By: Charlie Gardner

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Support: Messenger | website

Concorde 2, Brighton | July 26, 2015

A studio album can be like a catwalk fashion show for a band – capturing an à la mode moment and showing them off at their best, but not always in a way that can be replicated on stage. And although I’m used to this at gigs, especially in small venues where too often undersized PAs are being seriously overcranked, this is the first occasion I can remember where two bands sound quite so separated from their recent albums, with consequences that are disappointing and delightful in unequal measures.

There can’t be many better places to queue to get in than Concorde 2. Even on a drizzly, early-dusk evening, the breeze and the salt spray from the sea front (the waves barely 50 metres away) are positively mood enhancing; not so the bizarre decision to let Messenger open 15 minutes earlier than billed, with the result that several hundred of us miss a good third of their set before we’re in the venue and in position with a beer. It’s an awkward start that immediately puts the band on the backfoot with the audience, and one from which they never really recover.

Illusory Blues is a fine debut album that is certainly one of the more interesting progressive releases of last year;  and to label it as psychedelic prog barely does justice to all the their elements of folk, metal and ambient that are clearly in the mix. But tonight, with standout numbers like ‘Midnight’ and ‘The Return’ shorn of the LP’s distinctive flute and fiddle passages, it feels like the band has dropped a key element of their unique identifier and left us with Messenger-lite, and an internalised performance so laid back that it hardly ever crosses the footlights.

At least they break out a little with their closer, the aptly titled ‘Dear Departure’, throwing in a ton of trippy e-bowing and a smoke-and-mirrors feedbacky coda that supersedes the studio recording, and leaves us on something of a high. The message gets through in the end, you might say, if only in a bottle washed up on the shoreline outside.

But let’s not shoot the Messenger. With hindsight, their short-notice support here is simply a mis-match; their immersive sound, and the concentration from the audience it requires, at odds with the task of warming up a crowd still queueing for the bar. But with a longer set, in a festival context, and the fiddles and flutes restored, they would surely prosper. And as for support work, wouldn’t opening for Gong be a match made in heaven? Now that’s a gig I’d definitely arrive early for…

After a disappointing first date, Anathema swing into the rescue, surpassing their antonym in a set that is nothing short of love at first sight… well, passion after little more than a minute, at least, as I find myself grinning like an idiot and wailing ‘I loved you!’ in the first chorus of the eponymous ‘Anathema’. And only three minutes later, as Danny Cavanagh’s guitar breaks into a solo of sublime sustain, I am utterly smitten. There’s no going back on a band who can jump their audience from the off – bold, yes, but oh so beautiful… and utterly beguiling. For sure, it’s a brave move to open with the apex of the curve that forms Distant Satellites; but it seems completely in character for a band whose name conceals ‘anthem’ in its core; and it is something of a mission statement, too – one that nails their colours to the mast for the rest of the evening.

Danny Cavanagh from Anathema.

Danny Cavanagh from Anathema.

First, it is a direct riposte to criticism that the album suffers from over-sanitized, studio sound. Played live, the string chorus, in particular, is now raw and earthy, but somehow less intrusive, in a much more rock-driven soundscape that is underpinned by the cut and thrust of Daniel Cardoso’s drums and the magnificent, booming pulse of Jamie Cavanagh’s bass. This is Anathema, head, heart and soul, if you like.

Secondly, it quickly becomes clear that this will be a set fuelled with unrelenting passion and angst. Lee Douglas comes to the stage, raising the level with her plaintive, ethereal tones in’ Untouchable 1 & 2,’ leaving us breathless in the ‘Thin Air’ that follows. But this is only a pre-tremor before the earthquake of the ‘Lost Song’ trilogy, in a version that again defies the album by delivering all three pieces back-to-back, emphasising the heart-rending dialogue of the lovers.

It’s a performance that completely shreds the faithful, and if the tuning and balance of voices in ‘Lightning Song’ that follows is not all that it might be, it merely serves to remind us that even with a touring schedule of 3–4 gigs a week, Vince and Lee are affected by every syllable they sing, feeling every sentiment as if for the first time.

Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas from Anathema.

Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas from Anathema.

Exhausted, I move further back, seeing nothing but love in the eyes of the 700 or so brethren who, to judge from the eclectic array of band tees on display, are devotees from many musical traditions, and from a much wider age-range than you would expect at ‘conventional’ prog. Confirmation, if any were needed, that Anathema continue to blur the lines between genres – a kind of Seven Dials where prog, metal, rock, post rock, alt, electronica and ambient meet in the middle.

Perhaps nearly spent with the intensity of it all, the band come off the curve a little now, wisely changing the dynamic with old favourites ‘A Simple Mistake’ and ‘Universal’, and the more recent ‘The Beginning and the End’.

Though is only the beginning of the end, because the rapture continues in a 10-minute encore of ‘Distant Satellites’ and yet more surprises: for this recast version of perhaps the weakest track on the album is a revelation. The electronica no longer feels over processed and sterile, and with Cardoso’s ‘real’ drums at the forefront, this track suddenly becomes a standout. ‘Closer’ it isn’t, but it gets everyone dancing and proves a perfect complement to a party mood that never wants to end.

Vincent Cavanagh from Anathema.

Vincent Cavanagh from Anathema.

Earlier in the evening, Vince talks at length about what ‘prog’ means to him. It’s clearly an epithet he isn’t completely happy with, but he embraces it positively with the observation that the band are always looking to develop their song-writing; to never stand still for too long; to ensure that the next album will always sound different from the last. And though he doesn’t say it, tonight has surely been progressive because of the way which their live sound transforms the album experience.

But for me, the real ‘progress’ for Anathema would be finally to lose the millstone label that is ‘cult following’, and enjoy the wider acclaim they so richly deserve. It’s been said before that they are a band on the cusp of greatness, but why they’re still waiting in the wings after so long, and so many successful tours, is nothing short of an Anathenigma.

Anathema.

Anathema.

Sometimes, I know, you can adore a band so much that it stifles a review with infatuation. But I think I love this band enough to let them go… this once. So, Anathema, thank you for a beautiful evening, but you’ve long outgrown C2, and I never want to see you in Brighton again… well, not until you’re ready to come back and play the Dome, with a full chamber orchestra. If it’s good enough for Plovdiv (yes, Plovdiv!) it’s good enough for Brighton (not to mention Hove). So get it sorted, won’t you? And make it in the autumn of 2016, after the next album has gone gold and you’re basking in the glow of a Glastonbury headline.

Now that really would be ‘prog… ress’.

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