Anathema albums are never easy to review. That’s not just because of the ephemeral nature of their sound from album to album, but because reviewing an Anathema album always seems a bit like pulling apart the gray matter in Daniel and Vincent Cavanagh’s heads. Every Anathema album is drenched in emotion — or rather, emotions. There’s never just one, and it’s not always clear which is driving the music forward.
That swirling, permanent state of emotional conflict might is, once again, at the heart of The Optimist, Anathema’s 11th album. The Optimist is, according to the band, a direct response to A Fine Day to Exit. That album — which seemed to slightly turn the band’s sound slightly more “alternative” — featured a cover with a set of coordinates on a note stuck to the dash. Those coordinates, 32.63n 117.14w (Silver Strand Beach in San Diego, if you’re curious), are also the title of the first track on the album. An ambient piece that begins with the sounds of the ocean mixed with the heavy breathing of the protagonist, it ends with an electronic beat that fades into the next track (but not before we hear the radio flicking between stations, of which at least one is playing an Anathema song).
From that point on, the album mixes a good deal of Anathema’s past styles, and while it still falls heavy on the sort of the electronic neo-prog / post-rock stylings of the past three records, shortly after the record starts going, there’s a thematic tone that slips in that has only passively played a part in Anathema’s recent catalog.
My first time listening, I got halfway through before it hit me:
“Oh. This is a doom record.”
Doom metal is one of those weird genres — there’s something about it that’s strangulating. It has tendrils, and they’ll never let you go. This is especially true for musicians who dabble in it: they might move on, but you can always hear the threads, and you can always feel the genre’s pull on them. I suppose you could argue the same thing about other genres — punk or other types of metal, maybe — but there’s something different about doom.
Doom attracts two sort of people: on one hand, you have the individual who listens to depressing music for the same reason that some people drink wine. There’s something oddly cathartic and refreshing about it, even though you know that too much is poison.
On the other hand, there’s the alcoholics.
No matter how far they run, that’s not changing. I don’t think it’s an accident that most people I’ve met who are into doom metal (or who are creating it) are mentally ill. This isn’t music created while depressed, it’s music about what the world looks like when you are.
Now, of course, this isn’t doom metal — and I’m not about to make an argument that it is, but those tendrils are present here, and while they are always on Anathema records, it’s been awhile since they’ve been as present, as visible, as suffocating. The past three records have felt like responses and rebukes to their past attitudes. Sure, there’s a direct connection there, but it’s distant. It’s looking over the shoulder at what once was. The man — or band — in triumph.
The Optimist isn’t — it starts that way, much in the same way previous Anathema albums have started — but it quickly shifts, bringing back that feeling of despair that lingered oh-so-close on earlier Anathema records (and yes, prominently on A Fine Day to Exit).
That record is very much about a man in crisis, trying to figure out where to go, ultimately ending up on a deserted beach in San Diego. With the sound of the waves crashing, I always thought it was obvious what was to happen next.
The Optimist looks back at that moment — and at the drive back. It’s painful, and when we realize it’s a flashback of sorts, we realize that, no, our protagonist didn’t die on that beach. He found his family. He went back. But that doesn’t change the fact that those waves are always nipping at his feet, always calling him to the sand. He isn’t going there today — and he desperately doesn’t want to — but that doesn’t mean there’s never a relapse.
The Optimist is a powerful record — and while it isn’t my favorite from Anathema, it’s a worthy addition to the band’s repertoire.