Released: 2014, Kscope Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
I've had something of a love/”meh!” relationship with England's Anathema once the band completed their metamorphosis from passable doom metallers to the prog/alt/rock ensemble they’ve been for the past decade – a mishmash of Porcupine Tree, Radiohead and even a bit of (gag!) Coldplay. The stuff I liked, typically the more rocking moments, I loved. The rest, meh!
Last year's live album Universal was perfect. The onstage environment gave the band's buoyant, rockier material that much more punch and heft, while the ample dreamier, ethereal sections/tracks crackled with the sort of electricity that just wasn't there in the studio. Magnificent.
But could the band keep that momentum going when they got back in the studio? Well, sort of. Their 10th studio album, Distant Satellites certainly retains the band’s sense of scope and scale, with most tracks charting the course of, say, “Ariel,” slowly and deliberately building to a crescendo. The eponymous “Anathema” and “You’re Not Alone,” are comparatively thunderous, concluding in an extended wail of guitar that certainly perks things up.
The opener, “Lost Track Part 1” – “Part 2” and “Part 3” follow along a bit later – stands out in that it is more consistently muscular and vibrant, but it still follows the peaks and valleys of the brothers Cavanagh (Vincent and Daniel) and Lee Douglas’ pronounced, soaring vocal harmonies. Indeed the vocal work here is really quite stunning, with the male and female voices largely working in sync, and building in subtle layers upon one another, instead of against each other for contrast’s sake – as is the case in most metal tag teams, where it’s good cop-bad cop, Jekyll and Hyde, beauty and the beast, what-have-you.
The remarkably similar construction of the material here is perhaps Distant Satellites’ one notable flaw. As engaging and occasionally mesmerizing as most of the tracks end up being, you get the sense of “here we go again” when each song starts off with a sparse beat, a splash of guitar and some plaintive piano. And it often takes the tunes a good while to take off and provide the crescendo you know is coming – though, oddly, the eight-minute title track doesn’t even deliver that, retaining its restraint all the way through.
That said, it’s still a nice change from the standard “verse-chorus-verse.” Anathema craft each song as a mini-epic, giving the album as a whole a theatrical flair that helps it overcome the sometimes long spaces of quiet reflection. So while it won’t exactly rock your world to its foundation, there is a lot to love about Distant Satellites. And, again, the vocals. Wow!