By: Gaz Cloud
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Released on October 30, 2015 via Kscope
Musicians love coming home, and performing sold out gigs in the towns that formed them. It’s usually an opportunity to find the biggest space available, instead of the dingy venues played during their ascendancy, and fill this with fans, friends and hangers on, ready to reminisce about those early days.
Anathema do things slightly differently, as always. For one, the choice of venue: this gig was part of a tour of cathedrals a la Tangerine Dream’s boundary-breaking exploits in the early 70s. Progressive music is a relatively safe proposition in 2015, and one imagines the Anglican church welcoming the band with arms open wide, much as Christ The Redeemer welcomes the jets to Rio de Janeiro. It’s not just the revenue that would appeal to the church – the solemnity that surrounds Anathema’s repertoire in 2015 is quasi-religious.
The band’s choice of acoustic set-up and selection from their back-catalogue further cement this match. When Vincent and Danny Cavanagh sing “I never betrayed your faith” in perfect harmony on ‘Untouchable, Part 1’, the line could pertain just as easily to religion; their Liverpudlian congregation; or the relationship the song is probably in fact written about. In this tune and in countless others littered throughout their set, Anathema make analogies to coming home; leaving; departing; returning. It’s as though their entire career were programmed to ensure a gig such as this was a massive success.
Anathema keep the crowd enrapt throughout the 100+ minutes of this set simply because they pack such an emotional punch. The music may be safe, and the lyrics direct to the point of simplicity. But every single tune slays the audience with sheer, heartfelt poignancy. The impact of this musical drama is heightened by two factors. One of these is that it seems entirely genuine. Why over complicate things when the core message is already so intense?! The other is Lee Douglas voice. Douglas could make ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ sound like a sonnet rather than a nursery rhyme; when interpreting Anathema’s beautiful odes, it’s hard to imagine a sound more devine. Anathema would be a great band with a substandard singer, but a large part of their appeal lies in Douglas’ delivery.
The instrumentation is stripped back to the very basics, heightening the tension in tracks such as ‘Electricity’. It’s only on the fourth number, a transcendental take on ‘Thin Air’, that we hear the first “percussion” – Daniel Cavanagh’s simple thumped acoustic guitar providing a kick of sorts to underpin the harmonic flights of fancy the comprise the piece. Vincent Cavanagh’s voice soars on this number – a reminder that Lee Douglas is one of three gifted vocalists in the ensemble. It’s not simply a case of less-is-more, either. It’s evident that the band have put a lot of thought into how to best present their oeuvre in this setting, rearranging parts, changing harmonies and adapting the songs to ensure they shine.
Only once ‘Dreaming Light’ fades do the vocal trio welcome their bandmates to the stage: Jamie Cavanagh on bass and John Douglas on drums, both of whom play a markedly different role in the semi-acoustic version of Anathema, plus cellist David Wesling and guest violinist Anna Phoebe, who shows off her immense talent for sympathetic playing, rather than virtuosity, on the song ‘Anathema’. Wesling had already appeared with the band on the orchestral Hindsight and the live record A Moment In Time, but ‘Anathema’ was written since these records, and it’s a natural fit for the format, with Wesling’s cello complimenting Phoebe’s serene soloing.
Maybe, given the scene and setting, attempts to recreate the band’s early successes and dive deep into the back catalogue would have been entirely misguided. In fact, the oldest songs on offer are ‘Electricity’, from 2003’s A Natural Disaster, and ‘Temporary Peace’, originally appearing on 2001’s A Fine Day To Exit. The scene that spawned them may have links with church burnings but the womb like sanctuary of a cathedral actively suits Anathema. There’s no place for death metal or growl vocals inside a church, after all. These two earlier songs show a band sewing the seeds of what they went on to become. Whatever your musical preference, Anathema are a band that grew into themselves and have simply got better over time.
It’s hard to be critical whilst you’re crying, but this isn’t a perfect performance. Some of the boy’s vocals towards the end sound a little tired, and the song selection is only very moderately progressive – a shame given much of their early work was praised for its experimental qualities. Whilst the new interpretations are well thought through, choosing to simply fade out of songs deprives the crowd of a fitting ending to many numbers. ‘Distant Satellites’ is probably the one song that sounds leaden on the night, falling flat when compared to the studio version that spawned it.
The highlights far outweigh these occasional wrong turns. The looped guitars of ‘Take Shelter’ sound strangely Christmasy, whilst ‘Internal Landscapes’ is dedicated to former members Duncan Patterson and Darren White, displaying the type of camaraderie you’d expect. David Wesling returns to lend an epic beauty to ‘A Natural Disaster’, the crowd encouraged to illuminating this performance by shining mobiles and lighters. The band close with the trademark chiming guitars of ‘Fragile Dreams’, and the final cry of “thank you Liverpool” seems sincere.
If you like Anathema’s more recent forays into melodic, emotional rock music, you’ll love this album. If you enjoy “unplugged” style live albums, this is also the record for you. Only a hardened cynic would fail to recognise A Sort Of Homecoming as not just a fine addition to the band’s catalogue, but as a sublime live album of the very highest calibre.