ANATHEMA: FALLING DEEPER (2011)
1) Crestfallen; 2) Sleep In Sanity; 3) Kingdom; 4) They Die; 5) Everwake; 6) J'Ai Fait Une Promesse; 7) Alone; 8) We The Gods; 9) Sunset Of Age.
Another attempt at re-writing their legacy (as if somebody really cared), this relatively short album finally finds Anathema doing exactly the kind of thing they should have done much earlier: going all the way back to their beginnings as a doom metal band and reinventing those old black tunes in the vein of their new neo-symph-prog image. And although Steven Wilson is no longer with them to lend a helping hand directly, they retain the affiliation with the Kscope label; also, their new engineer is Andrea Wright, who'd had a long history of work with everybody from Black Sabbath to Marillion to Clinic to Coldplay, and could certainly get the job done well on an album that places its entire trust in atmosphere.
To complete the picture, the band secures the services of veteran progger Dave Stewart, formerly of Egg, Hatfield & The North, National Health, and Bruford fame — the man used to play keyboards for some of the most twisted and adventurous prog bands in the Golden Age, but the 21st century largely sees him as a strings arranger for various neo-prog outfits, including, of course, Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson, from whom he was «passed down» to Anathema. Actually, he'd already worked for them on We're Here, but on that album, the strings were nowhere near as prominent as they are on these remakes — you might as well credit the record to «Anathema Feat. Dave Stewart», or you might even reverse that order.
The result... well, the result could have been great if the songs we are talking about were great songs in the first place, but they weren't, so it couldn't. Atmospheric background remains atmospheric background, no matter whether you are constructing it with heavy metal guitars or pianos and strings, and I cannot say that, having been transferred to a new medium, they managed to uncover previously concealed plains of spirituality or valleys of bliss. (For the record, only a few of the tunes come from LPs like Serenades or The Silent Enigma; most are taken over from even more obscure early EPs that I have not talked about or even heard, so it is perfectly possible that some of the songs began life as embarrassing trash heaps, before they were all recast in this single mold. I doubt it, though).
It's not as if these are lazy recreations or anything: no, the songs are completely reworked, and the new arrangements are often more complex and sprawling than they used to be — ʽJ'Ai Fait Une Promesseʼ, for instance, which used to be a brief non-metal acoustic interlude, is stripped of its original vocal (by one of the band's lady friends called Ruth) and recast as a pseudo-baroque chamber orchestra performance; and ʽAloneʼ from The Silent Enigma gains at least a couple extra levels of sonic depth, even if you only consider the resplendent, deeply resonant production on the acoustic guitar sound alone — not to mention all the rich overlays. Next to these recreations, the originals sound like pale sketches, and then, on top of the cake, you get the heavenly vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen (fresh out of The Gathering and ready to grace some former fellow competitors with her cordial presence) on two of the tracks.
This should all be very rich and rewarding, yet, as it happens with Anathema so much more often than I'd like to, it still ends up plain and «pretty» from a textbookish point of view, enough to make for some tasteful background muzak, but never memorable in the least, since everything flows so smoothly. The only track where I am ready to accept that they did a stellar job is the album closer, ʽSunset Of Ageʼ, extracted from its original metal sheen and recast as a slightly Eastern-influenced mix of turbulent strings and wildly unleashed colorful electric guitars: the coda is a supercool bit of sturm-und-drang that will at least perform the good deed of kicking you awake from the slumber in which you have most likely been finding yourself for the previous half hour. Nothing else even begins to approach this performance's intensity.
One curious feeling I have noticed is that the songs have largely been remade in keeping with the band's new-found spirit of calm, sad optimism — even tracks like ʽCrestfallenʼ, beginning with telling lyrics such as "I cry a tear of hope but it is lost in helplessness, the darkness eats away at the very embers of my blah blah blah", use tonalities and timbres that suggest a streak of light ahead, and the formerly growling vocals have been replaced by high-pitched «whisper vocals» (reminiscent of recent post-blackgaze artists like Alcest) that clearly suggest a change of scenery: used to be Mordor, now it's more like Lothlorien. Problem is, your everyday routine in Lothlorien is hardly more of an adventure than said routine in Mordor — you just do your whining and complaining in a more gallant manner, but who ever said that a melancholic elf is more of a show-maker by definition than a pissed-off goblin? In a contest of mediocre songwriting, I'd probably find myself pining for the goblin anyway.