Review Summary: Distant Satallites covers all the dimensions of Anathema’s sound and manages to be refreshing and cathartic, even correcting past missteps in songwriting and execution.
Anathema began as a death-doom metal band, and Distant Satellites’ melancholic atmosphere is one of the few vague remnants of their past. Recent progressive rock has seemed to follow a trend of sadness and mourning, despite its’ psychedelic and poppy origins in the 1960’s and 70’s. Anathema’s recent releases follow this trend, and having started as a doom metal band, one would expect them 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 dense sounding guitars are the name of the game here, and after almost twenty years have finally nailed their sound, correcting previous mistakes and streamlining their sound to be more organic and consistent than ever before. Anathema have only gained mainstream success in recent years due to their third major shift in sound. Already three albums in to their new era, this 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 here.
Weather Systems from 2012 had the unfortunate timing to follow the infinitely inspired and universally loved comeback album We’re Here Because We’re Here back in 2010. While Weather Systems felt like a step backward from their spiraling evolution, Distant Satellites breaks free of these albums’ constraints in favor of a more stripped back approach, and the result is their first consistent and streamlined album in over a decade. Distant Satellites caps off a trilogy of sorts for Anathema, and manages to correct a few of their mistakes while rounding out the threesome. For everything that We’re Here Because We’re Here did right, it was not perfect. The middle of the album dragged on in aimless interludes, and the expected 8-minute finale track was a beautiful soundscape but with bizarre voiceovers that took away from its potential full enjoyment. Weather Systems followed the same formula and literally made the exact same mistakes as its predecessor while ultimately sounding cheesier and more sterile, despite being a very solid album overall. Distant Satellites finally does away with these setbacks and stubbornly holds the listener’s attention throughout the 57-minute running time.
Dusk (Dark Is Descending) displays one of the best instances of matured songwriting and risk taking on the album. After a very Anathema-sounding first half, 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 quieter section, and is one of the most successful and subtle examples of how great Anathema are at playing with listener expectations. Ariel and Anathema follows 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, sometimes having whole songs to herself while never appearing again on the album or popping up in the background of certain songs to be just another instrument against the dense musical backdrop. Her role has always seemed to be as a random guest singer despite always holding her own against the Cavanagh brothers. Here she is finally integrated into the music and is used appropriately and consistently, sometimes even being the difference between a song’s success or of its reach exceeding its grasp, exhibited best in one of the album highlights The Lost Song Part 1. Her harmonizing vocals with Cavanagh’s over pounding drums and spacey descending piano lines make the song sound fuller and more wholly satisfying than if Cavanagh were on his own.
Tremendous crescendos have been Anathema’s strength in recent years, and despite once again being the highlights here, they are surprisingly restrained making for a more organized and enjoyable listen. The expected epic and title track of the album is mid-tempo electronica which surprisingly feels completely in place with the rest of music, and serves as an extended and vastly successful closing track with only a laid back outro instead of the typical bombasticity that would be most expected in the longest and penultimate track. It leads right into album highlight Take Shelter, with its flat out inspirational tone and soaring synths over the crisp electronic drums, closing out Distant Satellites with the band’s best streak of ending songs in many years. While Distant Satellites might not reach the dizzying highs that the band already achieved with We’re Here Because We’re Here, it corrects previous mistakes and ultimately proves that going through multiple genre changes and having twenty five years of existence behind them can have one of the best effects for a band to have, and results in one of their best and most mature releases to date.