Anathema – Distant Satellites
Rating: 3.75 / 5
If I told you I’d been eagerly awaiting Anathema’s tenth studio album Distant Satellites, it would be the understatement to end all understatements. These British prog rockers have been my favorite band of the past couple years – and the easiest way for me to describe their previous album, 2012’s Weather Systems, is a profoundly life-changing experience. So, believe me when I say I’ve tried and failed to not revert to childlike giddiness while waiting for Distant Satellites to come out. And while Distant Satellites doesn’t come close to matching the impact of its predecessor (which I was expecting), it succeeds in charting its own course through Anathema’s ever-evolving style.
Roughly the first half of Distant Satellites sounds much like the Anathema we’ve come to know over the past two studio albums. Still present are the swelling arrangements, winding structures, simple lyrics, and affecting vocals of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas. However, with the increased use of keyboards, the new material feels more atmospheric and less organic. The overall mood has also shifted, from life-affirming hope and brightness to darker, more contemplative shadows. Yet, the songs still carry that attention to nuance and feeling that allows Anathema to transcend the typical expectations of music.
Kick-off track “The Lost Song Pt 1” offers the first evidence of change. It takes 3 minutes for the guitars to break in, but fans will recognize the bed of strings, off-beat rhythms, and pirouetting piano notes as part of Anathema’s signature. “The Lost Song Pt 3” and “Anathema” use similar approaches; the former begins with subtle keyboards and brisk drumming before the rock elements burst in, while the latter broods on oceanic strings and piano teardrops while recalling Anathema’s early days. Other highlights include the guitar-driven rollercoaster ride “Dusk (Dark Is Descending)” and the ballad “Ariel,” which overflows with a love so palpable it breaks your heart in the most beautiful way.
The second half of Distant Satellites strips down the music to synthesizers and programming. Yep, Anathema goes electronic for the album’s last four tracks – and believe it or not, they’re not that bad. In fact, they retain Anathema’s spirit. Crescendos sneak their way into the breezy title track and the whirlpooling “Take Shelter,” as do live strings on the latter. Even the instrumental “Firelight” is pervaded with the surreality, emotion, and intensity we’ve come to know from Anathema. “You’re Not Alone” is the only failed experiment, in my opinion. The digi-rock guitar distortions are pretty cool, but Danny and Vincent repeat the same verse for 3 minutes. I have to press “Skip” for this track; otherwise, I might just pull my hair out.
While I don’t mind the new direction on Distant Satellites… Well, I’m still on the fence about it. Electronic music doesn’t move me the way that more organic and band-oriented music does. If Anathema were to shift to a prog electro-rock fusion sort of like Atoma’s Skylight, that would be awesome. They’d work marvels with that style. But, honestly, Anathema won’t really be Anathema if the Cavanaghs permanently cut down on their vivid, evocative guitarwork. I hope they don’t make that mistake on future albums.
For now, let’s view Distant Satellites as Anathema donning a slightly altered coat, not a new soul. I’d describe the color as “Northern Lights”: arresting, ethereal, vibrant with dark undertones, changing with the moods of each track. Fans may need time to adjust to the changes, and even then some are bound to reject the electronic ventures outright. In the end, though, Anathema have crafted another beauty with Distant Satellites. It doesn’t rival the band’s previous two studio albums, but it’s a welcome addition to their catalog and deserving of praise for its gleaming, unique personality.
Highlights: “Ariel” (below), “Anathema,” “Dusk (Dark Is Descending)”
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