[27 January 2014]
Of all the bands to dominate the current progressive rock scene (or at least be categorized within it), arguably none are able to represent the tender sorrow of the human condition as elegantly, complexly, and truthfully as Anathema. With an unrivaled blend of mesmerizing melodies, astonishing orchestration, overwhelmingly poignant lyrics, energizing musicianship, and virtuous harmonies, the quintet’s music is absolutely heavenly. While each of their previous several records managed to touch upon fragile experiences (such as loss, love, death, life, and hope) in unique and powerful ways, the quintet’s last record, Weather Systems, is by far its most emotionally rich venture yet. A lovingly crafted excursion into grief, optimism, and genuine solace, it’s likely the most beautiful, affective, and honest record I’ve ever heard. In other words, Weather Systems changed my life (more on that in the subsequent installments).
To fully appreciate the brilliance of Weather Systems, you have to consider how much the band has grown since its inception roughly 25 years ago. Formed (and still led) by the Cavanagh brothers (Vincent, Daniel, and Jamie) in Liverpool, the current line-up of Anathema is rounded out by drummer John Douglas and vocalist Lee Douglas. Initially (and quite surprisingly), they started out as a doom/death metal act, but by the time their third record, Eternity, was released in 1996, it was clear that the group was interested in a more melodic framework. Most fans agree that their gothic rock period peaked and concluded alongside the end of the decade, with the release of Alternative 4 and Judgement (which already sounded drastically different from their earlier work).
Anathema returned in 2001 with A Fine Day to Exit, a noticeably warmer, catchier, and more uplifting creation. Its arrangements were more elaborate and varied, its production felt more colorful and poppy (with a definite Beatles influence), and its songwriting soared with accounts of closure and understanding (rather than unadulterated pain and suffering). It definitely felt like a sonic evolution, as well as a distinct new chapter in the band’s career. Interestingly, they seemed to undergo yet another grand transformation on its follow-up, A Natural Disaster. If A Fine Day to Exit was their OK Computer, A Natural Disaster was their Kid A, as both efforts saw their respective bands ease up on conventional rock instrumentation for a more electronic foundation. Overall, the LP felt bleaker and colder than its predecessor, but it still conveyed a mastery of emotional reflection and graceful compositions. In retrospect, though (and not to discredit these efforts), everything up to this point was simply an appetizer for what was to come next.
After a six-year lull, Anathema emerged again in 2010 with We’re Here Because We’re Here, and it was easily their greatest achievement yet. Oddly enough, it felt more like a majestic continuation of A Fine Day to Exit than a successor to A Natural Disaster, and it managed reached an entirely new level of songwriting, production, and performance in the process. In essence, every element was more magnificent, thematic, and refined, making the work feel like a unified prophetic statement about humanity. For instance, “Thin Air” and “Dreaming Light” showcase joyful declarations of love and trust, while “Angels Walk Among Us” and “Presence” act as a joined commentary on how (as Stan Ambrose states so confidently) “Life is not the opposite of death. Death is the opposite of birth. Life is eternal.”
During our interview in 2010, Vincent Cavanagh said that the album symbolized an inner peace within the band that hadn’t been felt in a long time (which is probably why its sound is so much more hopeful, freeing, and layered). He added that its central message is related to morality, adding, “I guess there’s a certain amount of coming to terms with things that we’ve had to do…Mortality has always been a fascinating question to me, especially after my mother died. I swung from one way to the other on that one. Now I kind of found a happy medium.”
At the time, I, along with most fans, couldn’t imagine Anathema ever topping We’re Here Because We’re Here. A mere two years later, however, they absolutely did. Weather Systems feels like a wiser, more mature and ambitious sibling. Its anguish is even more articulate, its optimism is even more gripping, its structures are more detailed and dynamic, and its messages are more thoughtful and crucial. The fact that most of the songs are linked via an ingenious metaphor (weather) is just the icing on the cake. It soothes your soul with universal truths and introspective grace.