The coordinates tell you where you need to go, and what you need to know. There’s an abandoned car at the beach, a radio tuned to 2001 and A Fine Day to Exit, the flag in the ground for where Anathema would begin their journey into the unknown world of dark, contemporary music: beholden to no-one but themselves and the vision for what the band could be. Sixteen years and four albums later the Anathema show no signs of giving up the ghost, continuing to explore an emotional tapestry of life on their newest album The Optimist. It’s a beautiful, focused effort that channels a darkness and ultimate catharsis through mood, melody, and a adept touch with with electronics.
By now it should come as no surprise that the Anathema who carved out the doom metal UK movement with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride is gone. What is surprising is how successful and accepted that transition has been. After the monstrous and evil dirge that was debut Serenades in ’93 along with two EPs that cemented their stature as one piece of the doom trifecta, along came The Silent Enigma with its melancholic tone coloring the thick riffs, the death roars now replaced by Vincent Cavanagh’s throaty rasp and spoken word. It was a subtle change, the music still black and thick with anger but before too long albums like Alternative 4 and Judgement put metal so far in the background it was practically non-existent. The feelings, though, were still there, and how the Cavanagh brothers pushed forward into a kind of alternative rock without 1) alienating their fanbase and 2) not skyrocketing into the stratosphere of popularity is a mystery to be fathomed for the ages. With the steady integration of more keyboard focused songwriting and finding a kindred spirit in the delicate voice of now full member Lee Douglas set a new foundation with 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, and seven years later they continue to push further and dive deeper into the emotional streams of life with The Optimist, pushing aggression even further back in the mix to accentuate melody and pacing and rebounding strangely after the slightly underwhelming Distant Satellites.
After a short prelude, bringing the listener back to A Fine Day to Exit, a throbbing glitch echoes later day Radiohead and “Leaving It Behind” takes us off with a propulsive momentum. Anathema has always worked best with their tremendous vocal hooks, and the melody that weaves in the verses before going full throttle in the chorus is a scorching ear worm. The electronics that have been hinted at on other albums is more up front and focused, and really complements the songs. “Endless Ways” is a beautiful showcase for Douglas’s vocals, alternating between ballad and pulsing cinematic score, again speaking to the mystery of how Anathema just didn’t blow up as they shed their more metallic leanings.
“San Francisco” emphasizes this cinematic leaning explicitly, an instrumental that moves elegantly between its heavily layered sounds. There’s always been a visual feel to Anathema’s best music, a vignette that plays in your head as you lose yourself to the sounds, and what much of The Optimist does is bring that to the forefront. Lead single “Springfield” not only is one of the strongest tracks on the album, it’s one of their best tracks in years: the haunting piano, echoed in the vocal melody of “How did I get here?” is a prime example of the way Douglas and Cavanagh can infuse lines with such longing and feeling you can’t help but answer the question, complete the story in your mind. It’s a deft display of restraint until that moment the entire band kicks in and brings that simple melody line into the heavens. It’s a glorious song, the kind of music that you play late at night in your car where you can sing and not feel embarrassed as the words get caught in the back of your throat.
All this and we haven’t even touched on the epic closer “Back To The Start” which brings The Optimist and Anathema full circle, having traveled through time and hearts and lives and back again to show that music imbued with passion, sincerity and hope can transcend boundaries and bring us to a place inside ourselves where we write the meanings to the words, even as we look around to see if anyone is listening.