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Anathema - Distant Satellites CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

3.65 | 463 ratings

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3 stars Prog, post-rock, metal, borderline mainstream rock?

10 albums in, and it's hard to really know what to call this style of music, other than Anathema-style.

Yes, this is Prog Archives, so technically this is for progressive acts. Whilst this Liverpudlian 6-piece can't be said to produce much that could be considered prog rock, they could always lay claim to being progressive in their style of music, in much the same way Radiohead have moved through the gears from Grunge, Alternative, Prog, Avent Garde and now' Radiohead. With Distant Satellites though, I'm no longer sure that even that is now true of Anathema as it appears they have found their niche and their signature and are sticking with it resolutely, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. Satellites has some elements that are virtually interchangeable with Weather Systems , most notably the high-tempo, uplifting opening track, segueing into a soulful, pop-ballad second part. Similarly, the album closes with another variant of the chilled / spatial epic and you can also rest assured that each song is going to be loud and powerful at some point. Where their latest offering differs though is some of the texture and sound, with a more dolly mixtures style of song choice and order. Where Weather Systems benefited from a very consistent mood, theme and quality in the opening two-thirds (before a sharp nose-dive for the last three tracks), Satellites mixes things up a little bit, a little more in the style of A Natural Disaster, with some strong electronic flourishes and a high emphasis on atmosphere.

The afore mentioned 2-part Lost Song opens the album and serves as a reliably recognisable introduction, in much the same way Untouchable did. The time signature (5/4, is it?) is at least something novel and makes for an interesting edge to the song which is otherwise very similar to Untouchable in both its steady build to the satisfying midway arrival of surging guitars and also the way it can't quite keep the momentum going and loses its way a little toward the end. Lyrically it is simple and raw and anthemic, albeit in a punctuated way.

The way in which Part 1 gives way to Part 2 is also unerringly similar to Weather systems. A slow-paced, piano drive pop ballad serves to contrast to the rocking opener, but this one belongs solely to Lee Douglas vocally, unlike the duet from Weather Systems. Lyrically, this is very familiar territory, but the effectiveness of the song is raised significantly by Lee's finest vocal performance to date and some very polished production.

Dusk (Dark is Descending) is where Distant Satellites' problems start to become apparent. Dusk is a fine song in many ways with a reasonable acoustic riff, strong vocals and lot of passion, but it's also dripping in anonymity. A strong album needs consistency and a steady flow of good songs. By track 3, the stall is normally set: with Weather Systems we had the excellent, operatic storm surge of The Gathering of the Clouds that blended perfectly with the somber, emotional coda of track 2 and segued masterfully into Lightning Song. We're Here didn't have the same thematic conceptual link, but at least had some very fine contrast to the powerful Summernight Horizon with Dreaming Light's peaceful ode to love and life. Dusk, on the other hand, feels like pure filler and smacks of the same by- the-numbers construction methodology last heard on The Beginning and the End, which helped to bring the end of Weather Systems down with a dull thud. There's nothing remotely wrong with Dusk per se. It's just uninspired, derivative and without focus. It feels like it's been phoned in and it's a loss of momentum that occurs too early in the album.

Ariel, track 4, brings us back to Weather Systems territory and provides another radio- friendly anthemic bookend to the louder, more guitar-driven rock that had preceded it. The lyrics are simple again and the duet vocals work reasonably well, with Vincent Cavanagh's soaring voice accompanying a heavy mid-section and some well-considered chord progressions that were withheld from the start. Daniel Cavanagh's almost whispered vocal line at the end is another nice touch.

Breaking tradition with the songs that only have 2 parts (and I include The Storm Before the Calm in that too), the 5th track on the album is probably Distant Satellites' strongest moment. The Lost Song, Part 3, is an alternative take on the long-forgotten riff that served as the DNA to the opening two tracks on the album. It's a re-tread of part 1, to be sure (which presumably came first), but it's the stronger of the two, with alternating vocalists and more substantial lyrics and a satisfying climax that doesn't lose momentum or rely on repetition.

Anathema, the eponymous track, seems to be well revered amongst fans and it does offer a very apt tip-of-the-hat to their more classic Judgement-era Metal. The lyrics are decent and the vocals soaring (when are they not), but ' neat repeating piano hook aside ' it perhaps doesn't go where it could have gone and just culminates in an archetypal gothic metal guitar solo at the end, which probably goes on a few bars too long. It's good, but it's not the anthemic masterpiece that some might have you believe.

Track 7 marks the entry to Electronic territory and the beginning of a shaky path for the band, veering from sublime, to mundane, to ridiculous over the course of the next 4 tracks. You're Not Alone serves as Danny's sole lead vocal, although it's probably as much a bona fide vocal as Nick Mason's is on Pink Floyd's One of These Days. I've seen a review mention The Gathering of the Clouds as a reference point for this song, but they are poles apart: one is a swirling maelstrom of overlapping vocals and operatic orchestral, complimenting perfectly the songs it follows and precedes; the other, sadly, is a stark, loud and brash ode to Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead which runs maybe 60 seconds too long (and it's barely 3 minutes long as it is) and which sports a cool drum-and-bass loop, but then murders a great Steven Wilson-sculpted guitar thrash but replaying it at least twice as often as it should.

Next is probably the best 6 minutes on the album. Firelight is a Wine Glasses (Pink Floyd outtake) style serving of pure electronic ambience, cycling through some beautiful chords and ending on a lovely note that segues seamlessly into the title track of the album and the place where many Anathema fans have been polarised. Distant Satellites, the song, has been long in the gestation and had only recently found the right incarnation in the form of what could easily be described as club trance. How the song has finally been captured fits the band right now and where one of the directions they want to take their music. I get that and I think for more than half of its running time it works a treat. The electronic drum loop is marvellous and accompanies Firelight's warm organ sound perfectly before Vincent's dreamy pop-vocals come in. If you heard this on the radio, you might struggle to think that this was from a band that exists in the Prog world (however they may or may not respond to such labelling) or whether this was from something altogether more radio-friendly and main stream. My response to this is that there's nothing wrong with having a pop song thrown into the mix (there's at least one on every Steven Wilson band record) and the vocal hooks on this one are a knock-out, even if it does, for some reason, reminds me of Under Your Thumb by Godley and Cream.

But sadly, for me, and in a fashion too common on this LP, it loses its momentum just over half way through. After the baseline and the analogue beats have kicked in, we are promised another bi-polar Anathema experience as vocal chanting almost summons the track to ascend and reach a crescendo, only for it to plummet back to the median. When I first heard the song, I was sensing an extended instrumental sequence and then a surging final act, much like Genesis' sublime Tonight, Tonight, Tonight and, in truth, much in keeping with Anathema's tried and tested formula from recent records. But instead, what we're left with is a muted club 'doof-doof' beat, coupled with a harmless synth line that, whilst fine, isn't what it could have been and doesn't seem to suit the song. That the chorus returns and repeats itself far too often, somewhat spoils the effect of its first appearance, particularly as it doesn't work as well over the higher-tempo beats than it did over the synths and loop. The last thirty seconds of electro-dance outro and ok, but the damage is done and each time I hear this, I am left with the ironic notion that ' on this album at least - this was the one song that desperately needed an Anathema-branded surging climax, whereas there are plenty of others that need exactly that amputated from their production. Where songs like Thin Air, A Simple Mistake and Universal changed tact, pace or style half way through to resounding effect, Distant Satellites tries to do the same, but falls short.

After the potential high of Distant Satellites, Take Shelter becomes just a neat little footnote and a pleasant enough climax to the album: nothing more. It's well produced, although the drum loop doesn't really work, and has a fitting sense of closure to it, but it's more of an extended coda to another song altogether, rather than a song in its own right.

And there we have it. I've been on and off writing this review for a few weeks now and wanted to wait until had stopped playing the record endlessly to truly put it into context. Whilst I remain a very ardent (and recent) Anathema fan that will look forward to their next album (and especially to their first appearance in Australia in August 2014), I am left a little disappointed by the LP as a whole. It borrows much from both We're Here Because We're Here and Weather Systems, and every time it does, I find both predecessors superior. It's only where Distant Satellites departs from the tried and tested that it succeeds, but this is more sound and style then song structure and those experiments don't always work.

Whilst Anathema's destiny is interesting and promises much, there are aspects of their music that they need to try and evolve (particularly the monotone lyrics and highly repetitive themes of dreaming, new life and finding a soul mate), but also others where they need to look back to their previous works for inspiration. Yes this is probably a transitional album, and that's okay (if I can forgive Radiohead the truly uninspiring King of Limbs, then I can forgive anyone), but I've always found myself saying that their next album needed to be the masterpiece and this one wasn't, meaning the next one needs to be. I also think that, much as they want to avoid the 'Progressive' label, they would benefit from embracing some of the staples of the genre. When they've come close to this (the sublime Violence, the Floydian epic and the bombastic Calm Before the Storm), they've generally always pulled it off.

As much as the band should embrace new directions and fresh styles that inspire them, they also need to remember that great albums are born of great songs and an artistic direction and theme that captures a listener. It's an album that captures all of these elements that I would wish for next.

blueavenger | 3/5 |


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