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Anathema unites us all once again on 'distant satellites'

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Anathema - 'distant satellites'

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I’ve been an avid follower of Anathema’s music for several years now; in fact, I’ve documented extensively (via a review, ‘Best of 2012’ list, and even a track-by-track analysis) how the Liverpool sextet’s last offering, 2012’s ‘Weather Systems,’ was (and still is) the most emotionally rich, honest, and beautiful record I’ve ever heard. It was only natural, then, to approach its studio follow-up, ‘distant satellites,’ with a mix of modest trepidation and unrealistically high expectations, knowing that they would have quite a challenge achieving the same magnificence again. Having digested and scrutinized the album numerous times over the last couple weeks, well, I feel like a fool for ever doubting them. ‘distant satellites’ isn’t quite as outstanding as its predecessor, but it comes damn close, which means that it’s another gorgeous, fragile, and powerful study of the moods, experiences, and realizations we go through in life.

Admittedly, I was also hesitant to listen to the new LP because I’d heard that it aimed for a more streamlined approach, abandoning some of the orchestral indulgences and multifaceted arrangements that made ‘Weather Systems’ so remarkable. While this is somewhat true, Anathema still packs ‘distant satellites’ with what matters most—poignant lyricism, gripping melodies, inventive production, and most importantly, crushingly affective vocals. Actually, they describe the album as “the culmination of everything Anathema [has] been working up to so far in our musical path. It contains almost every conceivable element of the heartbeat of Anathema music...” This notion is felt throughout the work, so while it’s slightly less extravagant than some previous efforts, but it’s no less truthful, hypnotic, or magical. Without a doubt, it contains many of Anathema’s best moments yet.

The major offering on ‘distant satellites’ is the “Lost Song” suite, which is broken into three parts. The first two parts open the collection, mirroring the effect and purpose the “Untouchable” duo had on ‘Weather Systems.’ The first one begins with strings that blend into the most rhythmically askew drum pattern they’ve ever featured. Meanwhile, Vincent Cavanagh once again lets his voice soar with a touching melody and earnest words: “Tonight / I’m free / So free / For the first time / I’ve seen / A new life/ A new life.” Behind him, new instrumental decorations emerge, creating a collage of musical poetry. Eventually Lee Douglas joins in, and the two echo the same phase: “And you came to me / In some way / And my life / Will never be the same.” Surprisingly, a section of “The Lost Song Part 2” is snuck into the background, which delivers a slight yet brilliant sonic connection between the two pieces. The intensity continues to build until Cavanagh’s ultimate outburst—“The fear is just an illusion!”—provides a priceless mantra for its listeners. It’s an incredible way to start.

“The Lost Song Part 2” is softer overall, with Douglas’ harmonies and Daniel Cavanagh’s fragile piano playing presenting peacefulness. It’s the most ballad-esque and straightforward of the three parts, with orchestration elevating the rock instrumentation to new heights. Her voice is as angelic and passionate as ever, uttering pleas like “I know you hear me / Come back to me / Please believe / The feeling is more than I’ve ever known / Can’t believe it was just an illusion” with heartbreaking desperation. Of course, this last phrase refers back to “The Lost Song Part 1,” which is clever. As for “Part 3,” its percussion is identical to that of “Part 1,” and Cavanagh and Lee take turns reciting verses that ooze caution and hope. Together they shout the chorus—“Tonight / In my mind’s eye / I need you / to hold on!”—as the arrangements intensify, suffocating them in gloriously panicked sentiment. It’s in these instances (among several others) that ‘distant satellites’ proves to be as commanding, elegiac, and unforgettable as anything else Anathema has done.

In-between that trio, “Dusk (Dark is Descending)” is quite dynamic, as every element that begins as aggressive and ardent eventually calms down, revealing a heavenly balance of harmonies, percussion, and arpeggios. It infuses listeners with lovesick excitement. Afterward, “Ariel” works in the opposite way, venturing from a quiet lament to an outcry of romantic injustice. Daniel Cavanagh once again demonstrates his penchant for positioning an array of timbres to complement the exchanges between the singers. His signature fiery guitar tone leads the track to its climax before things settle down for a tranquil conclusion.

“Anathema” is another fervent gem. Knowing the tumultuous history of the relationships within the band, and with lyrics like “It gave us a reason and a rhyme / Looking for meaning in song” and “But we laughed / And we cried / And we fought / And we tried,” one must wonder how autobiographical the song is. Of course, no one will say, but given the timing of its release, the likelihood is there. Vincent Cavanagh once again exhibits his impressive range and forcefulness; he’s easily one of the best male vocalists working today.

The full-length concludes with two more exquisite statements, “Distant Satellites” and “Take Shelter.” The former is the longest track here, and its two-part structure, as well as electronic coating, recalls “The Storm Before the Calm” from ‘Weather Systems.’ It’s probably the most optimistic and empowering composition here, as Cavanagh expresses his feeling that we’re all just souls floating by like, well, distant satellites. Ultimately, though, his chorus—“So let it take me away / I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive inside these dreams”—offers solace and acceptance. His voice ascends with a luscious echo, and the way the music transitions from an emphasis on programmed dissonance to instrumental elegance (and then to a mixture of the two) is astonishing.

As for “Take Shelter,” it succeeds at being another overwhelmingly emotional and deep finale. Melodically, it somewhat resembles “Dreaming Light” from ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here,’ although it’s more atmospheric and sparse. Cavanagh sings, “Lost myself in you / Found myself in truth / Lose ourselves along the way / Find ourselves in time again” as strings and beats eventually steal the spotlight. Also, he conveys more tenderness and sanguinity than ever before. Like all of the best Anathema observations, this one alludes closure and promise for the finality of life and lost loves, as if all will be made right within the possibilities of eternity. By the end, listeners are left in awe, which is the only way an Anathema album should finish.

If there is one downside to ‘distant satellites,’ it’s that the electronic fondness felt during the second half doesn’t always benefit its subjects. For example, “You’re Not Alone” seems to favor schizophrenic programming over genuine songwriting, and the thumping nature present in the album’s last two sections feel a bit out of place (especially in “Take Shelter,” where it borders on being downright obnoxious, distracting, and invasive). One could argue that their aggression is used to juxtapose the serenity of other elements, and in that respect they work well, but in the end they still feel a bit out of place. Anathema has incorporated sounds like these many times before, and one can’t fault the band for trying new approaches with every release, but it doesn’t work as well here as it has in the past.

In the end, ‘distant satellites’ maintains the excellence set so lovingly by Anathema’s previous releases. It feels very much like a sibling to ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here,’ ‘Falling Deeper,’ and even ‘Weather Systems,’ and that alone allows it to satisfy expectations. It’s not quite as diverse and/or symphonic as those records, but it still earns its place alongside them. Honestly, I’d rank it as their second best effort overall, which is truly saying something considering how invaluable and special those other works are. Anathema has long stood as the example of how to pristinely convey the joys, sorrows, and uncertainties of what it means to be human via a cherished culmination of melodies, harmonies, instrumentation, and production; ‘distant satellites’ upholds that standard remarkably. Bravo once again.

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