Review of Anathema, THE OPTIMIST (Kscope, 2017).
THE OPTIMIST is a wonderful album, a true expression of the best that is in, ironically enough, a band named Anathema.
When the band returned to the music scene after a five-year absence in 2008 with a reworking of their previous music, HINDSIGHT, I was pretty much smitten. Then, in 2010, with the release of their first proper album in seven years, WE’RE HERE BECAUSE WE’RE HERE, up through their 2013 live album, UNIVERSAL, Anathema was not only not only gloriously on fire but, perhaps, unstoppable.
For what it’s worth, I think the band’s UNIVERSAL is the single finest live album I’ve encountered in my 49 years. Even better than EXIT STAGE LEFT. For those of you who know me, this is a major admission. The video of the concert is especially impressive, especially as the band gives every single thing each member has to the performance.
From my perspective, though, Anathema’s 2014 release DISTANT SATELLITES derailed the near magical momentum of the band. It’s not that the album isn’t good, it is. It simply feels like the band wrote an album mimicking themselves. I know that a lot of Anathema fans disagree with me on this, and I’ve never received such push back on anything I’ve written as I did from the review I wrote of DISTANT SATELLITES.
Regardless. . . THE OPTIMIST is a beautiful return to all that is best in Anathema. It’s still very much an Anathema album, but it is also a story, in and of itself, and the band is not afraid to incorporate a number of different musical styles to keep the narrative moving. Following, loosely, the man who disappeared from the 2001 Anathema album, A FINE DAY TO EXIT, THE OPTIMIST is the story of a northward journey along the Pacific Coast of North America. From the tuning in and out of radio stations to railway crossings to opening cabin doors and clicking the tv remote, audio effects jump out at the listener throughout the album. In many ways, strangely enough, they help tie the album together, giving it the real feel of a car trip or, perhaps, a trip from the lower levels to the upper levels of purgatory. I really can’t tell which it is, as the band has successfully create a story at once quite realistic and quite mystical.
As noted above, the band is still the band, but they willingly and ably incorporate a number of styles generally not their own. The guitar on track two, “Leaving It Behind,” for example, is very clearly imitating Alex Lifeson’s style and riffs from side two of PERMANENT WAVES. Track three, “Endless Ways,” borrows The Edge’s guitar work from the first five U2 albums. Track nine, “Close Your Eyes,” could easily have appeared in one of Clint Eastwood’s movies from the 1970s. Other songs, such as the gorgeous “Ghosts,” could’ve have appeared on WE’RE HERE BECAUSE WE’RE HERE, but given the context as well as the incorporation of the other styles, feels fresh and alive.
As a band, Anathema brings much to rock It’s three greatest strengths, however, are 1) the interplay and complexities of the vocals; 2) the flow of an album; and 3) it’s ability to make the spiritual real.
When it comes to these three things, Anathema not only succeeds, but truly excels. THE OPTIMIST will certainly be regarded as one of the best releases of 2017 and justly so. Since receiving the review copy, I’ve listened to it at least twenty times, and I’m already eager to get my physical copy on June 5.