Review by Paul Quinton
Released date: 4 June 2014
Try as I might, I cannot think of many bands in such a rich vein of form as Anathema at the moment. From the release of the We’re Here Because We’re Here album in 2010, they’ve now produced three consistently excellent studio albums, a superb live DVD/CD set and have played some gigs that will live long in the memory. The third of these studio records is now with us, Distant Satellites, which not only maintains the ridiculously high standards the band have set in the past few years, but also shows the band shifting ground, looking at new directions, while still being recognisably Anathema.
The opening half of the album is based around the three-part ‘The Lost Song’, with the tracks ‘Dusk (Dark Is Descending)’ and ‘Ariel’ interposed between Parts Two and Three. As is often the case with Anathema, the band start with a simple, almost sparse arrangement to begin the song, a guitar riff or unaccompanied piano figure perhaps, then layer the instruments and vocals, often without the listener realising it’s being done. Part One of ‘the Lost Song’ is a perfect example of this, so as the song reaches its climax the band are in full flight, then stops almost abruptly to begin Part Two, which has another tranquil opening, with a solo piano, before a serene string part and Lee Douglas’ wordless vocal part are introduced, the change between the two songs is almost a jolt, as if someone is bringing a speeding car to a sudden halt, typical of this band’s sense of dynamics.
This opening sequence seems to have an underlying theme of people being separated, not just by distance, but almost by being in or on different worlds and perhaps by death. The line ‘And one day you’ll feel me, a whisper on the breeze’ is repeated regularly, while ‘Dusk’ and ‘Ariel’ repeat the themes of loss and distance. It’s emotionally very effective. Anyone who tells you that progressive rock is soulless music, technicality for its own sake and played for the purpose of showing off has clearly never heard Anathema.
Although the band as a whole is on the very top of their form throughout this record, I have to mention the performance of Lee Douglas. Her place in the band is now as a permanent member, rather than as a regular contributor, and her work on this album is exceptional, highlighted by the opening part of ‘Ariel,’ and the way her voice interacts with Vince Cavanagh’s on the closing sequence of the track is superb.
The second half of the album is a more diverse range of material, but still very Anathema. The track ‘Anathema’ itself is a superb piece of music, already nominated in the Prog Magazine annual awards as ‘Anthem of The Year’. Again the underlying theme is loss, and while this really is a Vince Cavanagh vocal showcase and a personal tour de force, Danny Cavanagh’s guitar solo toward the end of the track is just as good, and the equal of anything I’ve heard on record in the last decade, while the band also show a willingness, not to experiment, as Danny Cavanagh said in an interview with this very website, these facets have always been present in the band, but to highlight them now serves the needs of the track itself.
This is most evident in the title track of the album, while there’s been talk in some quarters about the band trying its hand at electronica on this one, it’s nowhere near as radical a change of direction as, say, a band like Pure Reason Revolution accomplished, it’s more of a way of using the style to enhance the track, starting as it does with a subtle but complex rhythm track, similar to Massive Attack, before the band weave their customary magic around it. Similarly the album closer, ‘Take Shelter’, which again uses the electronic drum beat as a foundation on which the band build the song.
‘Take Shelter’ and ‘You’re Not Alone’ have been mixed by Progressive Rock’s Man Of The Moment Steven Wilson, and there are times when the merest hint of Porcupine Tree can be heard, perhaps in a guitar sound or two, and it was he who made the connections for the superb orchestration on this album to be jointly arranged with Dave Stewart. However, this is clearly Anathema’s album, it has all their trademarks, while still showing the boldness and daring to try to take their music into new areas and to experiment with their signature sound.
Each year, Midlands Rocks asks its contributors to list their own five best albums of the year, and, geek that I am, I keep a sort of running shortlist as the year goes on. Within a couple of weeks of acquiring Distant Satellites, it went straight to the top of this year’s shortlist, undoubtedly the album of the year to date, and likely Album of The Year Winner eventually. A special record from a special band.
9 out of 10
Anathema will embark on a UK tour in September, which includes a date at the Slade Rooms in Wolverhampton on 25 September
- The Lost Song (Part 1)
- The Lost Song (Part 2)
- Dusk (Dark Is Descending)
- The Lost Song (Part 3)
- You’re Not Alone
- Distant Satellites
- Take Shelter