Anathema, The Optimist: A Fine Day to Return

anathema the optimist

A significant reason Anathema‘s The Optimist succeeds as it does is because it doesn’t attempt to recapture a moment that’s long since gone. The album, which is released by proggy Peaceville offshoot Kscope Music as the follow-up to 2014’s Distant Satellites and is upwards of the UK-based melodic progressive rockers’ 13th full-length, depending on what you count — they’ve had a couple offerings reworking prior material — is intended as a sequel to 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit (reissue review here). Accordingly, one almost looks at the title The Optimist as ironic at first, as that turn-of-the-century outing had depression and near-suicidal mania so much at its core, but optimism is something the previously-grim Anathema seem to have discovered within their own sound circa 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, and they don’t necessarily cast it off for The Optimist for the sake of pretending to be something they’re not aesthetically.

From the quick electronic pulses that rhythmically transition from intro “32.63N 117.14W” to the ocean waves that start closer “Back to the Start” — that being a direct reference to “Temporary Peace” from A Fine Day to Exit — the six-piece are free to nod at the work they’ve done before, but their songwriting in no way feels beholden to it, even if they’re picking up a story where they left it some 16 years ago. This has been a consistency throughout their career, as Anathema have always embraced change and development within their style and generally managed to bring their fanbase — of which I’d consider myself a part — with them for the ride, and just because they’re looking back in theme doesn’t necessarily mean they’re giving up that approach. Vocalist Lee Douglas might be taking on the voice of our main character’s consciousness in lead-single “Springfield” when she asks, “How did I get here?,” but the arrangement behind her is by no means playing to a darkness that is no longer there.

Crucially, as melancholy as they get, particularly in the back half of the record, the band — led, as ever, by vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Vincent Cavanagh and guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Danny Cavanagh, with Douglas sharing intermittent lead and backing vocal roles, bassist Jamie Cavanagh, keyboardist Daniel Cardoso and drummer John Douglas — don’t try to remake or directly reinterpret “Panic,” the frenetic emotional and sonic apex of A Fine Day to Exit. After “32.63N 117.14W” starts the journey — if one plugs in the coordinates, it’s a beach off the coast of San Diego; presumably intended to be where the cover art of A Fine Day to Exit takes place and where this take begins — with our character getting in his car and hearing on the radio, among other things, an Anathema song, “Leaving it Behind” picks up with a fervent energy and burst-forth hook the tempo of which will inform even quieter moments like “San Francisco” before finding more direct complement in the later track “Can’t Let Go,” but the bulk of The Optimist‘s 11-song/hour-long runtime is given to lush, patient and deeply resonant emotional fare.

Vincent and Lee bolster an abiding instrumental flow throughout by switching lead-singer duties. He soars in “Leaving it Behind,” she answers back on the subsequent “Endless Ways” over a hair-stand-on-end instrumental wash, and after a ringing phone leads directly into the title-track from there, the two come together over an orchestral swell and rhythmic push held together by John‘s drums and a crescendo of lead guitar. Piano plays a large role throughout, including in “San Francisco,” on which more pulsations are met with crashing cymbal sounds in a five-minute instrumental push that ends in traffic giving way fluidly to “Springfield” as the centerpiece of The Optimist‘s linear presentation. Slower and patient in its build, “Springfield” rolls forward but maintains an airy feel thanks to the echo on Lee‘s vocals, the piano line that remains at its core and the light tone of the lead guitar, but the questions it asks as it moves into its voluminous peak would seem to be the essence of what the album is looking to express and a moment of direct relation to the character of The Optimist himself; a crucial moment on the record given its due in melody and flourish.

anathema

Gentle ride cymbal and keyboard string sounds back Lee‘s vocal highlight performance in “Ghosts,” and a sense of stillness pervades that the quicker, more active rhythm guitar and drum progression — not to mention the far back keyboard swirl — of “Can’t Let Go” immediately contrast, Vincent taking over on vocals as if to emphasize the dynamic that has been at play all throughout The Optimist to one degree or another, and the meticulousness with which Anathema at this stage in their career present their material. A swell of guitar near the halfway point of “Can’t Let Go” arises and brings another melodic wash, but never gets louder than it needs to be, with Danny adding backing harmonies before a long fadeout brings the sound of a door opening and our main character sitting down to watch television/listen to the radio comes on quietly, giving us a sampled line of A Fine Day to Exit opener “Pressure” before the piano-led minimalism of “Close Your Eyes” quickly takes hold, drums and horns sound arriving in the second half behind Lee‘s voice to draw out a jazzy, lounge-style vibe.

The shortest non-intro track at 3:43, “Close Your Eyes” nonetheless distinguishes itself from its surroundings with this semi-experimental feel, and a voice whispers, “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s just a dream. Go back to sleep,” before piano begins the penultimate “Wildfires.” The title-line is delivered in drawling, effected fashion, as is the verse that follows, but an electronic urgency rises in the mix gradually, and at the 3:19 mark, the guitars and drums explode to prominence and a fullness of impact that lets the listener know they’re arriving at the conclusion of the narrative. Vincent‘s voice informs in repetitions, “It’s too late,” over his own lead guitar, and the song cuts to toy piano and guitar to transition into the aforementioned wave sounds that drift into “Back to the Start,” a six-plus-minute grand finale that works on a linear energy as a payoff for the entire course of the album preceding. In its melody and arrangement, it is among the most memorable stretches of The Optimist despite coming at the end of a long and varied trip, and when it’s over, our character walks up, knocks on a door and a voice says, “How are you?” And then it’s over.

One last thing The Optimist shares in common with A Fine Day to Exit is a tossoff, silly, home-recorded-sounding hidden track, but instead of the John Douglas goofing around, this time it’s primarily a child’s voice we hear. That last-minute acknowledgement of time gone by is subtle but evocative of the spirit of The Optimist as a whole, which though it revives a narrative thread the band clearly felt was unfinished, reshapes the story into one that sounds fresh in perspective and execution coming from them as they are today. Anathema‘s creative growth as songwriters has never stopped, and as a result, no two of their albums have found them in the same place in terms of sound. That remains true here, and even as they look to their past, they push brazenly ahead into their future, as ever.

Anathema, “Springfield” official video

Anathema on Thee Facebooks

Anathema on Instagram

Anathema on Twitter

Anathema website

Kscope Music webstore

Kscope Music on Thee Facebooks

Kscope Music on Twitter

Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses to “Anathema, The Optimist: A Fine Day to Return”

  1. Danemon says:

    This is probably the best review I’ve read of the album. It captures the essence and emotion I felt when I listened to the record.

    Some people might say that this album is their weakest in a long time, but I don’t think it’s weak (my least favourite song is Wildfires, the rest I love) it’s just different.

  2. Omnio says:

    It was actually John Douglas that was goofing around in the hidden track on A Fine Day to Exit. That track is officially called In the Dog’s House.

Leave a Reply