ANATHEMA: ALTERNATIVE 4 (1998)
1) Shroud Of False; 2) Fragile Dreams; 3) Empty; 4) Lost Control; 5) Re-connect; 6) Inner Silence; 7) Alternative 4; 8) Regret; 9) Feel; 10) Destiny.
ʽShroud Of Falseʼ — a pretty good name not just for the short introduction to Anathema's fourth album, but maybe for the album as a whole, or even for the entire band, for that matter. As deep and solemn as this whole thing pretends to be, it is thoroughly impossible for me to take the record that seriously. That piano intro, for instance. It aspires to a sort of bluesified Chopin, but the way the melody slowly unfolds and gains in blunt power, you'd almost expect Bruce Springsteen to be joining Roy Bittan any time now and crashing into ʽThunder Roadʼ. Then the vocals come in, and the illusion is gone, but these words? "We are just a moment in time, a blink of an eye, a dream for the blind, visions from a dying brain" — hello, ʽDust In The Windʼ. I can still try and imagine them with the grinning sneer of a Roger Waters, and it'd be okay; but irony, sarcasm, and humor of any sort, even the blackest one, is as strictly prohibited in Anathema records as catching Pokemons is in Russian churches. One laugh and you're fired.
This is why, even if, as far as I'm concerned, Alternative 4 is a pretty good record and probably the best Anathema that can be bought for your money (and if you want Anathema for free, prepare to be excommunicated, heh, heh), even so, I can never see myself or those who take their progressive rock seriously to be swamped by it. It is not even that the album remains chock full of «goth» clichés — it is that the band lacks the power to either subvert these clichés or, on the contrary, drown in them so utterly and devotedly that their mere fanatical devotion would bring on involuntary respect. Their work is clean, elegant, and polite, and that's not the kind of approach that gives the best results when applied to a clichéd formula. To become real classy and commanding prog rock artists, they lack qualification; to become masters of the theatrical approach, they lack sincerity — and, to top it all, their melodies remain questionable at best.
Nevertheless, having said all that, I am amazed at how good Alternative 4 still turns out to be. The leap of quality from Eternity is astonishing — in terms of hooks, almost every song has something to offer, so that, if it does not succeed in subduing my soul, it at least baits my curiosity. The very first song, ʽFragile Dreamsʼ, opening with a gentle guitar strum, is then joined by a slightly gypsy-esque violin line (from guest musician George Rucci), and finally settles on the album's best riff — simple, insistent, nagging, hard to forget, and, coolest of all, actually introduced by that violin. The first two minutes of the song, completely instrumental, are the best musical sequence on the record; once the vocals come in, we are in Cure-lite territory once again ("countless times I trusted you, I let you back in..." — don't tell me Robert Smith did not actually write these lyrics for them), but it's okay, it's not too problematic, and eventually the cool riff will be back, leading the song to its over-the-cliff suicide. Yes, they could probably do more with the instrumental part than just playing the riff over and over, but Anathema don't do mad soloing, it's disrespectful towards their target audience (the dead, that is).
ʽEmptyʼ starts out with half-spoken vocals backed with lonely, «black» synthesizer chords — you know it's just a premonition for something louder to come, and when the rhythm section and the main melody kicks in, lo and behold, you have another cool riff, and even the melodramatic singing is easier to stand, as it comes equipped with a very humane-sounding snarl (still no sense of irony, but when he goes "I abhor you, I condemn you...", I have to say, that's dangerously close to sounding like a very realistic curse). Unfortunately, ʽLost Controlʼ then reminds us of how terribly clichéd this band is, after all — somewhere deep inside the song hides itself a real cool groove with a surprisingly funky bassline and some neat acoustic picking, but on the whole it is way too derivative of the spirit of The Wall to ring true. Just one more of those «funeral marches for myself», albeit nicely arranged. The key moment is when the melody dies down to let the singer ask the principal question, "Have I really lost control?" If, at that moment, your heart feels wrought with pity and your eyes swell with tears... welcome to the club where I am not welcome. If not, congratulations for knowing the exquisite difference between Vincent Cavanagh and Peter Hammill. But even I have to admit that there is something to be said about the dynamic shifts on that tune, and that not a lot of goth-themed metal bands would be ready to work on such a fine balance between heavy distorted guitars, pianos, and acoustic guitars.
Actually, at this point Anathema cannot even be defined as a metal band — there's no more «metal» here than there is on a classic Rush album (or, to make a somewhat more accurate analogy in terms of cheese-to-substance correlation, Eloy). They're doing stone-faced goth theater, and if this needs a metal riff inserted at some point, so be it; but even on the most doom-laden tracks, such as the title one, the pitches are higher than on your average doom metal composition. It might have helped if there was less emphasis on the vocals altogether: speaking of the title track, the album's one truly cringeworthy moment is when the singer suddenly adopts a Tiny-Tim-meets-Shakesperian-artist intonation to deliver the "I'll dance with the angels to celebrate the Holocaust" verse (ooh, shocking!). On the other hand, no vocals at all would make the album more boring, because the «progressive» melodies lack sufficient complexity, and are more about creating an overall atmosphere than taking the listener through dazzling shifts of time signatures, tonalities, moods, and messages.
All in all, I give the record a thumbs up — not because it supports and consoles me in my hour of desperation, but because I am willing to recognize the creativity and talent, and adjust to the theatrical conventions of the record. I mean, maybe somewhere deep down inside there's a second bottom to it — they did name it after Alternative 3, after all, which was a classic UK conspiracy theory hoax — but even if you stick to this deadly seriousness all the way, Alternative 4 is much more fun than the average doom-and-gloom concoction from gazillions of pretentious mediocrities all over the world.