Review Summary: Beautiful. Gorgeous. Go buy it.
It's funny how unplugged records can either be the best thing a band has ever done, or when they're not, just an annoying piece of ***. You know what I mean? It's like comparing Nirvana unplugged to KoRn unplugged: whereas the Nirvana version worked extremely well, the KoRn version sucked hard. Mostly however, it is well-known bands that release these sorts of remakes of old and well-known songs; however, the latest acoustic remake-album in the history of remakes, is from a British band called Anathema, who are only well known if you're interested in doom metal goes Radiohead and haven't seen airplay since, well, ever.
Now there's one important thing to mention: Anathema didn't always sound this pretty, nor did they sound this sophisticated. Once upon a time, Anathema was a bunch of guys from Liverpool who felt that life kinda sucked and decided to write songs about it. This was back in the early 1990s, and when you wanted to write music like that with your friends, you assembled a couple guys to crush slow, booming riffs out of your guitar and have harsh vocals underscore all that. Well, if that's the Anathema you're used to, and you're pissed off with the direction they've taken since Eternity, this still isn't the record you'd spin every day. But the truth is, Anathema don't pander to that crowd anymore, even though they are still filed under metal in every shop. This record is softer than soft. If you thought Eternity was the gayest thing ever, get a load of this: there isn't a single distorted guitar note be found (wow, Holmes, it's unplugged!), there are cellos, the most important instrument on the album is a piano and the vocals sound ethereal and angelic.
But, however, to the fans that Anathema caters to now, and probably a good many more if everyone does what's wise and picks up this record, this might just be the best thing they've ever released. How does that work, then, you ask? Well, this isn't just an unplugged album. Anathema aren't Nirvana and take a guitar and plug out the amps. No, there are different arrangements here, and different melodies, and different instrumentation altogether (one song features an Irish mandolin.) In fact, many of the songs of this record, if not all of them, are at least on par with the original, and some are just plain better
. "Fragile Dreams" once featured distorted guitars and pounding drum beats. Now the main melody is played by a cello (!), the guitars have been reduced to pretty background twinkling and the whole thing sounds like Apocalyptica's ballad mode with vocals and some extra instruments. This is more beautiful than "Ruska", and not just because it has vocals and lyrics. The whole song's atmosphere, already such an Anathema trademark of late, have been improved tenfold and the song's climax now sounds completely appropriate.
Elsewhere on the record, Anathema make no mistakes transforming both newer and old material. Yours truly was never a particular fan of 1996's "Angelica" (from the Eternity
album), but this version is absolutely pleasing to these ears. "One Last Goodbye", the cornerstone of the Judgement
album, sounds even moodier and sadder than ever before (and the original was already dripping with emotion). "Temporary Peace" has lost the ridiculous 13 minute addendum present on the studio version, and is here presented in the form we all want. And the crooning, ominous lyric of "since you've been gone I've been lost inside" that wanders around the speakers during "Are You There?" has now been effectively improved as acoustic guitar lines, not synths, underscore the powerful melody.
Anathema still won't please their old fans with this record. Their doom era seems long and forgotten now. But instead of taking the bad evolutionary route like Paradise Lost or Tiamat, or staying within the confines of their genre (My Dying Bride), they have become a truly remarkable act musically; and their change from loud to soft has improved every bit of their auditory aesthetic along the way. With a new album looming on the horizon (!), Anathema's craft and penchant for beautiful, brooding and moody songs seems better than ever, and the fact they can make it work on a compilation of old songs is just a testament to their musical strength. If there's any justice in this world, all the kids that bought KoRn's unplugged album will set it aside for this. But then again, if in 1991, there hadn't been any justice in the world, we wouldn't have had this band and this album. And maybe, in hindsight, the world is better off that way.