ANATHEMA – Fine Days 1999-2004

Anathema-MFN-Remaster-Fine-DaysIn the twenty-first century, Anathema have often been mentioned in the same breath as Opeth and Porcupine Tree due to their increased movement towards thoughtful progressive rock structures.  It hasn’t always been that way, of course.  Like Opeth, the band began life as a totally different musical beast, playing in a melodic death metal style.  Shifting line-ups naturally resulted in shifting sounds, and by the time the band signed with the legendary Music For Nations label for their fifth album ‘Judgement’ in 1999, they’d settled on a rather tough but accessible blend of gothy and alternative rock.

Comprising three discs of remastered audio material and a full length live DVD [2005’s long unavailable ‘Were You There?’], ‘Fine Days 1999-2004’ presents a detailed look this important period in the Anathema history, showing the workings of a band very much moving towards the top of their game.  There’s a lot to take in across the three hours and thirty three tracks; each of the separate albums are very strong, but bundled together in this way, it’s an incredible body of work with surprisingly little filler.   For those needing guidance, here are some pointers to a few of the many highlights within…

‘Drop’ begins the half-decade long trip with a number that clearly presents the natural vocal tones of frontman Vincent Cavanagh – already a shift from the doomy voices present on the band’s Peaceville recordings – pitched against crisp guitar lines.  In many ways, this track is very representative of the rest of the first disc in the box set and certainly begins the ‘Judgement’ LP in good form.  Cavanagh’s voice sounds at ease against a ringing rhythm throughout the number, while louder riffs hint at more complex material by The Cult in a couple of places. There’s a definite nineties vibe – as is only natural considering when the recording was made – but this track in particular is the more charming for that and by the time we reach the centre point, the merely curious are set to be truly won over by a soaring lead guitar break.  ‘Pitiless’ brings a little more well crafted hard rock, before ‘Forgotten Hopes’, with a mix of circular semi-acoustic guitar work, a quasi-theatrical vocal and squalls of feedback used for extra instrumentation opens up a whole world of darkness.

Moving on, ‘Make It Right’ showcases vocals with a dark sadness, with a smooth and enjoyable bassline, plus a wall of keys that just hammers home the more gothy elements of the Anathema sound.  Although lighter, there’s an atmosphere that could be compared to the (much) later recordings of other UK goth metal practitioners My Dying Bride, but in the late 90s, Anathema were arguably the more accessible band as this track – and, indeed, the bulk of ‘Judgement’ – is forever testament.  For slow and moody, the instrumental ‘2000 & Gone’ brings an unavoidable alternative rock slant, but the dreamy and repetitive bassline counterbalanced by guitars crying with vibrato and controlled feedback is just beautiful.  Fifteen years old at the time of the box set release, this lengthy workout, somewhat reminiscent of the epic ‘Drown’ by Smashing Pumpkins, holds up frighteningly well.  Try listening to it on headphones and just let it take you away…classic stuff, indeed.

Two years on from ‘Judgement’, there’s a slight tonal shift, as ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ not only displays a sharper musical attack on some tracks, but the increased production budget is obvious from the outset.  During ‘Pressure’, the guitar tone is hard and clear, the perfect foil for a confident vocal, which in turn is complimented by a world of backing harmonies.  In terms of tough but thoughtful alternative rock shifting into the twenty first century, Anathema leave the nineties in the dust with this track. Again, with ‘Leave No Trace’, they up the ante on previous work, blending a wobbly tenor voice with a waltzing time signature.  Haunting but inviting, it’s easy to hear the ever increasing move towards proggier sounds here…as well as a potential influence on KScope signings Gazpacho.   For those who want something a little noisier, the band are happy to oblige with the appropriately named ‘Panic’, a full-on alt-rocker driven by a dual vocal, rattling bass work and more cymbals than should be necessary.  Although markedly different from the metal of those early years, the band really rock on this track – ‘Panic’ was/is clearly a belter in the live set with its genuine wall of sound approach.

The title cut shifts into an increased moodiness, as clean guitar work picks a fine melody, over which the vocals sound as if the protagonist is about to break down.  In the way the tension builds, this is clearly one of the album’s many standouts.  First, there are echoed voices and swirly synth noises teasing, while a crying guitar in the distance constantly tries to break loose.  At the midpoint, that explosion of sound so long expected actually materialises: the multi-layered guitars crank a tough rhythm, the drums crash and the vocal reaches a crescendo.  …And there’s even better to come… An ambient bridge hints at prog, with a tinkling, haunting, dark yet airy style, before a reprisal of the earlier loudness really pushes the lead vocal’s natural charm.  There are hints of early Muse here, but thankfully they remain unspoiled by the presence of a strong vocalist; one who isn’t gasping for breath between each line in Matt Bellamy’s horribly irritating manner.   This, in some ways, represents the best of this era of the band; it is a huge step up from ‘Judgement’, while still retaining that feeling there’s even farther for this band to go on their musical travels.

Last up, 2003’s ‘A Natural Disaster’ mixes elements of the previous records into the band’s most complete sounding album.  The improvement in sound between ‘Judgement’ and ‘A Fine Day’ pales into insignificance when compared to the changes between ‘A Fine Day’ and ‘Natural Disaster’ – and MFN’s 2015 remaster really brings that out.  There’s a huge leap in the quality of both the song writing and musicianship, too, as you’d not only hope but expect.   The blend of deep bass and retro keyboards during ‘Balance’ hints ever further at a prog influence, pushing the band’s roots further away.  Like the title cut from ‘…Exit’, the scope of the music is the key; this is no mere alt-rock offering.  It’s spacious throughout, but once the multi-tracked guitars take hold and a spoken voice tries valiantly to creep through the cracks, it’s immense.  It doesn’t have an obvious hook, but the music is captivating enough to inspire; the drums provide the heartbeat, the guitars the muscle.  Flowing effortlessly into ‘Closer’, a futuristic rocker that builds gradually into a repetitive loop with unashamed use of vocoders, it brings something else entirely… Should you feel claustrophobic listening to this, the effect is entirely deliberate: “Your dream world is a very scary place to be trapped inside…

While ringing guitars play a huge part in the Anathema sound by this point, ‘Pulled Under at 2000 Metres a Second’ is particularly wonderful as it sidesteps from the more obvious and wraps a angsty vocal around a dark and frenetic bassline.  This alone would make the track one of the finest in the band’s cannon (particularly if you like the noisier material), but once the main guitar riff kicks in, it’s an unstoppable juggernaut of a tune.  It may be noisier, but listening through decent speakers shows there are just as many layers here as on the more atmospheric material.  A blanket of keys adds darkness; a shift between yelping and whispered vocals only adds to the general unease.  The approach to each line is strangely familiar…it’s like hearing Roger Waters spitting lyrics from Pink Floyd’s ‘Sheep’ over a sheet of alternative rock bombast.   Truly unnerving.  This last offering for MFN isn’t short of quiet and haunting tracks either and like ‘A Fine Day To Exit’, the classiest of these comes in the title track – a slow blues-edged waltz with a guest vocal from Lee Douglas, whose voice cries each line like a woman lost somewhere in the dark.  It’s almost nothing like ‘Pulled Under’ or ‘Balance’, yet fits the album surprisingly well.  Arguably the strongest of this trilogy of albums, ‘A Natural Disaster’ is a crucial step towards the band Anathema would become by 2010.

Although a couple of previous special edition bonus tracks are notably absent, there is a new bonus in that this set includes a previously unheard track ‘Fine Days’.  Placed at the end of the ‘Judgement’ material, it is stylistically similar, with a strong leaning towards a heavy jangle.  For the main hook, there’s an instantly likable choir of voices delivering a strong melody.  It’s a track guaranteed to please those who’ve enjoyed Anathema – and in particular, the ‘Judgement’ LP – over the years.

Since the contents of this box set are of such a consistently high quality, ‘Fine Days’ provides a near perfect introduction to Anathema, should one be necessary.  Avoiding any of the more marginal doom aspects of the band’s past but retaining a few darker elements, this box will be especially useful – and near essential – item for those who’ve discovered the band somewhat belatedly.  Very little here is as quite as slick as that of the better known ‘Weather Systems’ or ‘Distant Satellites’, but most of the material is superior at almost every turn, too.  Bringing a perfect blend of melody and moodiness, hearing Anathema’s Music For Nations recordings years after the event, it’s more than obvious why these albums have gained and retained such a cult audience.

[In addition to the ‘Fine Days’ box set, Music For Nations have also reissued ‘Judgement’, ‘A Fine Day To Exit’ and ‘A Natural Disaster’ on high quality vinyl editions.]

March 2015