Perhaps I should always read sleeve notes and promotional materials that frequently accompany releases. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing the point of any album because of this. Then I usually conclude that the album should stand up or fall on its own merits as a collection of musical works. The young, less blobby, busy Phil – you probably knew someone like him; unsullied by the ravages of time; the one who delicately placed the sacred vinyl on the platter and then, spreading the gatefold out, soaked up the details like an information sponge – has long since been replaced by an aged facsimile of their younger self, worn down by life and responsibility and with the attention span of a sock. No sleeve notes, no press release and only one previous Anathema release under my belt – the award-winning We’re Here Because We’re Here, that should assure you, dear reader, that you’re not going to get a fan-boy review. It is so much easier to stream digital media to that special room with the commode in it. This is arguably the ultimate musical experience. Uncluttered, with hardly a distraction. That’s how I did the review. Pure music. Mostly.
There’s seven years between my last Anathema album and The Optimist. I don’t know why. Whenever it pops up in one of my random playlists I will never fast forward it. There’s energy and riffs and beauty in droves from this band and yet there’s a quality that almost relegates it to the bottom-of-the-favourites list. I’m sure it deserves better and in fact the more I hear them, the more that last sentence seems easily discreditable. If the album were playing whilst my list was being compiled then I’d have to include that WHBWH album in a list of my favourites. But still it retreats into my sub-conscience when it isn’t playing. For all that, the chance to review another Anathema album was one that I couldn’t pass up! Could The Optimist be an album that has that undefinable quality putting it at the forefront of my consciousness when I’m compiling that aforementioned list? Intentions were high as I began listening.
I have a low threshold for formulaic music aping the styles of bands who I have heard before. You would have to be putting your influences together in an innovative way to land this fish. Paradoxically, there are aspects of music that will always get me going… a groove, a good bass line, a riff, any of which might have some aspect of familiarity that I can latch onto. Anathema do not disappoint me. If they ape anyone then I don’t care. They have the grooves, the riffs and they have employed them to good effect on The Optimist. Like with my last Anathema experience, there isn’t one track on this album that I would fast forward. No filler. There’s nothing much in the way of your traditional hook, but there are riffs, rhythm…
Riff, lather, repeat.
On The Optimist Anathema (or ana.thema if you take their album cover literally) will take a riff and run with it. There’s nothing new in that approach, but then, it isn’t a bad one. Sometimes a song is the riff and a variation of the riff. Now I happen to like that, especially with a good riff. But that isn’t for everyone. I played it to The Boy. His feedback suggested that he was less enamoured of this album because of it. I don’t agree. I could picture myself, as mashed as potato, standing in a dark field with this album pumping loud into the night… or zoning-out to it in a festival amongst other similarly spaced out individuals of no permanent fixed hygiene regimen.
This album has the feel of a movie soundtrack and vocals seem to be used to augment the overall musical experience than as the centre-stage presence of any one performance. At the time of writing they had chosen track 6, Springfield, as the now customary accompanying YouTube video to the album’s release.
The reason I highlight the track is because I think Anathema chose this deliberately as a microcosm of the entire album, with hints of majesty and songs that ascend from their foundation riffs. The album is garnished with some nice little sound excursions, whispering voices, soothing and reassuring soundbites, the crunch of gravel beneath booted feet, an open question… all of which feel like tiny little connected one act plays that spark intrigue. These attributes gave the additional feel of a concept album or at least, the sounds give that impression. The songs are either simply mutually exclusive tracks with only the performers in common or, maybe, clues to a puzzle that is an underlying narrative, a puzzle that I’d probably be able to solve if only I had read sleeve notes and promotional materials or perhaps, was more au fait with Anathema. This made me want to find out whether I’d just imagined a narrative and so I found this on the Kscope/Burning Shed store site:
“2017’s The Optimist is Anathema’s first album since 2014’s spellbinding Distant Satellites and contains the band’s darkest, most challenging and unexpected material.
“Recorded in Winter 2016 at Attica Studio in Donegal and Castle of Doom Studios in Glasgow with producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian, Super Furry Animals) at the helm. Doogan’s influence is instantly tangible as for the first time in years Anathema recorded as a live band for an album, capturing an energy normally only present on stage. A technique that should be welcomed by fans aware of the band’s supreme live power – previously captured on the celebrated concert film, Universal…
“Mastered by Frank Arkwright at Abbey Road Studios in London, the 5.1 mix is by Bruce Soord.”
Ooh – Bruce Soord, the main pineapple thief! And this was the band recording warts and all, which I believe always adds a dynamic to the music which is otherwise lost.
Well, that revealed nothing about the narrative, something I am developing a bit of an obsession with, but ultimately it matters not whether there is one. The ambiguity is part of the appeal. This is a clever album – a catalyst for the imagination. I suspect little imaginary mystery is no mystery at all to people who have a familiarity with Anathema’s modus operandi. At first, I admit to being slightly underwhelmed. This feeling stemmed from a lack of immediate excitement in what I was hearing, as any power seemed to derive from the progressive (small ‘P’) building nature of each track rather than in any dynamic quality. This initial assessment was deeply unfair of me. There is still the same mix of power and beauty and energy that I, with admittedly limited experience, associate with Anathema. Whilst the sheer joy and beauty of tracks like Everything from WHBWH is never quite realised there is no shame in this as Anathema set a high bar back then. And once again, crucially, I didn’t fast forward any of the tracks. This album grew and grew on me. This isn’t an album for the attention-span challenged. Anathema’s music, upbeat, yet tinged with melancholy, also made me feel a number of different emotions, not least, inexplicably optimistic and, yes, happy! Not just a clever name, The Optimist bridges the gap for the modern Phil, trapped in the fast-moving modern-World and Old-World Phil, free to indulge in frivolous “time-wasting” activities. Time will tell whether it will stay at the front of my consciousness, so does it stand or fall?
Oh, and if you wait there’s a hidden track which I felt adds a quirkiness and homeliness for the listener and (probably) harbours a deeper significance for the band. And a budgie.
01. 32.63N 117.14W (1:18)
02. Leaving It Behind (4:27)
03. Endless Ways (5:49)
04. The Optimist (5:37)
05. San Francisco (4:59)
06. Springfield (5:49)
07. Ghosts (4:17)
08. Can’t Let Go (5:00)
09. Close Your Eyes (3:39)
11. Wildfires (5:40)
12. Back To The Start (11:41)
Total Time – 58:14
Vincent Cavanagh – Vocals, Guitar, Keys
Daniel Cavanagh – Guitar, Keys, Vocals
John Douglas – Acoustic & Electronic Percussion
Lee Douglas – Vocals
Jamie Cavanagh – Bass
Daniel Cardoso – Drums, Keyboards
Record Label: Kscope
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 9th June 2017