It was only last night that we ran a Love Letter to Anathema‘s Weather Systems. That post was perhaps not large enough in scope as it should have really been addressed to the band’s entire discography. Anathema are one of this reviewer’s favorite bands, a pillar of his personality and perspective on life. It is only natural then that any new release comes accompanied with trepidation. When Distant Satellites presented an image of Anathema quite different than Weather Systems, most listeners were overjoyed; the band seemed to handle the summit well, not opting to remain frozen in place. But now, The Optimist is here and the question remains: what strange lands do we find ourselves in with Anathema and what is the purpose of the band’s post-masterpiece?
The answer is, apparently, a continuing exploration. The Optimist sees the band tweaking the sound found on Distant Satellites while also reaching further back into progressive rock, pulling forth vocal lines, ideas, and themes from their own discography and those of many other great bands. Naturally, Steven Wilson‘s sound almost has to be referenced here; his mark on the band is well known and documented. However, you might be surprised to hear other bands being name dropped, like The Beatles or Yes. As the album itself beseeches us in its closing, let’s go back to the start and better understand what Anathema were aiming for with The Optimist.
The album itself is a story told in reverse, its protagonist a man facing disorientation and loss in his life, its genre the dark kind of Americana enshrined in books like Blood Meridian or American Gods. Over the backwards journey our character, probably the one dubbed as “the optimist”, unravels his own life and personality, coming face to face with his deepest fears and desires. This is conveyed in music by two main types of tracks found on the album. One is the more abrasively electronic style first introduced on Distant Satellites‘s closing track; deep drums echo subliminally, lending tracks like “Leaving it Behind” a beguilingly ringing tempo.
These tracks, like “Wildfires”, nearer the end of the album, can communicate a wide range of emotions but mostly focus on the urgent or the distressing. The other type of track on the album fills in “the blanks”, completing the emotional palette of the character’s journey and tying The Optimist back into Anathema’s discography. “Endless Ways” is a great example of that, going as far as quoting the band’s three part track, “The Lost Song”. This beautiful track also reminds us of a fact we might have forgotten: Lee Douglas is absolutely incredible and we are all the better for having heard her sing, even once. Her treatment of the poignant track is chillingly effective and the presence of more audible electronics only does her good.
These then are the two tracks on which The Optimist runs. These two forms, the complimentary parts of the album, still don’t tell the full story, however. To achieve that, we must give special attention to the closing notes, to “Back to the Start”. This is where Anathema most depart from their formula and inject all of those “older” influences we hinted at the start (get it?) of the review. First, the opening, which mind have easily fit on Pink Floyd‘s Wish You Were Here, focusing on the guitars and the sweet vocal lines. The track even has a sample of a cheering crowd over psychedelic guitars, perhaps referencing Pink Floyd’s “Fearless”. However, nearer the middle of the track, a huge chorus dominates the track and, indeed, the album, making it wholly Anathema’s track.
This absolutely massive chorus, chanting the name of the track over and over again, would have made the entire album worthwhile, even if the rest of it hadn’t been as good as it is. Hearing Anathema give their voices flight (all members of the band are represented and play their part in this penultimate chorus) is a pure joy, the unbridled emotions contained within the album and the band’s previous releases given a rare moment of catharsis. The string parts, torn straight from The Beatles’ playbook, accompany this elation, transforming the whole thing into an a-temporal statement from the band on life, their own music, and what’s to keep coming.
From these heights, following absolute silence and thus constituting a “hidden track”, The Optimist ends on the sounds of a man playing with his child. Who this man is (probably one of the Cavanagh brothers) is immaterial; the fact which matters is where Anathema chose to end this album and what it means for its music and message.
God. We don’t deserve this band.
Anathema’s The Optimist releases on June 9th via Kscope Records (those beautiful bastards). You can pre-order it here.