How does one harness the power to improve oneself from a flawed starting point? This bootstrap question plagues the mind of millions of people every day. “Plague” is the right word here; there exists little doubt that mental illness, specifically depression, is one of the great ills of modern existence. And so, we are faced every day with the question: how do we take what we have, which is often flawed and weak, and build a better future from it? As in a lot of things, music can show us a way. In fact, it can show us many different ways: diving deep into the sadness and delving what can be found there, turning to rage to combat it, expressing it in an attempt to abjure it and many more possible answers. However, this piece is most concerned with what can be broadly spoken of as a more “effective” way and that is transformation.
Transformation is a tricky subject: we all know that change is an inherent part of life but we also recognize that a lot of things remain the same. Indeed, have you ever seen something change so completely you can no longer recognize it for what it was? That’s a rare thing. Therefore, when we speak of transformation we’re not talking about a complete change, where every single part of something morphs, mutates and becomes completely different. We are instead referring to re-exploration, a re-understanding of things and how you thought they are while keeping hold of certain foundations and vectors of thought.
So, what does this have to do with music? That depends on what sort of music we’re talking about or, more specifically, which band. To be sure, there is a host of bands out there that don’t change one iota over the years (and sometimes, rarely, that’s a good thing). But, if we focus on an example of a band that has transformed, that has changed what and who they are while still keeping hold to what made them fundamentally themselves, we can learn a great deal. The quintessential example, the most successful, moving and downright awe-inspiring example of such a transformation, is Anathema. By diving deep into how, why and when they changed, we can get more intimate with this idea of reforming ourselves, of changing while staying the same. On a personal note, let me say before we begin that I speak from experience: Anathema touched the core of me in a time in my life when everything seemed lost. They taught me how to move, breathe and change while still staying who I am and was. I invite you now to a glimpse of that, an exploration of what makes the transformation of Anathema so relevant and powerful in our lives. Maybe they can help you too.
It appears that the transformation of Anathema would unfold most easily under a chronological analysis. It is best to begin in the beginning, pardon the cliche. And so, simply tracking the band’s progress as the years go by will reveal the unique direction and intention of their creations. Along the way, stress points will become clear and we can then dig into the meaning of each one, understanding its importance for the whole and its impact on the future development of Anathema’s sound and meaning.
When reviewing Anathema’s long career, we can point out three “phases” and two points of transformation. Anathema started off as a doom metal band. Garnering much critical acclaim, their first three albums were emotional, depressing and angry. Possibly likened to Paradise Lost in their quality, their aesthetics speak to the same sources of inspiration: harsh landscapes, statues of angels, mythological creatures and the like. Even the font of their band name is characteristic, drawing on the penchant for the romantic and grandiose that permeates that sub-genre. This phase raises an important point for our needs: Anathema didn’t change because they were unsuccessful. The situation was not one of looking for an audience or commercial success. They had both of those; The Silent Enigma is still one of the most celebrated and lauded albums of the time and genre they were working in.
But change was coming. It was accompanied by lineup changes as well, fueled by the vision of Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh. This duo would fast become the core of the band, propelling it into the future with their voices, hearts and egos. For now had arrived the first moment of transformation, the shift from doom metal into…something of their own. The release of both Alternative 4 and Judgement were crucial moments in the band’s career: released year after year (1998 and 1999 respectively) they seem to be creatures completely different than the three albums before them: completely gone were the harsh vocals and most of the distorted guitars as well. In their place came a reliance on a sort of poignant, intensely melancholic and beautiful rock that echoed Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree (it’s worth noting that Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun also came out around this time, perhaps Wilson’s deepest sojourn in the realms of this kind of music and that the band would later on work with him as a producer).
Our major point about transformation and how it retains elements prior to its existence can be seen here, in the first of Anathema’s two changes. No matter how different the sound and the overall atmosphere of the album, the underlying intention and vision are the same. The subject matter, the message contained within it and the outlook on life and the self, present a clear continuation and maturation, not a break. It might serve to take a look at some lyrics as an example of that. After Judgement came two albums which are often seen as “echo” albums, just iterations of what came before, and are thus criminally overlooked; these are A Fine Day to Exit and A Natural Disaster. However, inspecting them can provide a key insight into the many things that pulse beneath Anathema’s music. Take a look at these lyrics from “Pulled Under at 200 Metres a Second”, one of the best track from A Natural Disaster:
Lying insane getting soaked in the rain
Draining the sky of the guilt and the shame
The nightmare is coming the clouds are descending
Pulled under two thousand metres a second
Clawing at walls that just slip through my fingers
Darkness consuming collapsing and breaking
Distilled paranoia seeped into the walls
And filled in the cracks with the whispering calls
Shadows are forming take heed of the warnings
Creeping around at four in the morning
Lie to myself start a brand new beginning
But I’m losing my time in this fear of living
Now compare to them to this tidbit from “Cerulean Twilight”, a track off the much earlier The Silent Enigma:
My mind is burning, I’m burning
I can’t feel you anymore
Have I reached my point?
Will I drown in delusion?
The winds fell silent
And in my cerulean twilight
I left myself once again
Suffer yourself, and let me die here awhile
Are they the same? Hardly. For one, the lyrics from A Natural Disaster are much more developed and fully realized. For another, the music that plays alongside them is very different. But do the intentions bear a certain mark? Can an outlook on life and the self be discerned? Certainly. We don’t have space here to analyze even more lyrics but if you take the time to do so (around ten hours should give you a firm grasp on their entire back catalogue) you’ll hear that voice as well. Thus, we have our first example of transformation: Anathema changed so much during these years and yet retained what they wanted to say, albeit much matured and developed. Like a hermit crab, the outer shell was discarded but the flesh beneath stayed the same.
However, if only one transformation had taken place we wouldn’t sitting here, me boring you with all these words and all. No, somewhere in the deep mind of Anathema, something was brewing. And, as deep thoughts often do, it took a long time for that fermentation to come to fruition. Seven years to be exact, as We’re Here Because We’re Here burst out onto the scene in 2010. And burst out it did and still does, opening with the explosively optimistic, intoxicatingly proud and powerful “Thin Air”. From the first chords of this track you can tell that something is different. Indeed, the title of the album itself says it all: from a band wandering in the squalor of despair, in a bottomless questioning of who and what and why they were, erupted this towering fountain of power and self assured hope.
Hope. From Anathema! I still remember the shock I had when I first pressed play. I had waited for this album for four years, having been introduced to the band by a friend in 2006, and it was nothing like what I expected. I loved it but little did I know that my expectations were about to be put to a much larger strain: 2012 was coming and with it the magnum opus of Anathema’s by-then long progress. When Weather Systems was released, I was struck speechless. Literally: I spent a week holed up in my room, endlessly playing it over and over again, all words and thought lost to the outside world. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about it. When people spoke to me I answered absently, half there but mostly in the album.
Weather Systems is the closest I’ve ever come to hearing aural perfection. But was it that makes it so powerful? Put frankly, and reaching the core, finally, of this article, it was the energy contained within a true transformation which includes acceptance of who you are coupled with a breaking of that mold and a departure into new places. Weather Systems is so wholly Anathema, so in touch with their sound and what they are, that it enables it to shatter all those preconceptions and drive towards new heights. We’re Here Because We’re Here is a great album, but it still bears the shackles of the albums before it: the piano, the vocals, the strings, all stayed too much alike while the subject matter changed.
But on Weather Systems all bets were off. Finally, Anathema had arrived at that place that, I believe, they had aimed for all along. Some of us on the blog staff believe that a new sub-genre was born. We call it, half-jokingly, power-pop/rock. It takes the intense emotional basis of what Anathema has always been about and overdrives it into eleven. It takes their basic timbre and magnifies it, channeling it through a fierce, unconditional, impossible to contain lyrical content about what we can achieve, who we can be, where do we go from here and why. And, somehow, impossibly, it’s still so much Anathema, so much similar to where they began and all the stages they had passed through since then, that you instantly recognize them. The larger piano is still, somehow, the same piano. The vocals, now spanning the mighty distances of the heart, are still the intimate and angry voices we’ve known for years. The sojourns in intense sadness are higher strung but they still contain the same outlook, the same place that the self had always had.
That is true transformation. Their most recent album, Distant Satellites (2014), continues this path: much darker than Weather Systems, it is a logical step forward, a further delving into what makes Anathema great. I promised you a lesson, something relevant to your own lives. I’m not one for grandiose statements about life, the human condition or what one ought to do. But I can tell you what Anathema taught me. They taught me that being depressed is a perfectly legitimate thing. They taught me that accepting that and learning to channel it is the only to keep going. That it’s not about getting better, growing up or overcoming anything. Finally, they taught me, through their music, their growth and their intent, that only by reaching deep into those dark places and seeing what unique, beautiful and heart breaking things can be born from there can I find some measure of peace. A lot of that is contained in what the new album is: they didn’t feel compelled to continue this more hopeful, optimistic line that was set in Weather Systems. They chose to go back to the darkness, to create again a more dower album.
And for that, I owe them an incredible debt. Their road stretches out before them and I can’t wait to see what they do with it, what new places their music takes them. But for now, looking back on their already impressive achievements gives me hope for my own transformations, integral part that they are of anyone of our lives. I invite you to dive deep into the same journey and use this article as a stepping stone into a wonderful and downright important band.