ANATHEMA: A FINE DAY TO EXIT (2001)
1) Pressure; 2) Release; 3) Looking Outside Inside; 4) Leave No Trace; 5) Underworld; 6) (Breaking Over The) Barriers; 7) Panic; 8) A Fine Day To Exit; 9) Temporary Peace.
Normally, an album titled A Fine Day To Exit would probably be expected from a band that decides to call it a day — but we are dealing with Anathema here, a band for whom calling it a day is pretty much a profession, except they're calling it a day for humanity as a whole, rather than just their own sorry asses. So no, they are not disbanding: this is merely the next installation in the ongoing series of «numb and number», and, unfortunately, not an improvement on the flaws of Judgement, but rather an exacerbation of said flows.
By this time, it seems like they might be taking their clues from Radiohead rather than Pink Floyd, with most of the songs showing a quiet, tired, enfeebled type of depression and disillusionment, as conveyed by weighted-down vocals, morose piano lines, and atmospheric use of electronics, although not enough of the latter to suggest interference with Kid A: rather, it is the alt-rock Bends version and the art-rock OK Computer version of Radiohead that serve as primary cue-setters. Slow, atmospheric, depressing songs, only occasionally livened up by faster tempos that still preserve the same atmosphere (ʽPanicʼ) and always suggesting being trapped without any hope of escape in the deep, dark well of one's own subconscious, except that, unlike Radiohead, lyrics-wise they are still unable to escape the «always talking with the ghost of my brutally mutilated lover» cliché.
That cliché is, however, far from the worst problem of the album — the worst problem is that most of the songs are honestly no good. Like that Radiohead atmosphere or not, it was always supported by radical, challenging, or at least instantly memorable musical ideas. Here, though, as the Cavanagh brothers are assisted by drummer John Douglas in their songwriting duties, I fail to find anything that would sound genuinely unusual or memorable. The songs take too much time to do too few interesting things. The pianos and acoustic guitars sound nice, but do not take any serious chances outside of the predictably comfortable zones of adult-pop balladeering and dark (or not too dark) folk strumming. And the electric guitars, when they do come in, largely sound like any average alt-rock band would sound — basic grungy patterns that even Radiohead had largely left behind by 1995.
The very first song on the album, ʽPressureʼ, which was also released as a single, begins in full-out ʽKarma Policeʼ mode, jamming your ears in between big echoey drums and forcefully hit piano chords, but this all just seems like a moody setup for the vocal melody, and the vocal melody seems like just a setup for the chorus, with all the stakes placed on the culmination of "I don't care where you go, you won't get away from me", and, frankly, it's not much of a culmination — the singer sounds so bored with himself, these words resonate like an empty threat. If there is any pressure, it's hardly above permissible levels. I can understand why the vocals never shoot past the murmur level, or why there is no shrill guitar solo to juice up the crescendo, but see, these are fairly ordinary musical moves that they use to create the atmosphere, and if you're making an ordinary song, you are at least entitled to juice it up with ordinary, but efficient musical clichés. «Tastelessly exciting» takes preference over «tastefully boring», and it's not even all that tasteful to begin with (though it cannot be said that they are embarrassing themselves with this attitude, either, like they often did on the early albums).
And if that's ʽPressureʼ for us, then what about ʽReleaseʼ? Surely this title should be concealing some climactic denouement of its predecessor? Reveal a shattering musical explosion? It begins promising enough — a thin, sharp acoustic guitar tone, lightly attenuated with a simmering electronic pattern; eventually, more and more synth overdubs start piling up in anticipation of the climax... and that climax? A weak, monotonous texture of funky electric guitar overdubs merging in a generic alt-rock grind. Well... like "pressure", like "release".
The record continues in the same mediocre manner, alternating heavier and lighter moments in such a smooth and polite manner that you hardly ever notice the transitions, and offering us vocal parts that are so gentlemanly refined that I almost begin to wonder — couldn't it have been more effective for them to go back to growling vocals? Probably not, but this is just way too soporific for my aural nerves. And almost as if they wanted to really rub it in, the last track (ʽTemporary Peaceʼ) seems like a bad parody on a conceptual post-rock suite: a moody, hookless Gothic ballad part, followed by a couple minutes of seawaves crashing upon the shore (wait, did I say "crashing?"... nothing on this album is "crashing"... more like "swishing"...), followed by a couple more minutes of gravel-crushing footsteps on the shore and disjoint pieces of recorded conversation, followed by a few minutes of total silence, and then followed with a two-chord acoustic ditty with seemingly improvised «comical» lyrics ("Morten Harket's brand new go cart / Foul mouthed and smelling of onions"). Actually, the acoustic ditty might be the best part of the album because it is at least the only thing about it that is not so totally safe and predictable.
So, unfortunately, a thumbs down — even if this is not a stereotypically «bad» record, this is one of those cases where I'd rather sit through Aerosmith's Pump or Britney Spears' In The Zone, because those records, bad as they are, at least give you food for thought and impressions to keep. A Fine Day To Exit, on the contrary, shows that the boys mean good (they are actually trying to find some serious justification for being so depressed), but they don't really have the means, such as brilliant songwriting and inventive arrangements, to do good.