Anathema’s new album starts with a sound collage that includes the central character’s heavy breathing. The track’s obscure title, ‘32.63N 117.14W’, a set of coordinates, marks the spot immortalised on the cover of the band’s 2001 opus A Fine Day To Exit. The new record, then, could be seen as a sequel of sorts, picking up the story and confounding expectations as to what happened next to that album’s central character. In reality, the album is a hyper-personal set, using the narrative as a cloaking device to disguise the writers’ own tribulations. It’s clear that the Liverpudlian sextet have come a long way from their oft-referenced beginnings as a death metal act. Whilst the band no longer rely on the doom genre as a stylistic signifier, The Optimist is, in spite of its title, an oppressively bleak record. Much of the press surrounding the record has focused on the interpersonal relationships of the siblings within the group, and Daniel Cavanagh’s mental health.
Ultimately, Anathema are artists, and were it not for their product, the fans would not care about such intimate details. Vincent Cavanagh, the only ever-present member of the tight-knit ensemble, understands the pressures associated with being a band of brothers. “It’s important for us to recognise that we’re brothers first and bandmates second. That goes not just for me and him (Daniel) but for all family in this band. It does feel like one family, including Cardoso. If you look after the family the band will follow. So long as we look after each other and stay in touch with each other socially we’ll be OK. That’s the most important thing.”
Cavanagh’s relationship with artists isn’t restricted to his family members. We caught up with Vincent whilst he was in London, helping with preparations for a new show by Sarah Derat, Cavanagh’s partner. The show in Brussels, entitled Dangerous Currents, runs until 8th July and combines sculpture, sound and augmented reality. “The sculpture works are different materials: steel, fabric, latex and other things. There’s also a sound piece with a parabolic speaker. She works with a company that synthesises speech; synthesises her own voice to read this text that she’s written.” Cavanagh’s role is far more than providing moral support. Reprising his artistic collaboration with Derat, he’s provided music for two of the pieces in the exhibition. “I’ve done the music that goes behind this text – it ends up almost being almost like two robots talking to each other, with her voice.”
Vincent’s enthusiasm for the project is evident. This joy seems to come as much from working on soundscapes, as opposed to Anathema’s song structures, as it does from the opportunity to help his girlfriend. The other piece Cavanagh supplies music for is the show’s augmented reality piece. “It’s all about the idea of death and rebirth on social media. When somebody dies, their social media profile stays active and sometimes people can even get notifications from these zombie accounts. It’s about the digital avatar and what it means.” The observer is encouraged to move an iPad around the gallery and, as it’s moved, objects morph and change. Cavanagh’s score echoes this fluidity of shape.
Working with electronics isn’t something new to Cavanagh: 2014’s Distant Satellites saw Anathema fully immerse themselves in this world. That album veered from electronic excursions to more direct rock passages. With The Optimist, these two sonic personalities within the band seem less schizophrenic. It’s a world Cavanagh’s explored more frequently of late, notably guesting on worriedaboutsatan’s Blank Tape album, last year. “I’ve listened to their music for a couple of years and when Even Temper came out (in 2015) I put a tweet out there saying “This is great, everybody – get on it”. It turned out we had a mutual friend who connected us on Twitter; they were aware of Anathema so we just started talking on there.” Having met at a gig, the duo sent Cavanagh an almost finished track. With musical influences in common but little in the way of direction, Cavanagh was free to do as he pleased. “What I was looking for in this track was the bassline. That gave me the movement of the song and provided the framework to work around. I used that to inspire the melodies, as it’s quite a minimal electronic track”. The resulting piece, ‘This Restless Wing’, soars, and the vocal feels fully integrated, rather than tacked on, which can often be a hazard of the workflow Cavanagh describes.
Be Prog! My Friend is looming and Anathema appear sandwiched between the Devin Townsend Project and Jethro Tull. This gives an idea of the calibre of band selected to perform at this year’s festival. Although Cavanagh finds the time constraints of playing at a festival to be limiting, it’s clear he’s looking forward to returning to Poble Espanyol. “It’s really a beautiful setting for a festival. It’s in a very old square and all around are gorgeous cafes and bars where you can sit and have a sangria and cool off, because it’s very hot. Some kind of sunhat is recommended.” He raves about the nearby gallery that shows contemporary Spanish sculpture and art. “It’s a really cool cultural hub. I know Barcelona very well – I’ve been all over and visited many times. It’s a really vibrant city for culture and the arts, plus music and nightlife, of course.”
In spite of playing the prog festival, Vincent Cavanagh remains unsure as to whether his band are a prog band or not. Describing their sound as “alternative rock”, he maintains that the band have more in common with the likes of Radiohead, Elbow, Muse and Coldplay than they do with the 70s behemoths of prog. Progressive in mindset, but not a typical progressive rock band. “I don’t mind the term progressive because it implies an evolutionary ethos, so I agree with that, but we just don’t know anything about the genre. We never came from that scene. When we were kids we were listening to The Beatles, early Fleetwood Mac, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Queen, and U2. So we our background is soul, blues, rock, pop even. We just don’t know that much about those classic bands and albums from the 70s. I don’t think we’re super complicated or anything.”
At Be Prog! My Friend, the line-up also includes acts such as Leprous and Ulver; bands that have, like Anathema many years before, made the transition from metal to progressive pastures. Cavanagh is sympathetic to these acts’ plight, citing Ulver as the act from the festival’s line-up he’d most like to go out on tour with: “I think it’s good if people want to express themselves in new ways. I think it’s healthy to evolve as a songwriter. If you stick with the same thing, writing to a formula, that’s fine, if you want to do that, but you’d better hope that your audience will follow, because people get very bored quickly these days. A lot of black metal bands don’t give a fuck and that’s cool: stay true to who you are.”
“A band like like Alcest or Ulver or these kind of bands, I completely understand they want to evolve as writers: it’s one of the keys to any kind of longevity. Anathema is in the fortunate position now of having done nothing but evolve, since year one, so people expect that of us, they know. To repeat ourselves would be the unexpected thing to do. I support anybody who wants to try new things. If Slowdive wanted to make black metal record that would be fine by me as well.” I suggest that the change of direction is more valid if done with artistic integrity, and that there are some bands that use such a shift as an opportunity to make a quick buck. Cavanagh is not so sure, crediting his contemporaries with exactly this type of integrity. “I don’t know many people that write stuff to deliberately follow a trend. If somebody tries something, it’s natural – at least, people I know in bands. Even progression itself can be contrived if you set out to do it that way. It has to be natural, it has to be unforced.”
Come the autumn, Anathema will undertake a full headline tour, taking in the Americas and Australia, plus a gruelling leg consisting of 41 European shows in less than two months. The plan for these gigs is to do the show in two parts. “The first half will be The Optimist in full, as a performance piece from start to finish – just heads down and play the whole thing in its entirety. Then we’ll say hello to the audience and go into the back catalogue and play a lot of the big tunes we’ve got: ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Thin Air’ and the like, but also some of the obscure things from the catalogue, things we don’t usually pull out. Things like A Fine Day To Exit that we haven’t played for many years and are somehow connected to this record, semi-directly.”
Production-wise, the tour promises to scale new heights for Anathema. Each track from the new record will have live visuals that sync with the music. Some fans clamour to hear material from as far back in the catalogue as possible. Cavanagh’s response to these fans’ desire depends on their geography: “In the UK we’ve played all of those songs. In somewhere like Colombia we might play something from the first couple of albums, as they’ve never heard us before”, he reasons. Vincent also confesses to having scaled back alcohol and other unhealthy items from the band’s rider, replacing them with green salad, spinach, broccoli and vegetables. It seems nowadays Anathema are intent in channelling their dark side into their art, rather than enacting a clichéd rock-and-roll lifestyle.
With a dedicated and sizeable hardcore following who come to their shows, buy their albums and merchandise, Anathema are well known and loved within their scene and circle. Yet ask the person on the street who they are and they wouldn’t have a clue. Do the band have the potential to break out of the prog ghetto in which they (inadvertently or otherwise) find themselves? Do they care?! “You have to be accepted by mainstream press and media”, reasons Cavanagh, noting that their chances of this breakthrough would be improved if on, say 4AD, rather than Kscope. “We have to do our job first – to make these records fully realised and to continue to push ourselves.”
“We have a very good internal gauge on how good our stuff is and where it measures up to the leading contemporary music in the industry. We’re very critical of what we do, so we push ourselves all the time. If we continue to do that I have faith that things to work out for the best, but you have to put the time, and the effort in. Nobody else is going to force you to do an 8-hour day if you’re your own boss – it has to come from within you. People like Steven Wilson – he’s a hugely driven individual. He’s now getting as much success as a solo artist as he had with Porcupine Tree and that’s to be applauded because of how hard he works.” Is there a glass ceiling for people like Wilson and Anathema? “Possibly. He’s now working with Caroline and that could change some things for him, it depends. I do have strong ideas of what I’d like us to do, it’s just for me to talk to the management and record companies about and see if that can be done.”
Kscope, the band’s label, are becoming known for extravagant packaging. The Optimist is no exception, with a variety of deluxe formats available. “It feels like a bit of a companion piece to the artwork. There’s a 40 page bound book, hardback, which is all shot on location on the West coast of America. There’s videos coming out, too. It feels a bit more cross discipline that our previous works. There was a very strong visual identity for the record from the beginning of writing and recording. That really helped.”
“In the past, we’ve written in the studio – all the vocals. With this one we chose not to do that. It benefitted us creatively to have more freedom in the studio to concentrate on things like the production, instruments and musicianship, rather than having to write lyrics on the mixing desk. We were much better prepared, which has made for a more complete piece.” Having said this, Cavanagh still admits that now, a few months after having completed the album, that there are things he would change on the record.
The Optimist feels like a multi-layered, epic soundtrack to a non-existent movie. Full of little details, effects and brilliant sound design, it’s a record to immerse oneself in. Yet as background music, it’s surprisingly easy for the record to pass the listener by. As always, Lee Douglas’ vocals are exquisite, a unique weapon in the band’s arsenal. Drenched in emotion, pay attention and it’s an insisting document of ill fortune, favour and mental instability. Excluding the “secret track” that follows a period of silence, the album ends with a knock on the door and a voice imparting “How are you?” – a question seemingly as directed at the listener as the central character. “It’s more about locations and places – it’s a psychological study of sorts”, says Cavanagh.
With strong personal bonds running through Anathema and a desire to progress implicit in the group’s modus operandi, it’s unlikely that The Optimist will be the record that defines Anathema’s already impressive career. But it might be their most mature and complex offering to date. It seems Anathema keep getting better and better: reasons for optimism, one might say.
Anathema play Be Prog! My Friend at 20:30, Saturday 1 July, 2017
Sarah Derat’s Dangerous Currents show runs until Saturday 8 July, 2017 at 45 rue Washington/Washingtonstraat, B – 1050, Brussels.