Review Summary: Lush atmospheres dominate.
Change is always one of those things that you either hate or love within a band, especially in the niche metal scene where things that aren't hardcore or tr00 kvlt may be frowned upon. Sometimes it seems like an intrinsic paradox, but the more you listen to metal, and the deeper you get into it, the more you realise how bands rely on truly tested formulae: the reason people love their wizard power metal is because it hasn't changed since the 1980s, the same going for various other acts that haven't changed an inch from their course since the inception of their music and their particular sounds.
However this formula of playing essentially different variations of one song does get tiring after a while. Therefore, interest and strong emotions tend to be evoked around bands that haven't kept doing the same thing, to either the disgust or the love of their devoted fanbase. Irony has it that what those bands are doing, tend to be more interesting and challenging: and Anathema is definitely one of those bands that fits that mold.
Starting out in the early 1990s as a classic doom/death metal outfit, akin to countrymen My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost (who would also go on to have a much maligned/appreciated sound after their transition to Sisters of Mercy/Depeche Mode-influenced gothic rock), Anathema toned down the metal excesses of their sound, and from Eternity on started to stray more and more into a rock realm inhabited by bands like Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree, blending the original atmospheric doom of their sound with lush layers of keyboards, turning growls into expressive clean vocals, and adding electronica loops and long, drawn-out guitar solos to their repertoire.
A Natural Disaster, their most recent studio outing (even though it's from 2003), continues this trend of atmospheric progressive rock fascination and delves further into territory that its predecessors, A Fine Day To Exit, and Judgement, inhabited. It is mostly a logical continuation of those two albums, apart from the fact it's got more of a Radiohead feel than both albums before this one. It seems that Anathema are not intent on straying from this musical course, but luckily for the fans, their blend of progressive rock, atmospheric layers and bleak lyrics is pulled off with aplomb.
In fact, most tracks here indulge in that Pink Floyd-esque sound, with opener Harmonium presenting keyboard layers that hark back to Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd. Vincent Cavanagh's voice also takes on some of Waters' more rough qualities, drawing from a not technically perfect but emotive and raw sound that drives his brother's lyrics straight through your throat. Closing track Violence is a ten-minute instrumental, that (again) like Pink Floyd of old relies on subtle atmospherics and crescendo melodies a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor to come over, rather than applying needless technical wank. Indeed, the progressive element of the band lies more in its atmospheric playing rather than any 70s technical virtuosic groups.
Other territories that are also explored are the strange Radiohead-electronica vocodering of 'Closer', which has Vincent repeatedly slurring off the line "your dream world is a very scary place", as suddenly warm keyboard chords surge into the middle of the song and take it to a sweeping finale. Childhood Dream seems strangely in line with this, being a short two-minute instrumental trying to set a new benchmark for Kid-A type minimalism. Female vocals are touched upon in the title track, turning the song into what becomes something reminiscent of a Tristania vocal duet, were it implemented on Stupid Dream.
Only scarcely do we find hints of metalisms on the album, and when they appear, they are still doused in a healthy shower of Waters-esque scathing vocals. Pulled Under At 2000 Metres a Second harks straight back to their Alternative 4 days, ripping open the album with a pummelling bassline that recalls One of These Days (again, Pink Floyd), and Vincent Cavanagh channels vocals that sound like Roger Waters circa The Wall. The only metalism left are a crunchy, driving riff that gives the song a far more energetic feel, serving to slightly disrupt the flow of atmosphere, but also thankfully placed in the middle of the album to prevent the listener from drugging itself into sedation.
The approach, however, still remain Anathema's shot at bleakness and gloom, showing they still haven't lost their miserable edge. Anathema is no less sorrowful, and don't expect any bright days from listening to this album. The keyboards are atmospheric, but rather in a gloomy, downkey way, and the slow, drawn out guitar solos may evoke David Gilmour, but they also serve to bring down the tempo to standard doom metal levels. And lyrically Anathema still seems to take its cues more from modern doom metal a la Katatonia, making the blend of atmospheres and electronica with their metallic origins all the more poignant.
Sometimes it may seem if the band seems to keep lulling you into a trance, and there may be too many times that the sorrowful and melancholy tone of the album are appealing only at night, or during times of depression. But there is musically much to find in this album, and while it may not be as deeply emotionally poignant as Judgement, or as crunchy as The Silent Enigma, it is nonetheless a far more lush and relaxed outing than any of their previous releases. This makes it ideal for a rainy day at home, nighttime listening, or any sort of opportunity that requires a relaxation rather than an energetic mood. And luckily, Anathema still pull that trick off with such skill, that this album remains a worthy buy and one of the better releases in one of Liverpool's long-standing band's catalogue.