It doesn’t feel like it, but it’s actually been two years since ‘we’re here because we’re here’ stunned the world with its sun-dappled progressive flourishes. Numerous highly successful shows and an orchestral re-working of early material later and Anathema are back with ‘Weather systems’, but oh how the clouds have gathered since we last met.
As opening track ‘untouchable part 1’ gently flows through the speakers you’d be forgiven for thinking that Anathema have made no great leaps since last time out, but you’d be wrong and as the album progresses, the moods ebbing and flowing, you start to realise quite how wrong that initial assessment was. The first clue is in the lyrics, for while the early music still resides in the sun, it’s clear that it’s moving into the shade as Vincent and Lee trade vocals, the former closing the song with the anguished line “I had to let you go, to the setting sun, I had to let you know, and find a way back home”. Moreover ‘Untouchable part 2’ continues the musical motif whilst the lyrics offer up questions that rarely, if ever, get answered. It’s a deep, rich musical backdrop that the band conjure up and once again the lovely Lee Douglas has a strong part to play in proceedings, her gorgeous voice bringing to life the “light that’s so bright” referenced in the lyrics. However, such light proves fleeting and as the darkness grows we find ‘the gathering of the clouds’, a piece of music that is quite perfect; a fast-picked acoustic guitar standing out against an orchestral backdrop that recalls ‘falling deeper’ and a refrain that references the band’s previous album title, the music slowly building as a storm front creeping across the horizon and just as suddenly segueing into the Lee-sung ‘Lightning song’ which swirls around and above you, always tantalisingly in reach but darting out of your grasp at the last second leaving you feeling strangely bereft.
The last glimpse of the light comes in ‘sunlight’ which recalls the melancholy splendour of ‘hindsight’ with its emphasis of the acoustic over the electric guitar giving way to a gut wrenching crescendo, and then we hit the album’s show-stopping centre-piece, the astonishing, goose-bump-inducing ‘the storm before the calm’. With programmed drums, vocals drifting in and out of the gathering storm and a central lyric that chillingly states “it’s getting colder, I’m getting colder… until I can’t feel anything at all” over an icy backdrop that chills the blood with its snatches of feedback, shimmering synth elements and bursts of eerily contained noise. Closer in music and spirit to label-mates Ulver than anything Anathema have tried before, it’s an amazing track that sees the band developing yet another side to their already multi-faceted persona, one that is terrifyingly intense and only possible to view through peripheral vision, the sheer force too much by far to gaze directly into. However, such intensity cannot last and as the violence burns itself out the force-field of apathy gives way to Daniel peeling out a beautiful solo in support of the re-discovered humanity emerging, taking us to the ‘the beginning and the end’ which sees the band sunk back, exhausted now the deadly force of the previous track has dissipated, and we discover that “inside the cold heart is a dream”, a simple tenet that the band find themselves unable to hide from, no matter the pain it might cause.
‘The lost child’ sees the album enter its final phase over the softest of piano and string backdrops for a moment of truly exquisite sorrow. The lyrics are perfectly written, sparse yet emotive, even harrowing, with their simple message of loss ending with two simple words: “save me”. The final track, ‘internal landscapes’ opens with a devastating monologue and then traverses some of the most glorious soundscapes of Anthema’s lengthy career before drifting out in a flood of ambient noise ending an album that miraculously improves upon ‘we’re here because we’re here’, despite such a feat hitherto appearing impossible.
Far more than just ‘we’re here because we’re here part 2’, ‘Weather systems’ is a record that simply gets better every time you listen to it. Like an onion, you must peel away the layers one by one and the result is spectacular – a layered, intelligent, boldly progressive, occasionally difficult record that exudes confidence and skill. The musicians involved just keep getting better and Lee’s larger role is a particular highlight, her voice blending and entwining Vincent’s instantly recognisable tones and yet only appearing when the impact will be greatest. For all its lushness, there is a care in the arrangements and Anathema time and again demonstrate great restraint when the temptation must have existed to smother everything in strings. Their caution has paid off because what you have in ‘weather systems’ is nothing more or less than nine perfectly conceived, executed and sequenced songs that together mark out Anathema as one of Britain’s very finest bands. A heartbreakingly beautiful work of art, ‘weather systems’ is the crowning glory of Anathema’s remarkable career.