Anathema – The Optimist

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.

work in progress, night thoughts, endings, beginnings, words

To be young, but to feel ancient. He was as mobile as he ever was, but his muscles seemed slower now. More taught, like they had been sewn into the bone. His face — a familiar light dusting of stubble covering his cheeks and chin — felt dry. The moon’s glow gave the top of his bald head a faint aura. The moonwell below him offered up his reflection. He didn’t look that different, from years ago.

He wasn’t that different.

But apoptosis says otherwise. Time says otherwise.

Seven years, give or take. Seven years since he’d stood in this spot. Since he’d first visited this place.

It was nothing like it was.

Azshara, then, was a place of eternal autumn. The leaves always seemed to be falling, the land an exhale or two away from giving in to the slumber brought by snow and thick, silencing clouds. But it never came. That beauty that perpetually exists in the twilight, between life and death, between day and night — it always existed here. It never left. The ley lines, the arcing power just beneath the shattered surface — it kept things locked in time.

Or did.

The Cataclysm came, the world was torn asunder yet again, and the mountains were etched away not by the inevitability of time, but rather the touch of one of the more destructive races carving their literal mark into the mountains and hills. It was polluted now, literally, but also figuratively. It was as if this one extra burden was the excuse the land needed to finally die, to finally rest. And so it did. Royan expected to feel warmth for this place, but there simply wasn’t anything there. He felt hollow.

His blood was here. Hers, too. Maybe, in another time, he could’ve felt the scar of the scale he had ripped from his chest. Now?

The wind picked up, sulfur on the breeze. Once, the acridity of the air was less a mixture of burnt oil and smog and more from the crackling of pine. It made his mouth taste sour, and he had to refrain from giving in to the urge to spit. He turned his back to the breeze instead.

The cliff behind the long-abandoned moonwell caught his eye. He remembered the protective druid, Swiftwind, standing there. Sarucarn, too, the old, crusty bastard. They’d both caused him grief, but he’d missed both of them.

All of them, really.

He sighed. When he left to join Alexstrasza and the others, he knew there was a certain finality to it. He’d denied what he was — what he was destined to be for so long — but he couldn’t deny the call his blood had, or where it wanted to take him. Yet, there was no reunion, no belonging. Soon as he’d returned, he had been alienated again, his own mission seen as nothing but the whims of a foolish drake. He fought, regardless. Maybe that’s what the call he felt really was.

Either way, they’d won. It seemed like seconds after he returned, after he came to try to find some sense of belonging with his flight, they suddenly were no more: Alexstrasza declared it the day of mortals, and all he could feel was bitterness. That was his call, that was his plea, and yet his words had been ignored. After, she told him his words had been heeded. His mission — these were his fruits. His reward.

And so he left, again.

He’d go back — to find the adventurers he’d called his friends, and maybe more. Royan expected to find them, doing what they always had, standing on the edge of the world, a last bastion against whatever evils came forth from the Nether.

When he returned, though, there was nothing. The Scarlet March wasn’t even a whisper. It was as if it had never existed, as if nothing they’d done had ever stuck. No one knew his name, or hers, or any of them. They had become nameless heroes, spoken about in rhyme around campfires, but without any flesh. Just legends.

Perhaps that was comforting, in a way. When he had first sat at that bar, listening in on the thief and the shaman, he’d never meant to get attached, or involved. He wanted to be the whisper, the narrator of the story — never the protagonist. But he soon sat at the head of the March, and…

“I knew I’d find you here,” a voice said from behind him. Royan turned, unable to hold back a goofy smile. A Night Elf stood just a stride away from him, his body covered in dark, dusky leathers, his face hidden behind a shroud.

“How’d you know I’d be here, right now? At this precise moment?”

“You’d be insulted if I didn’t.”

“You’re right.”

Adolos stepped forward, putting his hand on the human’s shoulder. Royan reached his arms around the elf, hugging him tight. “It has been entirely too long, entirely too long. To even see a familiar face… especially out here,” Royan said.


“Have you kept tabs on the others? Any of them?” Royan stepped away, Adolos’ arms almost immediately curling back into a natural fold across his chest.

“Yes and no.”

Royan chuckled. At least this hadn’t changed. At least he hadn’t changed. “Mind expanding on that?”

“Sarucarn went off to do research, as usual. I don’t know where. I didn’t bother to follow. Felt it was for the best.”

“It was.”

Adolos nodded. “Smaepdii, Lamere, and Digsy went through to Draenor, but I haven’t heard or seen from them since. I’ve heard nothing positive or negative on that front.” He sighed. “Imizael… after the portal re-opened, something happened with her. She vanished. Swiftwind has been missing since before you left, and there’s no change there.”

“And your family?”


Royan nodded.

“She’s fine.”

Good enough.

Royan was quiet for a minute. Both of them were, neither knowing quite what to say next, even though they both knew where the script had led. Where it had to go. Adolos, ever the patient one, simply waited, half-lidded glowing eyes locked on Royan’s.

“And Manari?”

“Rumor was that she went through the portal, too, but no one seems to know.”

“No one?”

Adolos slowly inhaled, sucking air through his nostrils. “It was very much like she wanted to disappear. After you left, she did not carry on The March. There were no more meetings. I followed her for a few weeks, and she acted almost as if it never had existed. Then, when the portal opened, she was gone.”

“And that’s it?”

“Far as I know.”

As usual, Royan was playing by his rules. He knew the answers to every question before he asked it, although for once he didn’t really want to be correct. He wanted to hear about how he was mistaken, or how they’d still met, somewhere. But he knew better. He’d found a priestess seven years ago who hadn’t wanted to be found. He’d looked no less hard this time around, but there was nothing. Just the legends. Just the passage of time.

“You must know why I am back, Adolos.”

“I do.”

“And why I was looking for them?”

“Yes. They will all be needed.”

“But it’s just us.”

Adolos nodded.

His blood was a curse, he thought. He had watched the rise and fall of a great order. One he helped save. One he crafted, his fingers turning against the clay, etching out every detail. And yet… it was all gone now. He’d watched a legend form, right in front of his eyes. To be young, but to feel ancient. Nostalgia gripped his stomach, clawing its way to his throat. He’d have to start over. He’d have to do it again.


This is a 1500 word rant about education.

The state of college education is broken.

As a student, this is obvious. As a grad student, it was even more obvious. As an instructor, I’ve passed the point at which I can just ignore it, or act like it doesn’t impact me on a daily basis. So here we go.

This past February, I was invited to present at a symposium my alma mater. I love speaking, and I love sharing ideas, so this was a great opportunity. I arrived at the main campus to find two notable things: main construction absolutely everywhere and a string of parents and high schoolers stringing about the campus. The construction was focused on the new “townhouses” the school is building — which, if I’m honest, look beautiful, which of course, by “beautiful” I mean “expensive.” There will be living quarters for students there, as well as a bunch of shops. Sounds neat. The parents and would-be-students seemed impressed, at least.

I walked into the basement of the old business building, where the symposium was being held. A pipe had burst, water was everywhere, and they were considering re-locating to a different building. A grad assistant and a professor had to clean up the mess.

As far as I could tell, the event never made the front page of our college’s website. Scholarship, it seems, isn’t quite as sexy as updates on the construction, NCAA highlights, and obvious SEO-snatching blog posts.

There are so many fragments of stories I could use as metaphors, but none serve my purpose better than this one. It was like so many different microcosms were colliding at once. It was sort of poetic.

But that’s where we are headed.

College has become business. Everything is a “selling point.” I was told during my grad time there that they happened to be very proud of the fact that no classes were taught by grad students. Just adjuncts. That was a selling point. The location was, too. Those new buildings? Of course.

My wife’s school is in the same bag. New buildings everywhere — to the point I overheard her talking to a friend about how none of the buildings from her time at the school are even around anymore (she graduated in 2010). Colleges are merging and closing, shuffling and renaming, and desperately bidding for students’ dollars. None of this is new, mind you. Well, okay, except for the looming student debt bubble. How much is college, again?

Somehow, despite this boom of colleges becoming bigger and better luxo-resorts, the staff have withered.

Okay, okay. Not everyone — the administrators are doing fine.

I mean the professors.

Oh. Not the ones in the ivory tower, all the way up there.

Instructors? No.

Adjuncts. Yeah, those guys.

Everyone knows the statistics, so I’ll spare you them again, but over the last decade adjuncts have taken more and more of the teaching load off the shoulders of tenured faculty. Why? It’s cheaper. It requires less planning (you don’t have to worry about that infamous spring drop). Oh, and they’re disposable, too! All of those academic freedom issues? With adjuncts, you can just drop ’em after a semester if you disagree with their politics.

But hey, let’s focus on the most important one: they are cheaper.

Once again: I’ll spare you the specifics, but Glassdoor is your friend. Take a look-see at what adjuncts are paid, per course, compared to tenured professors.

“But oh,” Professor of Whouldntchaknow Stevens says. “They are paid less because they teach easier classes, and because they don’t have as much responsibility.”

Are you dead yet? If you aren’t, it’s because you probably aren’t an adjunct. To wit, every adjunct professor (if NOW is when you’ve had your stroke, because I’ve dared to combine those two words, you are the problem) I know, have known, or likely will know, teaches at least as many classes as full-time faculty. I say “at least” because I have friends working 8 (eight) classes a semester. I don’t want to do the math for you on how much work that is, but let’s say a lot. A lot of work. Too much work.

And then — and then! The professors (often the same ones who sold you on Marxism) at the same university will often offload work on to you, or special requirements. Nooo, you aren’t REQUIRED (loool) to show your face at this meeting, but… you know… if you want that position… (ps: there ain’t no pay here, chief)

No, we don’t get paid to research (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we don’t get paid to take part in departmental meetings (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway). No, we aren’t paid to sit with students and help them through their problems because you have garbage office hours (but we know that if we want your job, we have to do it anyway).

Oh! And back to that “difficult class” thing.

Now. Okay.

I’m going to let you have it. I’m going to let you believe that teaching the subject you’re psyched about (or, that you were psyched about enough to get your doctorate in it) is hard, and something only you could do. I’m going to let you think that teaching an audience of juniors and seniors is totes hard, especially when the class you teach is in their major. I’m going to let you think that your specially designed class you (ahem) ~earned~ is a very difficult thing.

Ah, fuck it. I can’t do it. You’re wrong.

Now, okay, I’ve never TAUGHT that class (oh wait, I *did*, I just wasn’t PAID for it eeeeeeeeeeeeee), but…

Okay, so here’s the deal. I know that you hate teaching 101. I know it. How? You told me. You snickered to me about a student you had. You looked me in the eye and made a comment about how teaching this class was hell, because oh my god you had to grade PAPERS from STUDENTS on THINGS that weren’t the one thing you’ve spent your whole life researching. Oh no!

I hear you. I heard you talk about how whoever gets stuck with the 101 class has gotten the short end of the stick. What, is it too easy to teach? Is three classes just too much for you?

I once had a professor who told me how he’d designed all of his classes just so he was the only person that could teach them — so he never had to deal with those horrible 100-level classes ever again. Those were for adjuncts. Ha! What a good joke!

Here’s a message to you, students: no matter where you go, the majority of your education will be sold to you by people making less than you will working college jobs. That’s almost not even hyperbole, depending on where you work.

You’re being taught by people who are scared. This class might be their last. Not because they are bad at teaching, but just because. Last semester, every (seriously not hyperbole now, this is literal, I’ll even say it again) *EVERY* adjunct friend I have (there’s quite a few) had classes cancelled. MOST (once again, see above) had ALL of their classes cancelled. I was lucky enough to retain one class.

Now, that’s not necessarily the fault of the college. In my case, at least. My workplace has been great to me, at least for an adjunct.

But other friends? Two students short? Cut the class, stuff ten students in your other class so it’s beyond full. Pay you for the one. Enjoy.

Another? Hired. No classes, though.

Another? Had to get a job working retail. Nothing against those in retail, but I’m not sure of another line of work that occasionally requires you to work three jobs in order to make ends meet while, hopefully, building up enough of your CV so you eventually don’t have to worry about starving (after 6 – 8 years of education).

Students: you are being taught by people who love what they do. That is the only reason they are there. They want to be there. They want to teach you. They’d literally beg to do it.

Most are one step away from homelessness, unless they are independently wealthy, or are supported by someone else.

But most aren’t.

Becoming a professor, honestly, isn’t about skill. It’s about attrition. The reality that we’ve figured out, those of us that remain, is that fewer and fewer people are coming out of grad programs now (they’ve finally heard the message). We clutch our Derrida and Foucault close, waiting. We watch our friends find lucrative (above minimum wage) positions elsewhere. Slowly dropping off. Market shrinking.

Indecency will happen. We know the fate of some of our friends. We’ll watch others literally (honestly) torture themselves, because this is all they know, because academia does that to you.

We’ll watch them, because we believe in it.

Me, though?

The system is broken, and I don’t think my stress will fix it.

The beginning of a postmodern project

The theoretical “project” my independent study is working toward is a paper on metanarrative and MMORPGs. Specifically, it’s the concept that World of Warcraft‘s community is the ultimate destroyer of the metanarrative. In short, the idea goes something like this:

“Metanarrative” was first defined by Jean-François Lyotard as a fancy word for “grand narrative.” Lyotard described the postmodernist movement as one that was in reaction to the idea that “grand narratives” were the basis for social movement. That is, “metanarratives” were stories that propped up stories — they were the history behind the history, or the meaning behind every other story situated underneath them.

If you’re an American, perhaps the “bootstraps” metanarrative is a great example. In America, there is a general (capitalist) idea that motivation, determination, and hard work are all that one needs to succeed. Therefore, every narrative (literally stories of individuals) must conform to this metanarrative. So when someone succeeds in America, it’s because they pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Likewise, when someone fails, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. This metanarrative is so loud and so dominant that it eats the petits récits, or the tiny stories of the “little people.” A man might fail to succeed because of racism, ableism, or other variables, but because these events are not recognized by the metanarrative, they are ridiculed, ignored, or otherwise completely overshadowed.

Postmodernism is seen by Lyotard as a rejection of the metanarrative. Instead of privileging metanarratives, postmodernist prefer petits récits — they prefer narratives that exist outside of the influence of metanarratives (or, at the very least, they aren’t overshadowed by it).

A typical metanarrative will privilege certain voices — a petits récits on the other hand, looks to give voice to anyone.

So, where do video games come in?

It’s fair to say that up until the contemporary era, video games were very much metanarratologically oriented. Video games are defined by central narratives: one of the largest theoretical problems in critical play studies (and game development) is the creation of a space that gives the player a balance between gameplay and narrative:

“If the system decides the ending, we have guaranteed closure without interactive freedom; if the user decides the ending we have guaranteed freedom but possibly no closure. Further, if a player is playing a prescribed role, such as Ghandi, we either have to limit interactive freedom to maintain the player’s role (and story arc) or provide interactive freedom at the expense of the role (and story arc).”

In this typical ludological criticism, a true postmodern game is seemingly impossible: true “interactivity” destroys any hope of a narrative, and a distinct narrative destroys the possibility of interactivity (and thus, the possibility of a “game”).

Within this line of thought, contemporary games are destined to be metanarratives: there is no way to provide “true interactivity,” and so all narratives must conform to developer intentions — they must conform to the metanarrative of the text. Using World of Warcraft as an example, players might be offered different paths through the gameworld, and players may (or may not) choose different quests — but the overarching story of the gameworld itself is predetermined: it follows a metanarrative that the player cannot escape from.

There is, however, a theoretical way out: redefining “interactivity.”

Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern manage to do this by replacing “interactivity” with “agency.” They argue that “interactivity” is needlessly vague, choosing to use agency instead: “A player will experience agency when material and formal constraints are balanced. This is not the same as ‘a player will experience agency when they can take arbitrary action whenever they want.’ So in the case of choosing the ending of an interactive story, the player does not need the ability to make arbitrary endings happen in order to feel agency. A small number of authorially-determined ending configurations can still produce a strong feeling of player agency if reached through sequences of player actions within a materially and formally balanced system.”

While this does not mean that agency = breaking into the postmodern, it does mean that the potential exists: for the first step to reaching the theoretical “postmodern game” is giving the player the ability to even have a separate story to tell (outside of the metanarrative).

This is where World of Warcraft comes in again — while players might not be able to arbitrarily exit the predetermined in-game narrative, they do have the ability to pick and choose their character’s destiny, giving them agency within their own story.

So, at the very least, we know the possibility is there — the only questions that remains is this: does the game acknowledge stories outside of the metanarrative? If the answer is yes, then World of Warcraft has to be considered a postmodern game.


Mateas, Michael, and Andrew Stern. “Interaction and Narrative.” Ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. 642-69. Print.

Vinyl wants!

So. This is a current list of all the albums I’m on the hunt for. Bold items are must-haves.

Anathema – Falling Deeper
At The Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Avalanches, The – Since I Left You
Between The Buried And Me – The Great Misdirect
Black Sun Empire – Cruel and Unusual
Black Sun Empire – Driving Insane
Deadmau5 – For Lack of a Better Name
Deadmau5 – 4×4=12
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Brain Salad Surgery
Fair to Midland – Arrows & Anchors
Fair to Midland – Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True
Genesis – Foxtrot
In Flames – Lunar Strain
In Flames – Subterranean
Insomnium – Above the Weeping World
Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast
Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick
Justice – Cross
Kamelot – The Black Halo
Katatonia – Night is the New Day
Katatonia – The Great Cold Distance
Katatonia – Viva Emptiness
King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King
King Crimson – Red
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black
Opeth – Deliverance
Opeth – Damnation
Opeth – Heritage
Opeth – Orchid
Opeth – Morningrise
Opeth – My Arms, Your Hearse
Opeth – Still Life
Opeth – Ghost Reveries
Opeth – Watershed
Pendulum – Hold Your Color
Pink Floyd – Animals
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyd – Obscured by Clouds
Porcupine Tree – In Absentia
Porcupine Tree – The Incident
Prodigy, The – The Fat of the Land
Radiohead – OK Computer
Rush – 2112
Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion
Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions
Tool – Lateralus
UNKLE – Psyence Fiction
Yes – Close to the Edge