Friday Full-Length: Anathema, Alternative 4

Anathema, Alternative 4 (1998)

 

When I was 18 years old and working at KB Toys store number #1051 at the intersection of Rt. 10 and 202 in Morris Plains, NJ, about a minute from where I’ll be living from now on, a coworker turned me onto Anathema‘s Alternative 4. I bought the CD on his say-so, put it on, heard the piano intro to “Shroud of False” and absolutely didn’t get it. Made no sense to my brain. I tossed the disc into the back of my 1988 Ford Bronco II and it stayed there probably for a few weeks until I finally decided to give it a real shot, and when I did, it was one of my first and most pivotal engagements with underground music, and something that helped set me listening-wise on the course I’m still on today. That coworker kind of turned out to be an asshole, but didn’t we all.

Alternative 4 was indeed Anathema‘s fourth album and the last they’d issue during their original run on Peaceville Records, which had nursed them through their death-doom beginnings from 1992’s The Crestfallen EP across their 1993 debut, Serenades, 1995’s The Silent Enigma and Pentecost III EP and 1996’s Eternity. The band, who will mark their 30th anniversary in 2020 no doubt with form of some celebration or other, already seemed to be in transition by their third album, but it was the 10-song/44-minute Alternative 4 that would push that over the top. Guitarist Vincent Cavanagh had taken over the vocalist role from Darren White following Pentecost III, and that change would prove crucial to their direction on the whole, incorporating elements of goth emotionalist drama and a heavy hand of Floydian progressivism to go with their depressive themes and bouts of still-metal intensity.

But they weren’t just metal anymore, and their use of space in the recording, their arrangements of keys, and most of all their patience, demonstrated that. “Shroud of False” was the outset of one of the most powerful salvos I’ve ever heard on a record, with “Fragile Dreams,” “Empty” and “Lost Control” behind it varying in intensity but united in their depressive expression. Themes of loss, betrayal, disillusionment came to a head in the third anathema alternative 4track: “Nothing left but to kill myself again ‘cos I’m so empty,” but the build to that moment across “Fragile Dreams” and “Empty” itself was gorgeous and troubling in kind, the hook of “Fragile Dreams” serving as a downer clarion as the then-four-piece of Vincent Cavanagh, his brother Danny Cavanagh (lead guitar, keys), Duncan Patterson (bass, keys) and Shaun Taylor-Steels (drums) pushed some of Alternative 4‘s most fervent delivery to the front in order to branch out from there. The violin on “Lost Control” seemed a nod to their own death-hued past as well as to compatriots My Dying Bride, and the thrust in “Re-Connect” was more chaotic than that of “Fragile Dreams,” and purposefully so, but frenetic in a way that evoked the chaos of mania it seemed intended to convey.

Piano returned to introduce “Inner Silence” at the outset of side B as Vincent proved in a single track the vocalist he would ultimately become on subsequent outings, and Danny answered right back with a winding and meditative guitar lead. No verses or choruses or such, but an arrangement that bordered on the orchestral in its wash — particularly given the production of the era — and a perfect lead-in for the darker and brooding low of the title-track, with its multi-movement immersion and play toward minimalism. It and “Regret,” which follows, were the two longest tracks on Alternative 4 at 6:18 and 7:58, respectively, and their pairing was no coincidence, and though “Regret” would pick up from “Alternative 4” with a memorable chorus and a more structured feel on the whole, there’s no question the change in atmosphere brought the listener even deeper into the record’s bleak emotional landscape — “Visions of love and hate/A collage behind my eyes/Remnants of dying laughter/Echoes of silent cries,” the hook. Organ added to the melody as the band traded between loud and quiet parts in the second half and came around to what for me always seemed like the apex of the album, though “Feel” both continued the thread of organ and had more of a crashing end, a kind of anti-doom doom, riding out on fading progression that seemed foreboding even though it was followed by the brief “Destiny,” with its guitar and toy piano and vocal harmonies, a kind of epilogue that ended the record with a sincere-feeling moment of contemplation, underscoring that the point of the whole thing all along was the emotion, and that the moments of bombast were there to serve that as much as the songs themselves.

Some music just hits you at the right time. This is one of those records for me, and A Fine Day to Exit (reissue review here), which they’d release in 2001 after 1999’s Judgement, is among my favorite albums of any era. I wasn’t ready for Judgement on such a quick turnaround, but A Fine Day to Exit and 2003’s A Natural Disaster, which would be their final album until 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here (discussed here), remain essential in my view. Alternative 4 may be somewhat dated in its production, but the songs themselves hold up more than 20 years later, and the emotion behind them still resonates though it’s a direction Anathema have long since left behind in favor of flirtations with more modern prog and a brighter perspective on the whole. Fair enough, I guess. That change would come about on We’re Here Because We’re Here and continue on 2012’s Weather Systems (review here) and 2014’s Distant Satellites before 2017’s The Optimist (review here) picked up the story of A Fine Day to Exit and added fresh perspective at the same time it allowed itself to engage more of a range of styles of craft.

Anathema have never stopped progression. Each record is something different from the one before it, the one after — and don’t get me started on Hindsight or Falling Deeper — but their vision always charts a path forward from where they’ve, and Alternative 4, from as troubled a place as it seems to come, was a special moment for them that only happened once. As a listener, it was for me as well.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

I don’t break out Anathema all the time. Especially not this record. Especially not in summer. This week though, coming down H-A-R-D as I have been from Maryland Doom Fest, we got there. That change, where you go back to real life after the thing, I just haven’t been able to get there. A lot of processing. A lot of sort of distant daydreaming. A lot of trying to distract myself and failing pretty hard at it. I don’t know. I’m just not there. I haven’t been sleeping. Was up at 2:30 this morning, 12:30 the other night, 1AM another night. Yesterday I slept I think. Hard to remember outside of the overall pattern of fucking self-loathing and wishing I was someone else.

When people say nice things to me, a voice in my head immediately contradicts. They don’t know me. They have some idea of me that’s not true. I’d like to be that. But that’s not who I am. I know who I am. Fucking wretched. I am not a good person. I do not appreciate or deserve the things and people I have in my life. It goes on and on. I take pills for it. I’ve been microdosing psilocybin mushrooms every other day for the last couple weeks and that’s made those days easier. But still. I look at my son and know I’ll fail him. Every time someone says he looks like me, I want to die. I look at my wife and know I let her down. I don’t deserve what I have. At all.

So.

We’re in Connecticut this weekend, going back to Jersey on Sunday. I might go to the studio with Solace that day, as they were kind enough to invite me as they did nine years ago when they were finishing A.D., but it depends largely on timing. We’re also starting the Quarterly Review next week. I’ve slated it for six days, but there’s a bit of finagling to do, so whatever. I also need to do Postwax liner notes, send out interview questions to Tony Reed and The Mad Doctors (who are breaking up) and update a visa recommendation letter for Kadavar, so there’s some shit going on either way. Obviously this week I’ve been super-motivated to do anything other than bash my brain in with a fucking hammer.

Baggage claim. That’s mine. Least I can do is be honest about it.

Seriously, at Doom Fest, people said like the nicest shit to me. “Thanks for all you do,” and “How do you do it” and all that. You know how I do it? I’m fucking crazy, is how I do it. I’m compulsive in EVERYTHING. The same drive that used to have me getting drunk by myself at two in the morning? The same drive that punishes myself for, I don’t know, eating a meal? It’s the same fucking thing. It’s all part of my disgusting fucking brain. I’m 37 years old. I can’t even function. I can’t even chew gum like a human being. I’m supposed to raise a kid? I can feel myself poisoning everything around me.

Next week will be better. Will it? Yeah, it will. I’ll do the Quarterly Review and that’ll get me out of my head for a little bit, give me something to focus on. It’s just exhausting in the meantime.

I’m gonna pour myself another coffee and go watch the sunrise. Great, safe. Forum, radio, merch.

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