[25 April 2012]
Though it may be surprising, the band responsible for Weather Systems began their career in doom-metal. The dramatic piano chords and orchestral backings that make up many of the album’s tracks would suggest a genesis in Coldplay-esque balladry—not in grim, atmospheric metal. Nevertheless, that evolution is the one Anathema has taken, and that growth has proven to be excellent. Their tautologically titled 2010 release, We’re Here Because We’re Here, found the Liverpool-based musicians at their most beautiful, bringing them to the forefront of the progressive rock scene. While Anathema don’t immediately fit in the “prog” category, much of their music fits the genre’s typical expectations (top-notch musicianship, a penchant for longer compositions, and, let’s be honest, being British), and their most recent efforts have been received well by the prog community, notably on the excellent Dutch Progressive Rock Page. Even if some find the “prog” label unfitting, “art rock” no doubt suffices, as there are many areas of overlap between those two genres. (Some have gone with the tenuously defined “new prog,” but the strength of Anathema’s songwriting is enough to elevate them above the likes of Muse.) Either way, Anathema’s maturation has revealed them to be songwriters who know how to pen deeply resonant songs, the kind that once-great artists like Coldplay wish they could write. Like any good progressive rock group should, Anathema have truly progressed; they may not shred like some of prog’s standby favorites, but they live up to the genre’s name better than most.
With Weather Systems, Anathema haven’t given up on their signature beauty. It’s just as powerful, if not more so, than We’re Here Because We’re Here, and it definitely continues the refining process begun on the band’s past outings. The majority of the songs here push all of the right emotive buttons: swelling string sections, sections of quiet piano, and (most notably) the gorgeous vocal duo of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas. The record’s best cut, the second part of “Untouchable”, plays each of those to maximum effect, creating a dramatic power that would fit comfortably on Broadway. Though the harmony of the two singers is where Weather Systems shines vocally, Douglas’ voice is the better of the two, especially on “Lightning Song”. This is especially refreshing given the comparative lack of female prog vocalists in the upper echelons of the genre.
“Untouchable” is exemplary of the record’s first half, which represents the continuing growth of Anathema’s sonic identity. This half is the more melodic of the two, containing the most straightforward songwriting. While “Untouchable” is the only two-part track, in effect “The Gathering of the Clouds” and “Lighting Song” bleed together; the former is something of an escalating track, abruptly giving way to a dreamy, fingerpicked acoustic guitar. This is all so stunning that it’s fairly easy to look over the many lyrical foibles, which, while harmless in how generic they are, don’t evenly match up with the high quality of the music. (e.g. “My love will never die” being the central chorus lyric on “Untouchable Pt. 1.”)
These first five tracks, the most melodic of the lot, are where Anathema’s bread and butter lie. Unfortunately, the latter half of the record doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the stronger material in the front end. Take the not-so-subtly titled “The Storm Before the Calm;” despite the solid, Porcupine Tree-like opening “storm”, the grand, string-laden “calm” of the finale is where the musicianship really shines. The heavier first half of the track, unfortunately, takes up the majority of the run time. This isn’t to say that Anathema aren’t capable of rocking out; the satisfyingly crunchy riff at the conclusion of “Lightning Song” is a testament to that. While there is such a thing as overdoing it with too many really pretty piano ballads, it wouldn’t have hurt to focus on making unique the material from the first half, which was what made We’re Here Because We’re Here so strong.
This could have perhaps been solved by better sequencing; by placing the strongest cuts all at once early on in the album, it leaves the latter half to pale strongly in comparison. The one-two punch of “Gathering of the Clouds” and “Lightning Song” would have been a powerful conclusion, rather than the middling finale that was chosen in “Internal Landscapes”. Despite its haunting monologue (told from the perspective of a dying person), the music that backs it lacks needed grandeur and power.
Despite that imbalance, Weather Systems still finds Anathema to be one of prog/art-rock’s most beautiful groups. The record gives evidence to the band progressing on two fronts: the powerful emotive material perfected on We’re Here Because We’re Here and the more blatantly “prog” tracks in the latter half. It’s hard to say if this would have sounded better had the songs been rearranged, given that it’s hard to unhear a whole album once it’s been heard in order. But Weather Systems stands as a solid release in its current form; it’s moving, challenging, and (because this is Anathema we’re talking about) incredibly beautiful.