We at Contact Towers were going to start this review with something hackneyed like "Bands like these.." but then we thought better of it. Bands like what? Skinny jeaned garage kids? Twinkly-eyed synth poppers? Ultimately, bands in general don't set out to be similar, to be easily codified, they just start making music to see what happens. You've probably either not heard of Anathema, or have every lyric they've ever written tattooed somewhere on your body; their music gets to people like that. Virtually anonymous in Britain, they probably couldn't get arrested in their home city of Liverpool. In all likelihood, they probably struggle to get arrested in their own homes.
This is partially down to an almost singular kind of musical evolution over the decades and a conscious lack of image, but mostly because they occupy a funny-peculiar place at the intersection of the ley lines between two of the least sexy genres of modern music in Gothic and prog. rock. On paper, it sounds about as attractive as a remix by Pitbull. In reality, they're something far more interesting.
Formed in 1990 by brothers Jamie, Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh along with Darren White and drummer John Douglas - the line-up has fluctuated considerably since - Anathema version one was a fairly uninspiring doom metal outfit, releasing the decidedly Teutonic sounding 'Serenades' ('93). To avoid the metal cliche of being stereotyped, a gradual change in texture throughout the ensuing decade led them to more orchestrated material which is articulate, grand without being pompous, and sometimes more than a little maudlin.
Part of the deal which resurrected the Music For Nations label (Via Sony), these reissues showcase a group treading the fine line between power and finesse, all in an era during which British music in general was locked in the soporific torpor of bands like Turin Brakes and Travis. That they have no definable audience other than the people who buy their music affords them perspective enough to stick to their virtues; it's in this expectation-free twilight which all three of these releases operate in a collection entitled 'Fine Days: 1999 - 2004'.
For the uninitiated, Anathema albums are something in the modern entertainment vernacular known as "Immersive experiences", which is shorthand for a good old sit down, drink in hand, lights down low listen. The bleakest of the three is 1999's 'Judgement' - song titles like 'Pitiless', 'Destiny is Dead' and 'Forgotten Hope' do their fair share of giving the game away - but buried under the angsty gloom, there were flourishes of subtlety which were beginning to emerge as staples of the band's ongoing shape shifting. Here, then, were songwriters all grown up; firstly on the towering ballad 'Make It Right' and then on the somehow oddly truncated 'One Last Goodbye', on which any misanthropy had been replaced with disarmingly human feelings such as loss and fear. At its centre, however, lies the road weary 'Emotional Winter', on which Cavanagh sounds inward looking and beaten: "No-one can find me, here in my soul", whilst on a sky-scraping, towards-the-horizon outro they recall late era Pink Floyd.
Many of the ingredients were the same on 2003's 'A Natural Disaster', although noticeably a more mass appealing chassis lay underneath this time. Not that songs like 'Harmonium' or 'Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second' had much time for that; the latter a clear salute to the stadium japery of Muse, its rifled bass and post grunge fretwork could perhaps have been the portent of a new beginning, but in context, it was clear that this controlled aggression was becoming an increasingly isolated quality of their music. Elsewhere - much to some fans' chagrin - a new found versatility of tone was being displayed on the likes of the vocoder heavy 'Closer' and the positively warm, Rhodes-based intro to 'Balance'. The most obvious signs of catharsis, however, lay in the stretched bluesy tones of guest vocalist Anna Livingstone on the title track, a song with a structure seemingly an ocean away from their original spirit.
By that order, 2001's intervening release 'A Fine Day To Exit' should be the mid-point between the two, assuming that this is some kind of linear journey. It isn't, of course, and without over-elaboration as a release it's far closer to the progressive end of the spectrum - but that doesn't stop it being the best of the three on offer here. Variations are, to an extent, minimal, but by now in a familiar state of emoting to nothing less than the entire universe, little heartbreaks such as 'Release' and 'Leave No Trace' balanced against the punk reel of 'Panic'. Whilst there are traces of familiarity, surprises come thick and fast in the form of supine closer 'Temporary Peace' and 'Looking Outside Inside''s initial lush, pastoral grace (Before it explodes into writhing life at the mid-point). Amongst this span was, however, a work which stood apart, both from all of the past and some of the future: 'Pressure' owed more than a debt to arch rock deconstructors Radiohead, and to boot had a chorus which would've sat in a classic songwriter's locker. Probably their greatest song to that point, in many respects it was a yardstick which Anathema, being contrarians, refused to acknowledge with anything greater than a shrug. This is surely their legacy: a band out of time, mellowing in front of an audience of pilgrims who have no more idea of the way ahead than they do. Curse or charm, it's a singular road, one worth treading with them at least for a while.
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