Review Summary: Lush, emotional, moody: brilliantly bleak music for brilliantly bleak people.
Evolution of metal bands can be a very shaky thing. Many metal bands have released albums that were meant to be experimental and progressive and (r)evolutionary. However, most of them also failed. Viz. 34.788%...Complete
(My Dying Bride), Load/ReLoad
(Metallica), the list goes on and on. Anathema also changed their sound gradually, from a doom/death band along the vein of My Dying Bride, early Katatonia, Paradise Lost, and friends, to something that today is more reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Where most metalheads and headbangers have used the term "gay" or "suck" to describe this musical evolution, it has nonetheless resulted in some very great albums: 1999's Judgement is probably the finest example.
One gem that seems to be overlooked in the Anathema discography, however, is the lilting soundscapes of 2001's A Fine Day to Exit
. Anathema pushed their sound even further away from the downkey, morose melodies that abounded on their previous album, aiming for a sound that feels like it's hit a middle between the more radio-friendly rock of Coldplay and the downright bleak, morose atmospheres of Tool or Katatonia. Expanding on this with a slight post-rock influence, borrowing strings and melancholia from a band such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, it turns the album into something not far from what most rockers to day would play, had they grown up on Prozac in a lonely city suburb.
Because, you see, the keyword with Anathema's music is hope. Hope that things will be right someday. Hope that all the pain that you once felt can be washed away. Hope that everything you feel, every last bit of pressure, can be released. And Anathema's gloomy music embodies the feeling of pressure and hopelessness that arises from this. Subtle electronics underscore the monotone vocal lines of Release, and its multi-tracked chorus sees Cavanagh exquisitely crooning "Escape... Release" over one of the most memorable refrains the band ever produced. And songs like Barriers and the title track never seem to take off for a rocking moment, as they lilt on a soundscape of lush strings, softly pounding drums, and spiraling guitar lines.
Especially on form on this record is singer/guitarist Vincent Cavanagh, whose vocals could drive a listener into madness, were they to view the songs as more than pure catharsis. From the whispered, moody vocals that underscore closing song "Temporary Peace", to the anguished shrieks of "Panic", he delivers a heartfelt and emotional performance that underlines the main attraction and value of Anathema's musical providence. This isn't music for guitarniks, though it is all very progressive: Cavanagh is not an extremely technically gifted vocalist, but all his lines just seem to fit, and he sings with a lot of restraint, keeping the lush helixes of music from drifting off into blank space. And with every whispered line of angst that he utters, you feel his pain: probably the most driving moments on the record are the ones where he spits out lines such as "I've got to burn this weight out of my mind/running through my veins until I disappear/This feeling is over/This feeling is over me" over a churning power chord, driving the point home not only with a fearsome sense of gloominess but a genuinely bleak melody.
Anathema luckily don't always stay in Pink Floyd mode, and seem to be able to still take on some bursts of swifter, relentless music; but never on the record do they drift from the morose and moody themes they have seemed to embrace since the very dawn of the band. Underworld and Panic are two speedier tunes on an otherwise slow album, and they are well-needed pieces of aural onslaught: the album passes sixty minutes in length, and a full-on slow tempo approach without any churning moments would make a listener doze off. Underworld and Panic both show that Anathema can still rock out with the best of them when they want to: especially the rapid-fire vocal lines on Panic are absolutely amazing to behold from a vocalist who circa "Eternity" was more famous for his wavering, offkey approach than this sort of streamlined vocal histrionics.
But absolutely the most haunting moment on the record are the first five minutes of the last song, or actually, what is the last song (as Anathema randomly decided to tack on 12 minutes of ambient soundscaping and a boring acoustic jig, which is the reason this is a 4.5 and not a 5), called "Temporary Peace." It is the most lush piece they have ever produced, and its climax comes as an acoustic melody hovers over a sampled wave crashing in the background, with whispered lyrics and female backing vocals. As Vincent Cavanagh sings "And there's so many, many thoughts when I try to go to sleep / But with you I start to feel a sort of temporary peace", you start to realise, that at the end of this bleak piece, there is a sort of hope and emotion radiating from the music they make, something they never had seemed to be able to capture except for this song. As bleak as the album is, it does end on a high note, and there probably couldn't be a more suitable moment for the emotional catharsis than this one. And when, as a listener, you are able to be left with that feeling of hope after going through such despair earlier, you know a record is really, really good.