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Anathema
Distant Satellites Sean Guthrie , June 19th, 2014 09:06

Think of Liverpool's contribution to music and you could reel off the names of dozens of alumni who have ploughed the fields of pop culture so industriously that the subsequent crops have kept generations nourished and then some. One name you're unlikely to suggest, though, is Anathema.

On their tenth studio album one detects almost hazardous levels of fertiliser, so lithe, muscular and burnished is the bulk of its contents. Why, then, might their star shine less brightly than those of their fellow Liverpudlians? Two words: progressive rock. Anathema are loosely counted as members of a gang whose appetite for virtuosity and pretentiousness overshadows the post-punk values that remain pillars of left-field music. Indeed, Porcupine Tree lynchpin Steven Wilson has a hand in the meticulous manufacture of this album, as he did in the group's eighth studio album, We're Here Because We're Here. To call this record prog rock, though, is like calling a Lamborghini a car. Both statements are true, but fail to tell 99% of the story.

Granted, sincerity and technical accomplishment – both of which stand to the fore here – are rarely essential to skin-prickling music, but Distant Satellites would be a far inferior record without them. The latter is conspicuous from the off, opening cut 'The Lost Song (Part 1)' scorching along on a hyper-syncopated beat hewn from burning rubber as strings, piano and lashings of elemental guitar build unstoppably towards an exospheric crescendo.

Lee Douglas takes over vocal duties from Danny Cavanagh on 'The Lost Song (Part 2)', which sups rather too zealously from the well of ballad rock. The passion is palpable yet the meaning collapses under the weight of its own importance. Mercifully, the overblown atmosphere is soon supplanted by 'Dusk (Dark Is Descending)', which kicks off with a plucked guitar pattern of which Jeff Buckley would have been proud, all spiny portent and storm clouds. Another elastic rhythm stretches its limbs to propel you through a restless chapter in the unfolding story of Distant Satellites before evolving into a more straightforward – and less vital – extended outro.

We're ushered back into FM rock territory with 'Ariel', which finds Douglas emoting in an eyes-wide-shut fashion over piano and strings: "I dreamed of you in the dark/ You spoke to me from afar/ What you mean to me is clear/ And I'll always be near you." Dylan Thomas this is not. With monumental guitars, strings and Cavanagh's Thor-like bellowing, Ariel inhabits the same territory that made Jim Steinman a millionaire. Here be monsters. 

The melodrama prefigures Distant Satellites' midway point and apogee, 'The Lost Song (Part 3)', which is as persuasive an advert for the merits of twitchy, crafted, slippery prog rock as you'll ever hear. What it's about is hard to divine, but the elixir of electric piano, syncopated drums, eerie synths and bristling bass is so potent it could raise the dead. 

After such a giddying experience the unloveable pomp of 'Anathema' is on to a loser from the get-go; likewise, the facile jitter of 'You're Not Alone'. 'Firelight', on the other hand, drifts in on a sea of organ and woozy synth redolent of the recent inquiries of Mogwai before a programmed beat heralds the title track and Anathema's greatest tilt at euphony. The accompanying vocal from Cavanagh signals a textural path he would do well to follow in future, leaning as it does towards the ecstatic croon of Kid A-era Thom Yorke. The militaristic techno of the song's second half is arguably extraneous, but credit to Anathema for having no fear of broadening their palette.

The closing 'Take Shelter' equally breaks with what has gone before, emerging from its chrysalis to behold a fecund garden wet with rain. A crescendo of electronic drums and stirring strings draws Distant Satellites to a close, and leaves you with the impression that, while inconsistent and desperately overwrought on occasion, Anathema deserve to be heard outwith the private members' club that is prog rock in 2014.

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