Review Summary: Refreshing and cathartic as ever.
Anathema began as a death/doom metal band, and the melancholic atmospheres of Distant Satellites
is one of the few vague remnants of their past. Recent progressive rock has seemed to follow a trend of sadness and mourning, despite many of the psychedelic and poppy origins in the 1960s and 70s. Anathema’s recent releases follow this trend, and having started as a doom metal band, one would expect their sound to be the most depressing of them all. Instead, they have surprisingly upheld themes of love and spirituality, compared to their more cynical contemporaries. Synth experimentation and uplifting, but dense walls of guitars are the new style for Anathema. Despite peaking that sound with their 2010 comeback, Distant Satellites
is a satisfying continuation of that sound, and this new era for the band would be a perfect time for them to play it safe. While to the cynical listener Distant Satellites
could appear to suffer from a lack of risk taking, a number of subtle changes found throughout make it clear that they are not going by-the-numbers at all.
Many elements of this latest release sound much more stripped back, particularly due to the inclusion of more electronic elements. Overall though Distant Satellites
caps off a trilogy of sorts for Anathema, and manages to correct a few of their mistakes while rounding out the threesome. Progressive rock epics are nowhere to be found, stubbornly holding the listener’s attention throughout the shortened, more immediate effects. “Dusk (Dark Is Descending)” displays one of the best instances of streamlined songwriting and risk taking on the album. After a typical sounding first half for the band, it descends into a quiet interlude before building and building and building until… nothing. The song just ends. Moments like this make the seasoned listener wonder what just happened. Where is the explosion of synths and pounding drums? The heartfelt, emotional singing about inspiration and love? It happened, but was simply a straight continuation of the more subtle build-ups, and is one of the most successful and subtle examples of how great Anathema are at playing with listener expectations. Songs like “Ariel” and “Anathema” also follow the structure of what might be considered a typical Anathema ballad, uplifting piano and synths over beautiful vocals gradually building in intensity, but not necessarily with the explosion of sound their prog epics display. These tracks instead treat the listener to a chiming guitar lead over a wall of sound that sounds strangely original and wholly satisfying, even in the context of listener expectations.
Vocalist Lee Douglas (sister of drummer John Douglas) has had a sporadic role in Anathema’s past. Her voice would sometimes carry whole songs, but might never appear again on the album, or she would randomly pop up in the background of certain songs to be just another instrument against the dense musical backdrop. Her role has always seemed to be one of a casual guest singer, but here is finally integrated into the music and used appropriately, as well as consistently. She is at times the perfect element for a song to reach its full potential. Her harmonizing vocals with Cavanagh in “The Lost Song Part 1” is a powerful display, and an album highlight.
Tremendous crescendos have been Anathema’s strength in recent years. Despite once again being the highlights here, they are surprisingly restrained, making for a more digestible and enjoyable listen. The expected epic and title track of the album are where the electronica elements appear, surprisingly feeling completely in place with the rest of the musical styles. The pulsing rhythms and melodies of the closing track lead right into album highlight “Take Shelter,” showcasing soaring synths over crisp electronic drums, closing out Distant Satellites
with a fantastic streak of ending songs with a welcome change of sound. This latest release might not have the same emotional weight and instrumental complexity the band has achieved in the past, but it doesn’t need to. Anathema’s latest streamlines their comeback sound, and proves that going through multiple genre changes over twenty five years can still result in impactful, refreshing releases well worth experiencing.