The Optimist



by Ocean of Noise USER (32 Reviews)
June 12th, 2017 | 8 replies

Release Date: 2017 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Anathema push their sound in a myriad of new directions, as well as recalling a few old ones. For the most part, the results are highly successful.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Anathema from other progressive rock bands making music today, it’s their versatility. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band that’s managed to change their sound as frequently, as drastically, and as successfully as Anathema have managed to time and time again over the course of their discography. Starting out as a doom metal outfit in the early ‘90s, the band gradually shifted their sound over the course of almost 20 years towards the atmospheric progressive rock sound that they’re known for today, culminating in their gorgeous 2010 masterpiece, We’re Here Because We’re Here. The years since that album have been a period of slower development for the band’s sound; both Weather Systems and Distant Satellites, despite being very strong albums in their own right, felt at times like echoes of We’re Here Because We’re Here’s sound rather than convincing steps in a new direction. The last four tracks of Distant Satellites, however, did start to hint at something new; a more experimental, electronic direction that brought that album to a highly unexpected close. As it turns out, those final moments of Distant Satellites were hinting at the direction Anathema would take with their next album, providing a small piece of the complex musical puzzle that would ultimately become The Optimist.

The Optimist is easily Anathema’s most experimental and unpredictable album since 2003’s A Natural Disaster. Almost every song on the album sees the band exploring a different facet of their sound, and just like their other more experimental albums, A Natural Disaster and Alternative 4, these facets all come together to create a cohesive and highly interesting whole. According to the band, The Optimist is a continuation of the concept of their 2001 album A Fine Day to Exit, and this continuation shows in the music. The best moments on this album often retain the musical character of A Fine Day to Exit while also adding fresh new elements to it. For example, after the ambiguous and unsettling opening track, the first real song here, “Leaving It Behind”, sounds exactly like it could have been one of the more aggressive tracks from A Fine Day to Exit; the intricate guitar work and energetic vocals blend beautifully with punchy electronic percussion to create a song with a real sense of urgency. Meanwhile, the bleak, melancholic and minimalistic character of “Springfield” sounds equally inspired by the darker moments of A Fine Day to Exit and Weather Systems, and the swirling, hypnotic combination of repetitive piano chords, reverberant vocals and tribal percussion brings an incredible, otherworldly atmosphere to “Wildfires”. “Close Your Eyes” is an unexpected masterpiece, starting off driven by ominous piano and Lee Douglas’ haunting vocals before picking up into a wonderful jazzy tempo in the second half. “Can’t Let Go”, while not necessarily an album highlight, is notable for its upbeat tempo and unpredictable harmonies, while “Ghosts” is made great by its beautiful string arrangements and interesting structure. All of these tracks, however different they are from one another, complement and contrast each other very effectively, giving the album great variety and strong cohesion.

There are a few small chinks in The Optimist’s otherwise strong musical armour, though. One of the major weak points of the album is in the three-song stretch of “Endless Ways”, “The Optimist”, and “San Francisco”. While all three of these songs are solid compositions in their own right, featuring wonderful sonic diversity and fresh, innovative guitar work, they all sabotage each other by being far too thematically similar. This can be most clearly seen by listening to the beginnings of each of these songs; the opening melodic gestures, while admittedly slightly different from one another, are just too close to being identical to be placed one after the other in the album’s track listing in the way that they are. It feels dangerously close to hearing the same track three times in a row, and leaves a bad taste in the listener’s mouth at a very early point in the album’s runtime. The band would probably have been better off either splitting the songs up and distributing them throughout the album or simply choosing one of the three to include and discarding the others. Variety and unpredictability is what makes the rest of the album strong, so it’s hard to understand why the band would want to put three such similar-sounding songs in close proximity to each other in the way that they have. The other small problem with The Optimist is in its closing track, “Back to the Start”. While it’s not by any means a bad song, it doesn’t quite feel like a fitting closer to the album, a simple, laid-back alternative rock song with a massive, anthemic final chorus fit for a stadium. It feels a bit awkward to have a song like this at the end of a nocturnal and mysterious album like this one, and especially to follow up two very dark tracks like “Close Your Eyes” and “Wildfires” with it makes for an abrupt and confusing change of tone. All this being said, there’s really nothing wrong with any of these “problem tracks” on an individual level, as they’re all excellently composed; they merely interfere with the flow and overall effectiveness of the album when they’re placed where they are on the track listing, and “Back to the Start” in particular would probably have been best used at the end of a different album entirely.

Despite all of their drastic stylistic changes over the years, Anathema have managed to achieve nothing less than excellence on every one of their full-lengths, and The Optimist is no exception. Drawing inspiration from A Fine Day to Exit and A Natural Disaster and blending ideas from those albums with sounds from their newer material was a smart move for the band, and it resulted in some highly atmospheric, unique and engaging new material. The Optimist is Anathema’s most diverse album in almost 15 years, and this diversity gives them many different sonic possibilities to explore on future releases as they move further and further away from We’re Here Because We’re Here’s peak point. The Optimist isn’t a masterpiece, but it does indicate a new era in Anathema’s career, bringing back the experimentation and unpredictability that some fans were starting to miss in their newer material; with any luck, this new inspiration will carry the band forward for their foreseeable future, re-establishing them as one of the most brilliant, innovative and versatile groups in musical history.

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Comments:Add a Comment 
Ocean of Noise
June 12th 2017


One of my favourite bands ever and this was a highly anticipated release for me, so I thought I'd offer my two cents on it. Constructive comments appreciated!

June 12th 2017


Album Rating: 4.0

Very nice read, Ocean!

Ocean of Noise
June 12th 2017


Thanks, man! Glad you enjoyed it

June 12th 2017


Good review bud, I'll definitely give this one a spin. I really enjoy their newer sound, especially Were Here Because Were Here and Weather Systems and I like the single they released for this one.

Ocean of Noise
June 12th 2017


This album is quite different from WHBWH and WS, but it's still really good. Springfield is absolutely a beast of a track. Glad you enjoyed the review!

June 12th 2017


Album Rating: 3.5

Excellent review, pos'd.

The band needs more Vincent and less Lee on the mic.

Ocean of Noise
June 12th 2017


Thanks man! Personally, I don't mind that they're using Lee more frequently. Vincent is the stronger singer between the two of them, but it's not like Lee's not overpowering him or anything. Vincent sings lead vocals on 5 songs on here, while Lee does only 4. Seems only fair to split lead vocal duties as equally as possible, especially seeing as Vincent actually plays other instruments but Lee does nothing but sing...

June 20th 2017


I need to check this.

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