, the clean vocals felt lacking in the power and presence necessary to leave a real impression. Alcest’s instrumentation fared much better however; the guitars were balanced and gorgeously captured the atmosphere found in their studio material. In particular, Winterhalter’s drumwork enjoyed the extra breath and space allotted by a live performance. Overall, Alcest’s performance was impressive, even if the reserved vocal approach doesn’t translate well into live magic. It would have been great to have heard more from their masterpiece “Écailles de Lune”, but their live atmosphere has given me a newfound appreciation of the band’s third album.
Finally, Anathema took to the stage. Put simply, I don’t think I have ever seen a crowd get so emotionally swept by a band’s set as I did once the Liverpudlians made their entrance with “Untouchable Part I”. If Alcest and Mamiffer hadn’t felt enough like a departure from metal norms, Anathema were a world away from anything grim and malevolent. I kid you not; I saw people dancing. I saw people smiling and laughing. I saw people visibly happy. I even saw a couple of people crying by the end of “Untouchable”. Have you ever been to a show where people got this emotionally invested? I certainly hadn’t, at least not before this one.
Those uninitiated to Anathema’s music would probably balk at the idea of people expressing such feelings at a show, but I wasn’t surprised at all to see people reacting this way. 2012’s “Weather Systems” emotionally connected with me the first time I heard it, and 2010’s “We’re Here Because We’re Here” had a similar effect. Like Alcest, Anathema put a marked focus on their most recent material. Playing “Weather Systems” through to the optimistic “Lightning Song”, the rest of the setlist was chosen excellently. Crowd favourites like “Deep”, “Fragile Dreams” and “A Natural Disaster” were played, but the highlight was undoubtedly the piano-driven “Dreaming Light”, where the emotional impetus of the performance reached its highest point. Closing the main set with the experimental track “Closer” was pretty surprising, but after seeing it performed, I can’t think of a better song to have capped off the performance.
The emotional resonance of Anathema’s music was heightened by their stage presence. Put simply, it was obvious that the band themselves were as emotionally affected by the atmosphere in the theatre. Unlike Alcest or Mamiffer, Anathema were pretty interactive with the crowd. When Danny Cavanagh told the crowd to ‘put their dancing shoes on’, it was clear that this was not the Anathema that was making anthems to self-defeat and despair not fifteen years ago. Their dedication to the ‘lost souls’ of Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside before playing “Dreaming Light” was also heartfelt. When Anathema is spouting such optimism in their music and image after a history of doing the opposite, it tells a story of hope and redemption unto its own.
Along with Absu this past April and seeing Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” performed for its 100th anniversary by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, seeing Anathema, Alcest and Mamiffer under one bill was the best show I’ve seen this year. It’s one of the few shows I’ve ever been to where each band was excellent in their own right. In particular, seeing Anathema live finally was something of a revelation for me. Having been a fan of them for years now, to see one of my favourite-ever bands perform right in front of me was something I’m sure to remember forever.