Over a lengthy and storied career, Anathema have always had a knack for change; whether it being through evolutionary steps, a desire toward experimentation or both. It is well documented by now of their beginning as a Doom/Extreme Metal outfit with cult classics developing through to their contemporary, comparatively unrecognisable incarnation as an emotive Prog outfit; simply put, Anathema have always done what they want and have never been ones to bow to expectation. Nowadays, fanfare and as a result, expectation is at an all-time high when it comes to a new album; so in perhaps typical fashion, they release their most cinematic effort and most challenging release for many years in The Optimist (Kscope).
Intrinsically linked to earlier album A Fine Day To Exit (Kscope) via its imagery and its protagonist; The Optimist appears to follow his story once again at first glance; and certainly shares similarities in its presentation (the car adorning both covers, and the use of coordinates as the opening track which represent AFDTE’s setting) on the face of it. With further listens it seems to reveal that all isn’t as clear-cut nor linear, with hints and subtle nods throughout which could suggest a story reversal, some form of cycle or even a much metaphorical approach (Anathema have always proved earnest and often personal in their subject matter); which offers a deeper narrative to peel away and dissect with further listens.
Previous album Distant Satellites (Kscope) was arguably the most polarising of their back catalogue for quite some time with its sudden use of electronica influences in its latter half, an album which, for all its strengths, did give a two-faced and somewhat fractured result. On The Optimist such sounds are much more expertly integrated, more at the forefront, but also feeling much more natural rather than surprising. What is striking, however, is the overall tone which is, on the face of it, a lot darker than we are familiar to. The use of looping effects is shown immediately once again in the fast-paced ‘Leaving It Behind’ which offers quite a menacing and strikingly moody atmosphere from the off. The likes of Lee Douglas led ‘Endless Ways’ and ‘Ghosts’ are more recognisable with the likes of We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems (Kscope) in their lip-wobbling capabilities, but they do so without feeling out of context from the rest of the album. In comparison, ‘Wildfires’ later on is a surprisingly dissident and near chaotic moment, whilst album closer ‘Back To The Start’ hides a morose rhetoric behind a misleadingly warm key.
Anathema have never been afraid to throw people off-balance with significant shifts, but whilst this may not be as monumental a sonic shift as early transformations, its refinements in some places and its tonal change mean this to be the most challenging effort of theirs for many years. Given time and full attention and it quickly reveals a huge wealth of ideas, impeccable structuring and still maintains that emotional resonance that has become their calling card. Rather than a collection of songs, this needs to be sat down and experienced as one; then it heightens its narrative and fits like a soundtrack. Some may well indeed get off the road at this juncture, but for more positive minds, this could well be their greatest work to date.