Anathema: Universal

Anathema - UniversalSynopsis: In May 2012 Anathema released Weather Systems, the most acclaimed and successful album of a career that has spanned over two decades. The album scored high in numerous critics end of year polls around the world and cemented the band’s reputation as one of the most exciting and progressive band around.

Following the release of the album the band embarked on a lengthy tour. The European leg opened with a triumphant one-off show at the ancient Roman theatre of Philippopolis with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2012. This incredible show was documented by acclaimed filmmaker Lasse Hoile (Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree, Opeth, Dream Theater).

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Anathema: Universal 7.75

eyelights: the epic quality of many songs. the atmosphere. the setting.
eyesores: the undistinguishability of some songs.

Anathema is one of those bands that I know very, very little about, even though they’ve been on my radar for a year or two. In fact, when I sat down to watch this concert, I had not heard one single song by this Liverpudlian band.

Formed in 1990, the band shifted its ranks and its style in the early days, moving from doom metal to what some call new prog, which is a style they’ve assigned to for well over a decade now. Their line-up has also stabilized in that time.

I was attracted to the band by their name, which suggested metal or goth (even though the album covers I saw suggested new agey or prog-rock elements – a deterrent for me). To me it conveyed darkness, without being oppressive.

What I think tipped the scales was the gorgeous cover for ‘Universal’, which appears to have been inspired by a moment that takes place during the concert: it’s all black, with the band on stage, back turned, facing the lights from distant stars.

It spoke to me. It was at that point that I took a quick glance at the band’s wiki page and contemplated getting some of their music. I eventually picked up a couple of their CDs – which I sat on, as I tend to do considering how much new music I have to listen to.

And, when I got the chance of picking up ‘Universal’ on blu-ray, I pounced.

The programme, which was recorded in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, at the ancient theatre of Philippopolis on September 22, 2012, doesn’t mince any words. It starts with the band already on stage and with The Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra providing an intro.

The venue, which is a Roman theatre dated 100 AD, is built in a semi-circle and is backed by a series of columns. It looks very much like a stone amphitheatre. I can’t imagine a more exciting venue for a band of Anathema’s stature, one that tends to play clubs.

The whole stage was awash in blue light and smoke (the lighting would most often alternate between blue and green during the show), giving the setting a cool atmosphere. Due to their close proximity, there were panels of Plexiglas between the drummer and the orchestra.

The band  started off in the most impressive fashion, exploding out of the gate with an epic number called “Untouchable, Part 1” that was dramatic enough that I was under the impression that I was listening to a closer; they would certainly go out with a bang with this one.

But they were just getting started. Over the course of two and half hours, including a 25-minute encore set, Anathema served up epic tracks from throughout their lengthy career, focusing initially on their two most recent platters, ‘Weather Systems’ and ‘ We’re Here Because We’re Here’.

After those first ten tracks, the band dug up a few ditties from many of their past albums, but bypassing their first three – no doubt because they were of a different genre altogether. They played only one more song from ‘Weather Systems’ (then their latest), in these last twelve.

It was a great challenge for me to tell some of the songs apart, having never listened to the band before. Given their prog-rock inspirations, songs tend to be on the lengthy side and can change course at any point, giving the impression of having transitioned into another song.

The worst of it was the exceptional “The Storm Before the Calm” (the most musically-challenging of the set), which threw me off completely and had me convinced I was listening to two entirely different songs. For the most part, though, the crowd’s cheers and clapping were a good guide.

Anathema’s performance was relatively low key, which was perfectly in keeping with their brand of music. If anything, they rely very much on the atmosphere – or, at least, this particular show did (which would make sense given the ancient Roman venue and orchestral backing).

The interactions with the crowd were minimal, with Vincent, their lead singer, once taking a camera from a fan during one song and taking a POV shot. Still, he wasn’t unmoved by them: during rock opus “Flying”, the audience participated and you could see how genuinely moved he was by it.

Daniel, the lead guitarist, also worked the crowd a little bit, getting them to clap and cheer in certain moments. It’s not as though the band was static and didn’t interact with their audience. It’s just that their overall vibe is pretty relaxed, as is their delivery; they’re not a punk band.

They did deliver a slightly more raucus set for the encore. At the close of the first part of the program, they thanked the conductor and orchestra and promised the crowd that they would return with rock songs. They did exactly that, offering even a different version of closing number “Fragile Dreams”.

Here’s the full set list (and a rating for each):

Main set
1. Untouchable, Part 1 8.5
2. Untouchable, Part 2 8.0
3. Thin Air 8.0
4. Dreaming Light 7.5
5. Lightning Song 7.5
6. The Storm Before the Calm 8.0
7. Everything 7.5
8. A Simple Mistake 8.0
9. The Beginning and the End 7.75
10. Universal 8.25
11. Closer 7.5
12. A Natural Disaster 7.75
13. Deep 7.5
14. One Last Goodbye 7.5
15. Flying 8.25
16. Fragile Dreams (Hindsight version) 8.0

Encore 1
17. Panic 7.75
18. Emotional Winter / Wings of God 7.5
19. Internal Landscapes 7.75

Encore 2
20. Fragile Dreams (Alternative 4 version) 7.5

While I wasn’t as keen on the “stripped down” encore set, I loved to hear them break free on “Panic”, giving the crowd a double-time, nearly punk number. “Internal Landscapes” was a really lovely, epic duet, making the most of both their singers at once.

But the most interesting, musically, was the double whammy of “Emotional Winter” and “Wings of God”, which reminded me of Dire Straits in some areas and which, at one point, lifted its bass line from “The James Bond Theme” – but slowed down. Nice.

Other highlights of the show were “A Simple Mistake”, which started off a bit bland, but then built up to a “Kashmir“-esque classical backing, “Universal” for its superb vocals, and “Closer”, which has a prominent vocoder effect going for it. All of these rocked hard.

My first impressions of Anathema, based strictly on this show, are they are not of the same pedigree as top-tier rock bands – like U2, for instance. At no point did I get the impression of watching superstars – aside for their keyboardist, Mr. GQ (not his actual name).

This may be a good thing, actually: these people are far more relatable; they look like regular folk, the kind that you see on the bus every day. In fact, some of them probably have day jobs; I can’t fathom that they are living off of their Anathema royalty checks.

At least, not yet.

Because, although their music lacks grit, they have a polished sound that is instantly gratifying, even while the music isn’t entirely accessible. I could see how alluring it might be in some circles, with prog-rocky, intellectual and musician types. I know people who’d enjoy them.

I also appreciated the presentation of the concert, too. Unlike many shows I’ve watched of late, this wasn’t put together by an ADD-addled director: there are plenty of long dolly shots, allowing us to get a feel for what’s taking place on stage, who’s doing what and when.

The sound was crystal clear. I’m disappointed that the show was only released in stereo, because I like the immersive quality of a full surround mix, with the crowd around you, but this was a lossless blu-ray track, so it sounded very good and it filled the room quite nicely anyway.

Interestingly, the menu allows one to watch the full show or to skip straight to the encore(s), which lasted approximately 25 minutes. Why one would only want to see the encore is beyond me, but this might appeal to some, I suppose. Better to have the option than not.

The disc also comes with another performance, recorded at the Union Chapel in London, on September 1, 2011. It was an acoustic concert with three other label mates, so they only played an eight-song set – as a trio, featuring Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh with Lee Douglas.

For reasons unknown, the set has been severely abridged: down from eight songs to five, for a total of 27 minutes. For the sake of accuracy, I’ve decided to include the full set list here, but will only grade the ones that were on the blu-ray. The others are noted with an asterisk.

A Night at the Union Chapel
1. Kingdom 7.0
2. Thin Air 8.25
*3. Dreaming Light
*4. Deep
5. Angels Walk Among Us 7.5
6. A Natural Disaster 7.5
*7. Flying
8. Fragile Dreams 7.75

The most notable aspect of this mini show is that it put the band’s vocals on display. In “Thin Air” Daniel and Lee provided simultaneous background for Vincent, who injected much passion into it. And “A Natural Disaster” was a terrific showcase for Lee; it was even better than on album.

For this show, the two brothers played guitar, and piano, but Daniel also used a looping device to create beats and other repetitive backup music. There were also some atmospheric synth sounds contributing to the overall mix. It was impressive to watch him coordinate all that.

But it made wonder just how much this qualifies as an acoustic set if they use electronics to embellish their show, to fill in for the other members. Why not  just bring them along, then, and have them play acoustically too? I hate that it kind of makes the others disposable…

Unfortunately, the set is severely edited, with each song fading out at the end and with some discrepancies popping up:

  • During “Angels Walk Among Us”, while Vincent and Lee are still singing, the shot shows Vincent away from the mic, and then coming back to thank the audience.
  • At the end of “Fragile Dreams”, it fades out while Daniel is still playing. This gives the impression that they were continuing the show. But I guess we’ll never know.

After the main act, I was very keen to listen to the two Anathema albums that I have at home, so I dug them up right away. After watching the Union show, I was even more interested to explore their output – in particular, I’d like to hear their stylistic progression over the years.

But what I’ve heard so far is quite good. Whereas ‘A Natural Disaster’ is reminiscent of what was on offer during this ‘Universal’ set, ‘The Eternal’ was darker, showing their doom metal roots a little bit – even if it’s hardly metal, per se. While the two discs are quite different, I rather enjoyed both.

In the end, I’m extremely pleased with having gone into ‘Universal’ sight unseen. It’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off, but in this case it was an informed gamble – and it paid off in spades. Anathema is a band that I can safely say that I enjoy. Will I become a true fan, or just a casual one?

Only time can tell.

Either way, I’d certainly recommend checking them out.

Dates of viewings: December 2+4, 2014

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