Review Summary: The Quiet Enigma
The 'solo album on the side' is a strange affair, far too often you're left scratching your head as the material on offer is quite obviously a shade weaker than that of the parent band, or if not it’ll adhere so closely to the style of the artist's day job you wonder why they didn't just release it under that banner. Surely the point is to put across something new, show a unique musical perspective, lay that soul bare. An initial spin of Daniel Cavanagh's first solo album proper, 'Monochrome', will be enough to convince listeners there's no issue concerning quality control here. In terms of addressing whether this is enough of a departure from his usual song writing as part of Anathema, well you might have to live with the album a little longer, but given time it should soon become obvious that what we're dealing with here is something quite unique, special even.
'Monochrome' starts inauspiciously with a slow and subtle build, a lonely piano melody and Daniel's warm toned voice that are joined by some acoustic strumming at the 1:30 mark. So far, so very Anathema you might be thinking. What marks this song out as different to the recent output of that band is that the song retains something reflective and leisurely in its performance throughout; that intro fired the same starting gun but the response couldn't be more different, Danny's not interested in taking part in any sort of race today. As you relax into the emotive guitar solo that closes out the song in slow motion splendour perhaps it's a good time to glance down at the runtimes for the tracks that make up the rest of the album; sure enough, three songs break the 7:30 barrier, this is a pace that's going to remain throughout proceedings.
What Cavanagh’s chosen to do here is reject nu-Anathema's continuous quest for intensity and instead focus on ramping up the atmospherics, setting up a perfect framework to showcase his own intimately emotional performances. There's a subtlety here that harks back to the 'Judgment' era, or perhaps the more reflective 'Hindsight' cover versions, and it's a style that brings out the nuance in both his playing and, most importantly, his singing. It must be strange for a performer with such an arresting voice only getting third place billing in their main gig. On 'Monochrome' Daniel's allowed to take centre stage and his far less flashy vocal style is a revelation in terms of the emotion it conveys; unlike Anathema, who have landed somewhere now where delivery is always pristine, the fact here Daniel's chosen to leave in some glorious imperfections is to be celebrated. Sometimes his enunciation isn't dead on, or his voice breaks or falters, and in that small moment a song goes from great to godly.
Another of Cavanagh's undervalued talents is on full dispay here too, and that's his piano playing. Again, understated performance is the order of the day, you won’t find a plethora of jazz frills in this music, but in terms of conveying atmosphere and setting a pensive tone his work is devastatingly effective. The outstanding album centrepiece 'The Silent Flight of the Raven Winged Hours' keeps the piano the key instrument for the lion's share of its duration, the undulating melodies helping to create a truly mesmeric experience. When Cavanagh finally lets the passion spill over at the 7:40 mark as pounding single drum hits and exotic string swells rise up from the deep the result is something close to transcendent. Where Daniel shows a killer instinct for album craft is when he follows this song with the shortest track, the sprightly 'Dawn' that combines finger picking Lindsey Buckingham would be proud of with Irish folk instrumentation.
Another smart move was bringing in a female vocal counterpart, but choosing to pass on Anathema bandmate Lee Douglas and plumping for Anneke Van Giersbergen of The Gathering fame instead. While she's not as much of an all-out belter as Douglas, again her voice betrays some frailties that suit the feel of ‘Monochrome’ that much more and mesh with Danny's own singing style perfectly. Her star turn is on the most nu-Anathema sounding song on the album, the symphonic 'Soho', her angelic tones finally being swallowed up by this album’s one moment of truly epic orchestral crescendo abandon.
In a year when both Anathema and Steven Wilson have released high profile albums in the prog pop sphere there's a fear this low key outing might get overlooked, and that'd be a shame because this heartfelt document revels in a sort of simplicity of writing and spirit that's all too rare. Returning full circle to that show stopping opener, 'The Exorcist', Daniel alleges that upon hearing him play the song his band mates insisted it was the sort of track they could easily base an entire Anathema album around. He made the tough call, it couldn't have been easy, but the surprising 'Monochrome' proves he was right to make it. Cavanagh's succeeded in laying his very soul bare here and surely that's something worth persevering over.