Metal music, despite being praised by many obsessive fans as being one of the most creative forms of rock music out there, has actually always relied on a specific, rigid formula. Be it the classic wizard rock of the mid-'70s, the anti-punk stance of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, through such subgenres as thrash, death, and doom metal, each style is very set in its ways, as are the listeners. Whenever a metal band decides to attempt to do something new, the reaction among devoted fans is almost always incredulous, angry, even panicky, as every single second of the band's music is scrutinized. Formulaic heavy metal, when done well, still works brilliantly today, but it's the bands who always make their fans say aloud, "What the hell?" with every new release who are often the most fun to listen to.
Take Liverpool's Anathema, for instance. They started out in the early '90s as strictly a doom metal outfit, with the requisite growled vocals and the trademark muddy sound, but when original singer Darren White left the band in 1995, with guitarist Vincent Cavanagh taking the reins, Anathema started their slow journey into completely uncharted (and unexpected) territory. In fact, Anathema's metamorphosis over the past decade is one of the most remarkable band transformations in recent memory, as album after album has sounded more and more progressive and melodic, in no small part fueled by Cavanagh's superb singing voice. 2001's A Fine Day to Exit, aided by excellent songs like "Release" and "Pressure", was an artistic breakthrough, as the band completely shed themselves of their goth roots, while still putting out powerful, brooding hard rock.
Now, more than two years later, comes A Natural Disaster, and it does not disappoint. The new record finds Anathema building on the sound of A Fine Day to Exit, delving into more ambient, (dare I say) mellow sounds. It's more than a little obvious that Radiohead, circa OK Computer, and to a lesser extent, Kid A, is a primary influence on the band and the music, but the album runs much deeper than just an empty art rock retread. It's a chill-out record of sorts for metalheads, as the band continues to eschew the bombast and volume of traditional metal. The music simmers, the melodies swirl, songs crescendo, often with a similar grandeur to that of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
With two new members, keyboardist Les Smith and bassist Jamie Cavanagh (brother of Vincent and guitarist/songwriter Danny), A Natural Disaster is as innocuous and restrained as it is hypnotic, the band sounding surprisingly controlled, keeping the music as simple as possible. Opening with ethereal waves of keyboards, the album opener "Harmonium" sets the mood at once. Vincent's lead vocals sound trancelike, as he sings, "These days my hands are tied / These days I think you'll find / I'm not me now a light has died / Its too real to run and hide", as the song explodes majestically, with a Tool-like flourish of distorted guitars and an undulating bass line. The insistent drum beat and electric piano of "Balance" reminds you a bit of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place", but Anathema avoid the self-indulgent laptop twiddling, and delve into much darker subject matter, as Vincent croons, "Until death's mirror reflects / The meaning of our lives / We wander aimless and mesmerized / As the fear starts to rise". The song immediately segues into the incredible "Closer", another keyboard-dominated song, as a vocoder-enhanced voice comes in, its muffled cries of, "Your dream world is a very scary place to be trapped inside", perfectly enhancing the claustrophobic feel of the song, as the intensity grows steadily for nearly five minutes.
The centerpiece of A Natural Disaster has the band in peak form. The interlude, "Childhood Dream", with its echoing strains of acoustic guitar, Theremin, and the sound of a child laughing, starts off sounding innocent, but the mood darkens quickly, leading into Jamie Cavanagh's opening bass line of the spectacular "Pulled Under at 2000 Metres Per Second", bearing a close resemblance to Roger Waters's bass on Pink Floyd's "One of These Days". After Vincent breathlessly growls several verses' worth of lyrics, the song bursts out of the gate, a ferocious storm of guitars and frenzied drumming that doesn't let up for the duration, the song climaxing with the screamed lines, "Freedom is only a hallucination / That waits at the edge of the places you go when you dream / Deep in the reason betrayal of feeling". A fantastic song, it also serves as a reminder that Anathema are still capable of a moment of pure, raw, musical catharsis. After that follows the startlingly contrasting title track, featuring the beautiful voice of female singer Lee Douglas, who sings an entrancing melody that would not sound out of place on a Portishead or Lamb record, the song offering a female response to the blind male intensity of the previous track, while possessing just as much emotional fervor.
The band continues to stretch out on the album; Danny Cavanagh handles the lead vocals on the mellow tracks "Are You There?" and "Electricity", and the record concludes with the 10-minute instrumental suite "Violence", anchored by a terrific piano performance by Smith. With A Natural Disaster, Anathema show that their last album was only the beginning, as the band takes the sound established on that record and builds on it even more, with often enthralling results. Like California's Dredg, Anathema are completely unafraid to blend melody, ambient sounds, and intelligent lyrical themes with progressive rock, and you can only hope that this immensely talented band can pull off yet another surprise on their next effort.