Universal is not just a document of a stellar live show; it’s the culmination of everything Anathema has worked for up to this point.
For most bands, the chance to work with a philharmonic orchestra is a rarity, an opportunity to expand their sound into new levels of heightened emotion and volume. For Anathema, however, it’s almost redundant. Following albums like 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and 2012’s breakthrough Weather Systems, Anathema has already proven itself to be quite the orchestral outfit. Songs like "The Storm Before the Calm" and “Untouchable” hit the emotional heights that not even Coldplay circa A Rush of Blood to the Head was able to hit, with strings, piano, and vocal interplay cranked up to their highest possible limits.
Weather Systems, a prominent example of a should-have-been mainstream hit, used this maximalist compositional quality to an impressive effect. The two-part “Untouchable,” especially its piano-led second half, not only stands out as a gorgeous piece of songwriting but also as an encapsulation of the twenty-year journey Anathema had taken up to that point. Beginning in the early ‘90s as a doom metal outfit—and as one of the “Peaceville Three”, alongside fellow English groups My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost—the band took to a long, gradual process of sonic change after their lugubrious early years.
With LPs like Alternative 4 in 1998 and Judgment in 1999, Anathema commenced a transition into what is now called “atmospheric rock,” a label that, while vague, does quite a good job for those records. Post Judgment, the group’s sound has been all about mood and a sense of grandeur, a sort of “atmosphere” that’s meant to evoke a larger-than-life sentiment that the best pop music strives for.
Weather Systems is the refining of this formula to a near perfect degree. Though some of its latter half pales in comparison to its majestic opening salvo (spanning “Untouchable” to “Lightning Song”), it still smacked of the crossover appeal that many a prog rock bands miss out on—and, while Anathema got critical and commercial love unlike anything it had ever done before, it’ll still be awhile before its music cracks the top twenty of the Billboard 200. For now, Anathema has grounded itself into a group interplay that is set to provide future success so long as it sticks to its well-refined guns.
Changes both in sound and lineup have defined the band’s career up to this point, with creative mastermind Danny Cavanagh even taking a yearlong hiatus to pursue other options. Following WHBWH, however, things have gotten more certain, with the core being formed by brothers Danny and Vincent Cavanagh on lead guitars and rhythm guitars, respectively, with the latter picking up most of the lead vocal duties.
Alongside them stand Lee Douglas and her brother John, who provide supporting vocals and drums, respectively, and Jamie Cavanagh on bass guitar. (Keyboardist Daniel Cardoso joined the quintet as a full member in mid-2012.) By setting in stone a solid cast of players with an obvious knack for playing off each other, Anathema has made it all the easier for itself to continue on its journey to progressive rock’s upper stratosphere.
And while there is likely more on the horizon for these musicians, it’s no exaggeration to say that with Universal they’ve hit a peak—if not the peak. Recorded at the beginning of the 2012 Weather Systems tour, Universal documents “A Very Special Night”-type concert at the ancient Roman theatre of Philippopolis in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. In it, the band performed with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra, which provided it the chance to showcase the highlight cuts from Weather Systems without having to rely on pre-recorded strings.
Tracks like “The Storm Before the Calm”, whose power is reliant upon the string-led climax in its second half, hugely benefit from this; like many of the performances on Universal, it sounds exactly as it should. Rarely does a live album manage to produce multiple definitive takes on studio versions, which makes this one all the more special. Surprisingly, though Weather Systems was the LP being toured when this show was recorded, it’s WHBWH that gets the finest treatment here, with virtually flawless takes on “Dreaming Light” and “Everything” rising to the top of the harmonious setlist. (The only oddity here is the vocoder-led "Closer," a deep cut from the A Natural Disaster album, which sounds like a Daft Punk song written by Chris Martin.)
And then there’s “A Simple Mistake”. “Untouchable” may be the strongest of Anathema’s post-doom metal era ballads, but even its top-notch rendition in this set can’t top what the band has done with this epic off of WHBWH. I spoke with Vincent Cavanagh as he was getting prepared for Anathema’s fall US tour with Alcest and Mammifer, and after bringing this song up he agreed it was one of the high points of the show. He attributed it in large part to the arrangement work of Dave Stewart, whose work on Porcupine Tree’s “Sleep Together” bears a noticeable similarity to “A Simple Mistake”. The song retains its basic bipartite structure: first half melancholy, second half big, chunky riffs.
The inclusion of the orchestra takes this simple formula and enhances it tenfold. When the strings kick in halfway through the track, the likely reasons why this concert was created become evident. Anathema is no stranger to orchestral arrangements and string sections, but there’s something about this type of performance done live that makes the studio versions pale massively in comparison. Stewart's arrangements are exactly what was needed for the show: embellished enough to heighten the studio versions without overtaking the folks at the front of the stage.
There's also something to be said for the title of the DVD itself. Despite the emotional poignancy of its music, Anathema’s lyrics often rely on generic, new-agey clichés: “Everything is energy/And energy is you”, “I never seen a light so bright/As the light that shines behind your eyes,” etc. Nevertheless, in spite of these the music remains heart-stoppingly beautiful and quite relatable. This is called Universal because it is exactly that. This is sophisticated stuff, but it still retains that sense of everyperson pop appeal that makes it so interesting—and frustrating—a phenomenon that Anathema isn’t bigger than it is.
The crowd in Bulgaria certainly picks up this feeling; their echoey sing-along to “Flying” and their enthusiastic clapping throughout—so enthusiastic it sometimes goes off-tempo—is evidence enough that this is, at a fundamental level, relational music. Director Lasse Hoile, famous for being Steven Wilson’s go-to filmmaker and photographer, is a good fit for these proceedings, and he smartly decided not to apply his dark, murky visual flair to the footage, opting for an unfussy approach that depicts the show just as it was. There are times, namely the second half crescendo of “The Storm Before the Calm”, when his camera will cut to awkward shots, undercutting the dramatic grandeur of the moment, but on the whole he lets the music speaks for itself—which it certainly does.
“You’re just a whisper away,” Vincent Cavanagh sings on the triumphant “Thin Air”. The cover art to Universal, which depicts Vincent, Danny, and Lee as floating above an ocean of lights emanating from the crowd, might suggest an ethereal view of these musicians, a portrait of cherubim singing songs of heavenly beauty above a crowd of starry-eyed devotees. More than anything, however, Universal makes shorter the distance between Anathema and its fans.
Working in an environment with a huge orchestra might prompt some artists to become more austere and formal in performing, but despite dressing up rather sharply (save for John Douglas, who rocks a t-shirt with the prim-and-proper orchestra just behind him), these people present themselves as nothing more than a group of people who love the music they play and the fans that have helped get them where they are. In their own way, they’re perched comfortably atop cloud nine.
Universal is not just a document of a stellar live show; it’s the culmination of everything Anathema has worked for up to this point. Weather Systems and WHBWH were, while fine releases in their own right, just stepping stones to this, one night where everything came together brilliantly, as if by magic and clockwork all at once. Like band’s ordinary yet resounding lyrics, one worn-out phrase of praise holds a lot of truth about this concert: this is Anathema as it’s meant to be heard.