The transformation of Anathema has always been enigmatic to many metalheads. The obligatory rewind to their early 90’s pioneering death/doom records almost seems redundant now that this is their tenth album without a hint of metal in it. Any hope of them making a return to those death roots is about as realistic as waiting for the new Kovenant album (why anyone wants it I cannot fathom). But the key difference here is that their abandonment of metal did them nothing but good – without it, classics like Judgement and A Natural Disaster might be very different. And though both are highly atmospheric and unapologetically emotional rock records, I challenge any Anathema fan to resist loving them.
Since then, they’ve hit the same mark with few, but noticable blunders. We’re Here Because We’re Here was a great prog rock record, but felt inconsistent. Weather Systems however, was overly emotional to the point of fault; densely layered to the point of tackiness and desperately trying to squeeze an emotional response out of the listener. Neither record could ever match the atmosphere or emotional power of Judgement, but I’m happy to report that Distant Satellites comes closer to the poignancy of Judgement with none of the obnoxiousness of Weather Systems, even if it still falls short of their greatest efforts.
The key difference is the return to sparser, less dense soundscapes far more akin to A Natural Disaster. The orchestra, a point of contention for me in the last album, is subdued and more a texture than a key player; a far more effective choice to let the passion of the vocalists shine through. The use of electronics start off subtly, but the latter portion of the album almost becomes a straight-up electronica record. Still, their use of here is far more effective due to the simple principle of ‘less is more’ and it makes the attempts at beat-driven songs on Weather Systems seem an utter mess in comparison.
Distant Satellites is far less instantly catchy and intense on a whole, heaviness being far from the focus. Weather Systems had moments of huge bombast, but they felt like they were trying too hard. This record proves that they never needed to. The orchestral ballads on the album’s first half are just as emotionally poignant if you allow them to grow. The vocal chops of Lee and Vincent are arguably at their most captivating and even the somewhat cheesy lyrics of “Ariel” and “The Lost Song part 2” can still touch anyone with a pulse. As a bonus, the self titled track “Anathema” takes these elements and couples it with a riff hearkening back to their doom metal roots, and it’s a wonderful nod to long time fans.
Even the electronica movements are far more effective than on any previous albums. The admitedly repetitive title track being unashamedly catchy and easy to get lost in, and “Take Shelter” being one of the most gorgeous tracks they’ve put out in years, the mixing of Steven Wilson bringing the subtlety of the track to the limelight. The rest of the production work is far stronger than Weather Systems too, being far more balanced and dynamic.
There isn’t anything striking about Distant Satellites that sets it apart as one of Anathema‘s best efforts; instead, it’s a solid effort all around with only a few flaws (what on earth is “You’re Not Alone,” guys?) to speak of. It’s a welcome addition and a much needed paradigm shift that I can’t wait to see them build further on. Arguably safe for much of its runtime, but at least the experimentation was well placed this time.