Review Summary: doubtlessly enjoyable, but the feeling of magic is regrettably, eerily absent.
It's quite bemusing to see Anathema's journey through the years and how much they've changed. The band insist they haven't abandoned their roots, that their music was always about being so lucky to be alive, and how good it is to be on this earth. Well, could have fooled me. With their doom metal beginnings with tracks like 'A Dying Wish' and 'They (Will Always) Die', most people probably would have said they took a sharp turn, slowly turning into an orchestra-slathered monolith of positivity. We're Here Because We're Here
took this to whole new heights, more or less capturing the essence of sunlight into sound, which was a big contrast from their last album, let alone their doom metal material. But it was still great, and still held a lot of what made Anathema so powerful - their reserve. The orchestra and female vocals were used very sparingly to make the key moments in the album really glimmer and stand out, while the center of the compositions are the rock (and sometimes metal) instrumentation with the distinctive, atmospheric undertones. Be it the soft vocals or the feedback/ebow like guitar floating above the mix, it added a satisfying amount of contrast. In the last album they got it just about right, the orchestra and vocals from Lee Douglas were just right in terms of complimenting each other, exercising what have made Anathema a force to be reckoned with over the past decade.
But in Weather Systems
the balance is a little off. It's the aforementioned balance that made Anathema so great up to now, taking everything brilliant about their influences and bringing them all to the emotional height that they can possibly reach, all at once. That's not to say they were always successful at this, that would be incredible, but it was to the point where they just seemed to be getting better and better. But here, one out-weighs the other, and it just highlights exactly why their last album was so good and why this one doesn't quite reach it. The biggest frustration with this album is that sometimes it really does reach the quality of the last album, and even surpasses it in some fleeting moments. The first two tracks, "Untouchable" parts 1 and 2, are just about perfect. The way the tracks progress is just brilliant. Part 1 is a classic Anathema track, building up to perhaps one of the heaviest things they've ever put out, mixing it with the brilliant tones of the last album, along with a new-found intensity that has been lost from Anathema's sound for a long time. Then part 2 comes in where the orchestra takes the helm, along with Lee Douglas' very pleasing singing voice, and it makes a lot of sense in contrast with perhaps one of the heaviest pieces they've ever done just before it.
But from here the album falters by letting the latter take over. Nothing about the orchestra is bad, and there's certainly nothing wrong with Lee Douglas' singing, in fact she performs just about perfectly. But this is part of the problem, Lee Douglas' voice worked so well because it was so striking when it was used minimally - here it's in the majority of songs, for
the majority of the songs. In previous Anathema albums, a lot could be said for the way the instrumentation takes the helm and creates some of the most striking moments, not needing the vocals to back them up - that just isn't the case here. The glimmering climax of "Dreaming Light", or perhaps before that on the album A Natural Disaster
, the instrumental closer creating the emotional climax of the album. Or even further back, the soaring guitars of "Wings of God" from Judgement
creating such a striking atmosphere that it just takes the listened aback. Where the prominence of the vocals probably isn't because Anathema's instrumentation is weakening, more a conscious decision to let the interplay between the vocals stand and shine above the rest, it's just difficult to feel a true chemistry.
Perhaps a chemistry would feel more apparent if the lyrics were any good. The lyrics to Anathema's music have never been the strong point of the band, but they've never been particularly bad either - but here they come close. Very, very close. Every time you find yourself finally getting sucked into the passion a line like "I had to let you go, to the setting sun" totally destroys the moment. That's what a lot of the moments on this album are, moments with massive potential ruined by small things that you just can't ignore. Be it a line like "and my feelings will always shine", or perhaps vocals coming in just at the wrong moment when a song is winding down ("Untouchable, Part 2"), half of the moments that could have been brilliant become moments where you just should "if only...". But at least the band get it right, and enough times to truly save the album from being a disappointment. The last half of "Untouchable, Part 2" is simply fantastic - the energy and the passion far too good to be overthrown by the questionable lyrics. The very end of tracks like "The Gathering of the Clouds" and "Sunlight" really shining through as the most memorable sections of the album, and the experimentation on tracks like "The Storm Before the Calm" sticking with you whether you enjoy it or not - truly unlike any track Anathema have done before.
There is a lot to love about this album. The pacing is perfect, which is a first for an Anathema album, truly knowing when to build and release with a lot of grace. The moments that stick with you truly do get to the level of the shining moments that Anathema have forged throughout their career. It's just difficult to truly fall in love with this album when so much hasn't been capitalized on where the band truly shines. The atmospherics, the subtleties and the genuinity of the last few albums have taken several steps back in favor of directness and perhaps even clichéd tones. This isn't entirely bad, and it's incredibly enjoyable a good portion of the time, but it just isn't the Anathema that many have fallen in love with, nor is it what Anathema are truly fantastic at. Competent, definitely. Exceeding competent several times throughout the album. But that feeling of magic from "We're Here Because We're Here" or even "A Natural Disaster", or even "Judgement", is regrettably, eerily absent.