ANATHEMA: A NATURAL DISASTER (2003)
1) Harmonium; 2) Balance; 3) Closer; 4) Are You There?; 5) Childhood Dream; 6) Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second; 7) A Natural Disaster; 8) Flying; 9) Electricity; 10) Violence.
This is the first Anathema album to feature three Cavanaghs at the same time: Vincent and Danny are joined by third brother Jamie on bass — who, as it turns out, did play with them in the earliest incarnation of the band, but left it prior to any serious recording engagements. Now this is so much of a family affair that drummer John Douglas humbly retreats back to his drums, leaving the songwriting almost completely in the hands of the brothers; actually, Danny takes almost exclusive credits for everything. (Which is all the more odd, considering that he briefly left the band in 2002, joining Antimatter — and then returned and became its dictatorial songwriter).
With Douglas out of the creative picture, the songs begin leaving somewhat more of an impression; yet, at the same time, the band really mellows out now — even when the guitars are technically heavy, they are still tuned high as hell, and cold, soft, static atmospheres, driven by acoustic guitars and electronics, now serve as the default weapon at Anathema's disposal, with heavy passages only introduced as quasi-climactic red lights, occasionally. Vincent's vocals also continue to mellow out — by this time, memories of those days when he tried to sound like a bleeding demon kid, pushed into a corner by squads of angels, are worn pretty thin, and most of the time he just oozes eternal sadness without any traces of anger or menace.
The good news is that they remember to try and keep things spiced up. Thus, ʽBalance / Closerʼ (two separate tracks, but united by a common theme) sees them taking lessons from Kid A, with multiple vocal overdubs and samples that create a complex mosaic out of falsettos and breathy murmurs, and plenty of electronics to place it in the middle of a cold, robotic atmosphere. ʽChildhood Dreamʼ is a half-ambient, half-Gothic interlude with echoes of babies rising out of a deep memory well. ʽPulled Under At 2000 Metres A Secondʼ is a speedy disaster-rocker, bringing in a brief respite from all the slow psychological moodiness — and, not surprisingly, sounding a hell of a lot like Pink Floyd's ʽSheepʼ in the process. The title track is a doom-laden waltz sung by guest star Anna Livingstone — and, with her high-pitched, trembling, fear-stricken vocals and a particularly depressing set of keyboard and wah-wah guitar overdubs, not surprisingly, sounding quite a bit like classic Portishead.
Finally, by the time we reach the end — a ten-minute suite called ʽViolenceʼ whose only real bit of (musical) violence is a relatively brief and loud rocking passage in the middle — we are out of art-rock and deep into post-rock territory, heck, we might even be in frickin' Angelo Badalamenti territory, considering how much that romantic piano melody in the final movement reminds me of the Twin Peaks theme. It's not at all bad, though, and, in all honesty, at this point I am far more glad to get a «heavenly» finale, where peace and graceful optimism is mixed with only a faint trace of sadness, from these guys, rather than yet another reminder of how life sucks and how the very fact of one's being here on Earth should already be regarded as punishment. Actually, you could very well interpret ʽViolenceʼ as representing a bit of Armageddon, after which everybody relaxes and enjoys eternal heavenly bliss, but that's okay, too — in this case, they are at least willing to look into the eternally blissful future, rather than remain forever cursed in the present, like a bunch of Wandering Jews or something.
As a whole, the record has quite a decent feel to it — all the stylistic twists and imitations of various styles at least seem to guarantee that you probably will not be bored. That said, there is no bypassing the usual limitation: every single one of these twists happens to have already had far superior antecedents, and I do not see myself revisiting this stuff much in the future as long as I still have access to all those Floyd, Radiohead, and Portishead albums (or as long as I can still watch Twin Peaks, for that matter). The problem with sadness and tragedy is that they only really work if they are capable of pulling you way, way deep under the surface, but this here is more like A Really Lightweight Disaster — all the songs are so smooth, restrained, inobtrusive, carefully shorn of any brusque rises or falls, that I cannot imagine the album working on any other level than a simple sonic background. On the other hand, I guess if you are holding a wake or something like that, it might make for a decent soundtrack: not particularly cheesy and not particularly involving.