Music I Love: The Optimist, by Anathema

Album: The Optimist
Artist: Anathema
Year: 2017

Track Listing:

  1. 32.63n 117.14w
  2. Leaving It Behind
  3. Endless Ways
  4. The Optimist
  5. San Francisco
  6. Springfield
  7. Ghosts
  8. Can’t Let Go
  9. Close Your Eyes
  10. Wildfires
  11. Back to the Start

Anathema are an oddity of a band, and I love them for it. From their roots as a doom/death metal outfit in the early 1990s (in fact considered one of the “Peaceville Three” along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, founding the British doom scene at the time), they’ve evolved over the past two and half decades into something much more spiritual and emotive.

Their big turnaround came after a seven-year break between A Natural Disaster (2003) and We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010), when they more or less reinvented themselves – not in terms of sound, but in terms of spirit. Where songs from the former album drag the listener on a journey of panic and despair:

Shadows are forming take heed of the warnings
Creeping around at four in the morning
Lie to myself start a brand new beginning
But I’m losing myself in this fear of living

Pulled Under at 2000 Metres a Second – A Natural Disaster

We’re Here Because We’re Here presents an entirely different shift of perspective:

Needed time to clear my mind
Breathe the free air find some peace there
I used to keep my heart in jail
But the choice was love or fear of pain and
And I chose love

Everything – We’re Here Because We’re Here

This spiritual optimism is carried forward throughout their subsequent albums, Weather Systems and Distant Satellites, and persists on their latest release, The Optimist. The irony here is that The Optimist is a sort of loose concept album based on the cover art for their 2001 effort A Fine Day to Exit – arguably their darkest and most depressing release ever.

Opening with a prelude track (which includes snippets of previous Anathema songs) that sounds like someone dragging themselves back to a car after trying to drown themselves in the ocean, we move seamlessly into the first song, Leaving It Behind, opening with a patter of electronic drumbeats before a dark storm of semi-distorted guitar washes over everything.

Yet not all is so gloomy; tracks such as Endless Ways and the title track are gentler, with soothing piano and soaring melodies, harkening back to the early days of their reinvention with We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems.

Anathema have settled on a sound that works for them; a distinct blend of acoustic, electric and electronic that is at once familiar and yet instantly identifiable. If there is a criticism to this album compositionally it is that the band relies heavily on ostinato, with endlessly repeating refrains over which the lyrics are sung in duet by both Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, alternating between Cavanagh’s angsty vocals and Douglas’ soulful melodies.

It’s hard for me to say this is my favorite Anathema album; to me, their best work remains in the past, when they were dark and depressing and matched my mood so well. That being said, this is the sound of a band at their peak maturity, knowing what works for them and running with it. Of their four “new” albums, The Optimist stands out head and shoulders above the others, and for good reason: it truly is an exemplary vision of spiritual indie rock at its best.

Music I Love: “A Fine Day to Exit”, Anathema (2001)

Following on the heels of our heart-to-heart about depression, it seems only fair to share what is for me possibly the most depressing album I have ever heard.

Anathema is the final piece of my ‘big four’ (the others being My Dying Bride, Opeth and Sentenced). Their roots begin right along side fellow Northeners My Dying Bride, a heavy and dirge-like Doom Metal band from Liverpool. It didn’t take them long to gain the attention of Peaceville, who signed them for a four-album deal.

The Crestfallen (EP) was their first mainstream release, a 32-minute dirge of atonal distortion and howled vocals. Even here, though, their more sensitive side, which would only become more prominent, can be heard in tracks such as Everwake. Their first full-lenth, Serenades, brought this musical style to a strong consistency, winding from leaden and moaning distress such as Lovelorn Rhapsody to haunting, acoustic interludes like J’ai Fait Une Promesse. The closer is an epic 23-minute drone; synths and soothing harmonies intertwine, changing slowly and subtly.

The following EP, Pentecost III, carried this style further, focusing on lengthy, heavy and atmospheric tracks. When The Silent Enigma came out in 1995, however, the beginnings of a marked change in style became apparent. Though still heavy and filled mainly with growled vocals, the musical style began to become less dissonant, with songs such as Cerulean Twilight and the wonderful A Dying Wish bringing a desolate and sad tone to their style.

Then, something happened that cemented the transition from Doom Metal to atmospheric, haunting and dismal rock: Darren White, the vocalist, left. Rather than hiring a new vocalist, guitarist Vincent Cavanagh took up the mic. Unable (or unwilling) to growl like Darren, 1996’s Eternity is now a classic album, an epitome of their canon. Alternative 4 carried this yet further, becoming ever more distant from their metal roots. By the time Judgement was released in 1999, the heaviness of their past was all but gone, leaving behind a deeply sad style of alternative rock.

And then came A Fine Day to Exit, in 2001. This is an incredibly important—and precious—album for me. Every one of the nine tracks simply drips with depression, and this became the soundtrack to my life at the time of its release. This album is Anathema perfected; nothing before or since has quite touched its sense of absolute, utter despair.

Both musically and lyrically, A Fine Day to Exit carries the listener on an uninterrupted journey through landscapes of darkness, each song blending seamlessly into the next. The piano-driven ostinato of Pressure feels like a crushing weight on the chest, a feeling of stress that doesn’t life. As it fades, Release picks up, its striking opening guitars lulling the listener into its landscape of sadness. Release eventually peters out to the subtle sound of heating pipes in an old, run-down building, and the inescapable arpeggios of Looking Outside Inside gently ease their way into the ear. This is perhaps the best song on the album, building up slowly, gradually, from acoustic nothingness into a rage of entrapment.

As feedback leads the way into Leave No Trace, the album settles into a soothing swaying between slow and faster-paced songs, and the lyrics become noticeably more unstable. An unsettling feeling of a descent into madness begins to creep into the music, with Underworld turning out some disturbing imagery.

Climbing up the wall gonna creep between the cracks

Get out of my skull tie the rope around my neck

Destroy all emotion gonna rip my face to shreds

Cut my eyeballs open

Underworld – Anathema, 2001

(Breaking Down the) Barriers brings a sense of calm, and indeed feels like a sort of conclusion. Heart-rending, it speaks of the ever-growing disconnect between two people who realize they are utterly disconnected. Try as they might, there is no salvation.

And then, all hell breaks loose. A great pause of silence follows …Barriers, as if preparing for the storm that is to follow. Rapid, wavering guitars then break in, musically reflecting the sudden and complete unbalance of Panic‘s disturbing words.

I don’t think it’ll all end up like this

There’s spiders on the wall and they stink of piss

Dead heads lying in the corner

Staring at me making me feel bad

I put my hands up to my eyes

But the holes in my palms let me find a way

To corner you…

Panic – Anathema, 2001

Racing through at breakneck speed, Panic represents the peak of the album, the final release of the terrible tension of an unstable mind. From here it descends into the final moments of utter despair, the title track A Fine Day to Exit bringing with it a sense of absolution.

Then, finally, the perfect conclusion: Temporary Peace. Slow, quiet and bleak, it is a resting, a peace; a settlement from the madness. It speaks of finality, of the the darkness dragging you under for the last time. Its closing lines reflect this, simultaneously intimating the momentary quiet before the ending.

Beyond this beautiful horizon

Lies a dream for you and I

This tranquil scene is

Still unbroken by the rumours in the sky

But there’s a storm closing in

Voices crying on the wind

The serenade is growing colder

Breaks my soul that tries to sing

And there’s so many thoughts

When I try to go to sleep

But with you I start to feel

A sort of temporary peace

There’s a drift in and out

Temporary Peace – Anathema, 2001

And as the final notes ring out, the music dissolves into the sound of breaking waves, and the muttering nonsense of a madman.

The flow of this album so perfectly reflects my own cycle of madness that it cuts me to the very soul, unfailingly bringing tears to my eyes by the final dying sounds. The tension, the guilt, the increasing loss of control, until it finally all breaks loose—and then, when the rage is spent, dissolving into nothing but the desire to fade into absolute blackness, and never return.

This is not an easy album, but it is ultimately rewarding. Just beware: it will not put you in a happy mood.