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Anathema - Distant Satellites CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

3.65 | 466 ratings

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4 stars In Transition

Something occurred to me a few months ago about Anathema, whilst I was watching last year's Universal concert film, a stunning live show recorded in an amphitheatre in Bulgaria. I was supposed to be blown away, and to a certain extent I was, but for some odd reason, hearing 20 songs by this band played back to back made me really notice how formulaic they are. While most bands stick to the age-old verse-chorus formula, Anathema tend to just pick a relatively simple motif (preferably in 5/4) and build on it a tiny bit at each repeat, with a new melody or a new instrument, until after a few minutes it's just on fire with brilliant colours. And then it will cut, the band will drop down to near-silence, and they'll start again with a different melody (but keeping some link to the first one) and make the second crescendo even bigger and more beautiful than the first. Comparisons to Godspeed You! Black Emperor are actually rather apt, even though Anathema seem far away from them in genre. Anathema have essentially invented themselves a song format to beat until death. And it's incredible, and I love it, but it happens in nearly every song and I could almost see this band running out of steam soon.

Firstly - I must begin with saying that over the last two years Anathema's Weather Systems has become my second favourite album of all time, and the band also my number 2. I remember saying that I had low expectations for the follow-up to that album, since topping something perfect is often very difficult, but I also said than anything less than an 8 would be somewhat disappointing. So, I guess by definition, this album is a disappointment, because that score was indeed not met, but there are a couple of things I didn't expect from this band that have sort of kind of made up for that.

Distant Satellites is a transitional album. I've always hated the term "transitional album", because it always seems to be excusing a band of a weaker album, but this is certainly what it is. The way I see it, there are two types of transitional albums:

1. Getting sick of the old style but not really wanting to change out of fear of fan hatred and resulting in a generally weaker album

See: The Incident, and I guess Anathema's own A Fine Day to Exit

2. Knowing what style to pursue next, but not wanting to jump right into it, so producing an album with a couple of glimpses of the new sound that isn't quite as cohesive

See: Autotheism, The Hunter, and even Opeth's Watershed if Heritage wasn't such a big change

In a sense, Distant Satellites is both of these at the same time, divided conveniently down the middle with the band's own self-titled track (moronic idea if you ask me). The first half of the album sees Anathema pulling out some pretty by-numbers tracks reminiscent of the last couple of albums, but none of the songs really stand out above the stuff on those records, and it ends up being just "pretty good", in the same way that an album like The Incident was. The second half, however, sees some brand new stuff coming in, with the band diving headfirst into electronics, with particular influence from Drum and Bass and Vocal Trance fields. It's definitely a new sound for them, and it brings some great new possibilities for the future of their music, but here it does feel a bit like an afterthought, and coming in only in the second half of the record doesn't really help the cohesion of the album.

I'll talk a bit about the first half though, because even though it's weaker than the previous albums it's still pretty good. Opening with the first two parts of "The Lost Song", it's clear that Anathema are trying to cash in on the winning formula of "Untouchable" from Weather Systems. And even though they are repeating themselves, I don't mind, since I absolutely fell in love with that idea. Like Untouchable, both these first songs share a melody that soars over the crescendo, and also like Untouchable, the first part is upbeat and quick, energetic and intense, whereas the second is melancholic and moody, focusing on piano over guitar, and once again having Lee Douglas sing lead. The first part has an absolutely awesome drum beat that runs through the whole song, a never-changing 5/4 groove that I have honestly never heard before (and I've heard a lot of 5/4 grooves). It's ever-so-slightly off-kilter, yet the skipped beat adds a great pace to the song, picking it up and making it quite lively. But there's a downside to this beat, and that is the awkwardness of putting vocal parts over the top. Both during Part 1 and Part 3 (which reprises the same beat), Lee and Vincent are struggling to make their vocal parts mesh with the instrumentation, regularly settling to just holding one note for a whole bar. As much as I like the chord progression and rhythm, vocally Part 1 doesn't really hit home until near the crescendo, with the "My life? like a hurricane" lyric and that epic finish on the drums.

But as much as I like moments in these tracks - Parts 1 and 3 have some absolutely chilling harmonies between Lee and Vincent, I can't help but tssk at the blatant rehashing of Untouchable, and the truth is that neither of these songs have melodies that even touch (har har) the glory of the first 11 minute of Weather Systems. And then there's the unnecessary inclusion of Part 3. Sure, it has some great harmonies and that nice beat again, but what does it do that isn't already done in the first two parts? I honestly feel as if this song is here so the band doesn't completely rip themselves off.

The two tracks that come in between The Lost Song Parts 2 and 3 both sort of feel half-finished, and neither of them really add much to the album, although they both have nice parts. "Dusk", with its dark and moody opening and use of quick beats, immediately reminds me of "The Storm Before The Calm", and like that song, I'm not really a massive fan. It's decent, and it does break the pattern a bit, but I feel the unnecessary over-emotion in the chorus, as well as the weird attempts at dissonance in the vocal harmonies make the song a bit annoying in my ears, but unlike The Storm Before The Calm, it doesn't have the absolutely phenomenal last couple of minutes to redeem itself. It tries, I'll admit, but the pleasant last few minutes don't quite amass to enough to really blow me away. And then "Ariel", which bases itself entirely around a quite nice 7/4 piano melody, comes in and really never changes throughout its length. I do enjoy that melody and I enjoy some of the other melodies that come in later on, but it's just too empty to compare with their material of recent times. And then we have the band's pretentiously self- titled track (is it supposed to make it more significant or something?) which is probably the best song on the album to be completely honest, but all it takes to be that is to do the good ol' Anathema crescendo, but with a better melody than the other tracks. The guitar solo here is blisteringly intense, calling to mind all sorts of Floyd comparisons, but I do also feel it's trying really hard to be that, and without the melody to back it, it really doesn't come off as anything more than just 'good'.

But after that, the album takes a headfirst dive into a completely new sound, beginning with "You're Not Alone", a spastic three-minute onslaught of DnB beats and repetitive vocal lines. Probably the biggest compliment I can give this album is how well-produced the beats here are. Too many times we've seen rock bands go into electronic music with absolutely no knowledge of how to construct a good beat, and ending up sounding embarrassingly bad, but Anathema have actually got a great hand in this, all of the beats here scutter all over the place, using surround sound and timbre excellently. "You're Not Alone", as a song, is essentially a less compelling version of "Pulled Under at 2000 Metres Per Second" from A Natural Disaster, and although I can commend the beat and the rather heavy finish, both the guitar and vocals in this song get rather annoying, especially the way Vincent takes a massive breath every few seconds in the vocals. If you're going to electronically make drum beats, why not electronically edit the vocals so they don't sound strained?

The song finishes straight into "Firelight", which is honestly a poor transition, despite being a transitional track. After a few minutes of organ/synth things, it builds into the title track (the album's title track, not the band's title track) with another very nice electronic beat. I would actually call this track the best on the album instead of the other title track, but at 8 minutes with only one real melody to hold it, it does drag on an awful lot. But the melody here is excellent, as are the instruments and electronics. Most of this track reminds me an awful lot of Above & Beyond, and not just the electronic side - both the vocal melody and piano feel very much like something an electronic artist would do, yet somehow still sounding like Anathema, which does show how well they could transition into this style. The final track on the album, "Take Shelter" contains another good beat, but I'm not entirely certain this fits with the music - the beat is rather quick and paced, yet the music is slow and melancholic. But it starts to make sense as the beat smoothly transitions into acoustic drums and the song rises up into pretty much the best crescendo on the album.

I realise that I've been a bit harsh on this record, but I assure you that that is basically because of my constant comparing it to Weather Systems. Compositionally, Distant Satellites is easily the weakest output of this band since 2001, but at the same time, it feels like the beginning of a new chapter, which is an incredible achievement for a band with 20 years behind them. The album has no outstanding tracks, but a collection of "pretty good" 7/10 tracks does add up on the whole. This may be a transitional record, and it may be a weaker composition, but I, and many others, completely expected this band to just decline and leave after Weather Systems. I suppose in hindsight, it does feel normal for them to change up and keep going, but I'm still impressed that they've done it. Distant Satellites isn't a hiccup, it's a realignment. I'm sure that once the band settles into their new style, their compositional genius will return in full form. Weather Systems felt like the absolute best thing they could ever do, but Distant Satellites has grabbed me by the neck and yelled "Hey, we aren't finished yet!". It's not likely this album will gain the same praise that the last two albums have gained in the future, but it still shows so much promise for the future of this band.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 4/5 |


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