In many ways it had to happen. As the last grim vestiges of the darkly atmospheric doom with which Anathema made their name are stripped away, so the band’s identity has shifted and the modernised ana_thema has arisen from the smouldering ashes. It’s a journey long in the undertaking, a journey that began with ‘Judgement’ and then, passing through the melancholic acoustic beauty of ‘hindsight’, finally arrived at the near symphonic prog of ‘Distant satellites’. Recorded by Tony Doogan, whose album credits include Mogwai and the Delgados, ‘the Optimist’ is a beautifully produced piece of work and Tony has perfectly captured the myriad influences now at play within the band. Nonetheless, the band have not entirely abandoned their roots; a conceptual piece, ‘the optimist’ links back to ‘a fine day to exit’ and focuses on what became of the character last seen disappearing into the sea. It’s an absorbing concept and one that the band explore with characteristic grace and care.
Like each of Ana_thema’s albums since ‘we’re here because we’re here, ‘the optimist’ comes packaged with a DVD of the album in surround sound. If you have the facilities, this is the way that the album was surely intended to be heard. Anathema have long thought in multiple dimensions when it comes to producing their music and the results on ‘the optimist’ are nothing short of astonishing (thanks, in no small part, to the involvement of Bruce Soord). With a huge array of sounds at their disposal, Ana_thema are able to weave a dense soundscape around the listener and the distinction between the stereo version of the album and the surround sound version is like watching a film in colour for the first time having long believed it to be black and white. Quite simply, it is one of the best surround sound presentations of an album I have heard and it adds considerable depth to an already fascinating piece of work.
Opening with ’32.63N 117.14W’ (the co-ordinates of the beach upon which the cover for ‘a fine day to exit’ was shot), we’re treated to ambient sounds of a person getting into a vehicle. Reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s ‘wish you were here’ it is a brief, atmospheric scene-setter that soon segues into the scattershot beat of ‘leaving it behind’. The band have long referenced Radiohead in their more recent work, and parallels can be drawn between the track’s skittering beat and the synth-augmented audio collages of ‘Kid A’. However, where Radiohead largely abandoned guitars in that period, here Ana_thema positively revel in an explosive riff that draws the song into far more metallic pastures than might have been expected. With banks of fizzing synths and an urgent beat, the concept has breathed a vitality into Ana_thema that is truly heart-stopping and it makes for a spectacular introduction to the album. The pace slows with ‘Endless ways’, a gentle track that opens upon a simple piano line overlaid only with the beautiful voice of Lee Douglas, only for rippling guitars that sit somewhere between U2 and latter-day Pink Floyd to breathe glorious life into the piece. The title track, also built around the piano, takes it’s time to build to a suitably emotional climax with rich strings and chiming guitar vying for attention. Sensibly, Bruce keeps the channels neatly separated here, using the rear channel speakers to bring out the strings and guitar reverb trails, whereas the front channels offer up the vocals and lead guitar work. However, the surround sound really starts to shine on the mesmerising instrumental ‘San Francisco’, a track which truly immerses the listener as electronic percussion and synth elements whizz around the sound-field and the band create a piece of music that recalls the ‘travel sequence’ from the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ demos.
A gorgeous track, ‘Springfield’ sees Ana_thema draw upon Mogwai’s somnolent brand of post-rock, with hazy drums and reverb-drenched guitars shimmering underneath Lee’s heart-melting vocal. A surprisingly muscular outing, ‘Springfield’ edges into explosive territory as the guitars approach meltdown at its conclusion only for the trippy beauty of ‘Ghosts’ to settle things once more. Almost trip-hop in execution, ‘ghosts’ harks back to Massive Attack’s ground breaking ‘Mezzanine’ album with its synth strings and dusky beat and it’s another highlight in an album that rarely dips below the exceptional. A faster track, ‘can’t let go’ has a driving beat and a surprising lightness of touch that slips closer to Porcupine Tree than I’ve yet heard from Ana_thema. Perhaps it’s the bubbling synth or the haunting guitar lines that slither from left to right in the rear speakers, but it’s a track that slowly hypnotises the listener only for ‘close your eyes’ to emerge as one of the most nakedly compelling tracks upon which Lee has yet sung. Still keeping the listener guessing, the band break into a jazzy swing which is entirely unexpected and yet entirely right for the late-night vibe that has been building across the course of the record. It segues, via a voice whispering to us to go back to sleep, into the dense mirage of ‘Wildfires’, a track that builds from a whisper into a scream, the rolling thunder of the drums underpinning a series of agitated guitar lines that blaze brightly in the night. The album concludes with ‘back to the start’, a gorgeous piece of prog-pop that harks right back to ‘a fine day to exit’ with its rich vocal and gently strummed acoustic. With the vocal harmonies split across the five channels, it’s an elegant conclusion to an album that captivates the listener utterly from start to finish and it helps to ease the transition back to the real world having spent an hour on a different plane altogether.
Ana_thema have long left their doom roots behind, but what has emerged from their evolution is a grander, more evocative sound that is richly textured and filled with hidden depth. Very much an album that is meant to be consumed in one single sitting, preferably with the eyes closed and all extraneous distractions minimised, this is an absolute masterpiece and one that eclipses even the dark beauty of ‘distant satellites’. Rendered even more impressive by Bruce Soord’s truly awe-inspiring surround mix, ‘the optimist’ is an epic, cinematic record that marks out Ana_thema as one of the greatest and most innovative English bands since Pink Floyd and it is undoubtedly one of the finest albums of 2017, if not the decade. 10