Review Summary: This is music for when you've been stabbed in the back once too many.
One of my friends always lambasts me for having music taste that is far too old to suit me (all my favourite albums hail from before 2000 most of the time), and that I am always listening to music that isn't very, so to speak, contemporary. I imagine Anathema must feel the same thing. When they started out, they were still doing the in thing: writing doom/death metal. Right now they're ripping off bands that were popular in the 1990s (Radiohead), 1970s (Pink Floyd), and even the 1960s (The Beatles). I think that around Eternity that change started to manifest itself in this band, and their transitional phase continued up to Judgement, but this album always seems to be the missing link: overlooked by everyone, this is actually the secret gem in Anathema's catalogue.
Now just hold on for a minute and latch on to that thought. Secret gem? Anathema never even became that popular and neither did this album. On first glance, it seems like a tedious marriage between two elements that almost implore and beg boredom: slow, riffy doom metal bound to slow atmospheric rock. Even the vocals are mellow, like the anguished and depressive little brother of Roger Waters. And to tell you the truth, on first listen, this album does drag. The middle parts seem slower than they are, and Anathema's atmosphere always felt like you had lost any sort of hope or inspiration: it's squalid music for squalid people. But this is really one of those albums that benefits from extra spins, because the genius little things in this record express themselves after a listen or two, maybe five, sometimes twenty.
It's even in the opener, Fragile Dreams. Quite possibly the best song Anathema had penned up till that point in time (I am hesitant to say ever because One Last Goodbye exists)... even with the intro called Shroud of False, it gets off to a very slow start, repeating its main theme over and over before vocals finally enter and the song gets off the ground. The song is comparable to a diesel lorry: it doesn't start up easily, but when it does, it'll still knock you over. There is quite a magic in the way Anathema can manipulate melody and harmony to their advantage, as even with that one melodic theme that they use on the song, it simply finds a way of being magically awesome enough to eventually lodge itself in your brain - and if you are open to it - your heart. On this record, this prime cut and live favourite is the one thing that is a must listen, and even if you find that repeated spins do not make the album a lot better, the musical wizardry here is worth checking out regardless.
This goes for more songs on here. Inner Silence is a slow, piano-led track that features only six short lines' worth of vocals, but it is the simple melody that still guides it to a frenetically awesome conclusion. Lost Control is a powerfully sad track, changing from crushing, booming riffs to despairingly quiet moments; a monolithic slab of pure depression manifesting itself as a hydra, attacking the soul on many fronts. And Regret seems like it should be cut, but when you actually sit down on a lonely night with it, guilt-ridden and frantically angry at yourself, this too, shall become rapturous.
Even when Anathema decide tempo is something they can play with and manipulate ("Empty"), they are still excruciatingly terrifying. It seems as though they don't even want to live, as Vincent cries "I've a solution for this sad situation / Nothing left but to kill myself again
". Whatever tempo they play at, at the heart and core this remains Anathema: bitter and regretful, down to the bone. A unique quality that the band has always possessed, even during winds of change, there always seems to be a drop of essence that makes Anathema who they are, even if they choose a less characteristic musical path.
Instrumentally there are very few hitches on this record. Danny is an exquisite guitar player, one of those people that doesn't feel the need to shred like Steve Vai every second. On this record, he is clearly showing the mastery of manipulating actual melody: as vicious and snarling riffs boom and twist all around him, his melodic, minor chord-inspired noodlings draw a horrific painting over the rhythm section. The keyboards, here played by Danny I believe, along with the piano, add solemn moods and texture to every song; many things here feature a combination of rumbling power chords with keyboards to underscore the melodic theme. It is quite an effective method of creating the nasty moody backdrops Anathema are famous for. The only thing that is a bit irking are Vincent Cavanagh's vocals, which would improve over time (he seems much more in his element and competent now than he does here), but he does have a tendency to become a bit iffy with his approach.
If you are a lucky bastard and also managed to get the bonus disc (which I recommend), you also have the pleasure of obtaining four bonus tracks, which include three Pink Floyd covers (not so surprising) and a completely rearranged version of Bad Religion's Better Off Dead (very surprising). The Pink Floyd covers are very true to the original, with Vincent even channeling a dead-on impression of Waters (the covered songs are from The Wall and The Final Cut). The version of Better Off Dead is also worth listening to, as the bare speed-and-grit of the original has been replaced by piano and female lead vocals, making for a slightly jarring but ultimately awesome experience, with many credits lent to the suicidal lyrics of the original.
Yes, there are flaws to this record. Yes, this is no Judgement or A Natural Disaster. Some songs do feel like they meander once too many, such as the title track or Feel. But they stay in sync with the mood, perhaps not adding anything but at the very least not taking away any of the bite that other cuts deliver. But as with any Anathema record, this is an album that eventually reveals that there is something musically worthy beneath the shroud of bitterness enveloping it; there is always something to be found under all the pain. Perhaps even some form of hope. Climactically, or perhaps anticlimactically, a career of depression has borne Anathema wings of sorrow to glide on and float towards new horizons. Even if the long awaited new record is almost half as awesome as one of the lesser records in their catalogue, it will still be worthy of purchase, and that is saying something about a band that has been underrated since the very dawn of its existence. This may not be the recommended buy, but it is a wonderful listen provided by a band that if given the chance, could have been loved by many more than they are now.