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I don't play this album often. I don't listen to Anathem very often, to be honest. Unlike Katatonia, another early 90s doom death band who diverged into atmospheric rock/metal territory, the lumpen shapes and deliberately British progressive exploits of these Liverpudlians has rarely tempted me to abandon myself to them, nor do many of their albums reward casual listening. And then today, I decided to play the album again - an album that I usually write off as a bit boring, slow, and too serious for its own good - and found myself enjoying it right from the off, even before the end of the brief vignette 'Shroud of False'. What I mean is not that those opinions of mine are misguided, but that it seems easy to forget the positive qualities of 'Alternative 4' in light of its shortcomings.
I find more and more that I have little patience with bands who rely on constant changes of pace or the impact of near-silent sections of music to achieve their goals, since I desire music that will not only envelope me but engulf me, overwhelm me, and force me to submit to its will. On this album, I could easily ignore about half of the songs if I were busy with something else: the likes of 'Lost Control' and 'Feel' are just too abstract and ponderous for their own good, attempting so hard to produce a sense of drama and evoke emotions that they begin to lose some of their status as musical compositions, a problem that I also identify in the overwrought gothic/doom bands like Virgin Black and My Dying Bride at times. On the other hand, there are other songs that rejoice in their musical inventiveness and also reject little in the way of emotion. Essentially, what I'm saying is that this album is a little uneven, both in mood and performance, though I'm usually a sucker for variety.
It might be worth pointing out here that 'Alternative 4', although not really the stepping-stone album for Anathema (probably 'The Silent Enigma' or 'Eternity', which purged the last vestiges of doom from their sound and broadened their scope to accomodate many textures and colours), has influenced many of the bands on the fringes between metal and progressive music, often in the area known as "atmospheric rock". With The Gathering only a year or two behind, many bands who had begun as slightly alternative takes on the popular European slow gothic/death/doom movement were about to transform into something altogether more difficult to define. Regarding The Gathering, Anathema have always been a more sombre alternative to the powerful vocal-driven work of the Dutch band, while Italians Novembre pursued the progressive ideas in a more specific direction. More recently (early 00s), Norwegians Green Carnation stepped into the shoes of this kind of diverse sound with albums like 'A Blessing in Disguise' and 'The Quiet Offspring', which followed a more song-based formula to a similar spot. What is significant about all these bands is that they are capable of producing some magnificent music, yet have aspects that I dislike, in many cases because of the sparseness of the music and focus on vocals.
With pianos or acoustic guitars, boredom beckons fast, since I desire a fuller sound and greater activity, meaning that 'Regret' - the centrepiece of 'Alternative 4' - strikes me very differently during different sections. It opens gradually, as an 8 minute song is wont to do, but merely drifts upon its inner emotions until about halfway through it jerks up into a fluid folky sway replete with washes of organ. About 6 minutes in, there is a section that sounds much like Porcupine Tree's 'Time Flies' (from at least a decade after), which is very pleasant, but that doesn't last for long either. Other songs follow this kind of pattern, few of them containing definite choruses, yet I'm frustrated because this kind of progressive wandering doesn't feel unexpected or adventurous, nor does it bring a sense of drama and climax to the songs - in fact, those shifts are anticlimactic as often as not. I feel like a sour bastard saying this, because it takes a fair bit of skill to avoid resorting to the obvious for an entire 45 minute album: Anathema never become predictable, but they rarely become exciting either, and that's what I feel is really missing from some of the songs here.
There are some great moments though, such as the gorgeously free-flowing 'Empty', which swoops and soars upon the guidance of an energetic vocal performance. The title track profits not from energy or pace, but in fact from the simplicity of its ideas, echoing and throbbing menacingly, never needing to break out into crescendo to capitalize on the tension. 'Fragile Dreams' is strong too, but there are moments in most of the longer songs that feel unnecessary or mere exercises in "being progressive", though none of the musicians ever feel the need to show off, nor are there solos for any instrument during the album. I have a Peaceville reissue with 4 extra tracks - three Pink Floyd covers (as if it wasn't obvious) and a Bad Religion cover - which don't add a great deal of value, although 'Better Off Dead' is a total shocker for anyone who knows the original and works fairly decently as a piano ballad with female vocals. As the inevitability of 'Goodbye Cruel World' chimes to an end, I'm left with a peaceful, relaxed feeling, though also a sense of relief that it's all over. Catharsis achieved (it's good for the emotional types), though not a lot else.
“Alternative 4” is, as you might guess from the title, Anathema’s fourth full-length release. The most understated of their albums, with a significant lack of guitar solos, it continues with “Eternity” ’s transition from the death-doom genre to clean vocals and an atmospheric rock sound.
The intro, ‘Shroud of False’, sets the minimalist theme of the album with its piano and whispered voice, then we’re pitched immediately into ‘Fragile Dreams’, whose catchy, almost folky riff belies the pain of broken trust evident in the lyrics.
‘Empty’ is one of the more accessible tracks of this release, the heavier sound perhaps appealing to fans of the band’s earlier work. From the initial slow-paced, ominous introduction to the aggressive singing about the futility of life, this song emanates bitter passion. ‘Lost Control’ then sees this defiant emotion defeated, and we’re left not fighting, but resigned to our fate, wondering when and not if the end will come.
‘Re-Connect’ is frontman Vincent Cavanagh’s first completely solo songwriting attempt, and for a debut effort it’s not half bad. After the troubled searching of ‘Lost Control’, we are once again defiant, almost violent, the guitars and synth having a dizzying effect on the already slightly crazed singing.
‘Inner Silence’, however, immediately calms the mood with its melodic piano intro and soft violins throughout, underpinned by the lingering heartbeat from the bass drum. It’s a wonderfully tender, thought-provoking expression of grief and regret concerning the death of the Cavanagh brothers’ mother, and the emotion in Vincent’s voice is evident through the entire vocal part.
The album’s title track is slower again and altogether more menacing than any of its fellow songs. It’s a somewhat experimental track, and the solo vocal section and echoing drums always makes me feel uneasy – not exactly music to fall asleep to.
The lyrics of ‘Regret’ reveal a deep sadness, with the vocals reflecting the apathy that comes with despair. Musically, it is a skilled piece of work – the acoustic guitars at the beginning communicate the hollow feeling of despondency, however the electric guitars at the end of the track seem a bit too overwhelming for such a miserable song.
‘Feel’ seems to lack some of the vocal passion expressed in other tracks on the album, and although an attempt is made, it’s not as effortless as the rest of the album.
Finally, after all the grief, regret and loneliness through the album, the closing line of ‘Destiny’ offers a glimmer of hope:
“Angel, my destiny, can you feel me?”
A tranquil lullaby despite the disturbed lyrics, it is the perfect epilogue for “Alternative 4”.
From the gentle whisper in the first track to “Re-Connect’s anguished howl, Vincent’s vocals across the entire album are confident and compelling, a significant improvement on his work on previous albums.
Despite all the negative emotion conveyed, the songs have a strangely calming effect. A soundtrack for anyone who’s ever experienced loss, it provides a sense of solace during moments of despair. This album was my introduction to doom metal and I haven’t looked back since. Enjoy it - but not too much. It is a doom album, after all.
For some time, I was quite prejudice towards Anathema's later material. Later than 'The Silent Enigma', that is. I've come across a few bands that have crossed over genres. Usually from doom metal to any form of rock. Anathema are no different. What was once a doom metal band, with death metal elements, are now an atmospheric rock band. In the past, when i've seen this occur, bands tend to lose their way. The momentum wasn't carried over and although they might have lost fans from the 'golden days', they've gained new popularity under a new genre name. Anathema are one of the few fortunate bands that have managed to carry over their success from one genre to another without losing fans but instead, gaining many new ones and with ease. A lot of the plaudits has to go to the musicians of Anathema, obviously. As band members have come and gone, Anathema have weathered the storm and appear to be entering a phase of their careers when their best material is flowing from the mind to their individual instruments with class.
Musicianship is order of the day for those of you looking to hear 'Alternative 4'. Anathema seems to have kept much of the dark brooding concepts and have carried them over from earlier albums, on to this particular piece. Though the sound is much different to what it was, the goal seems to be the same as it ever was. The idea of 'Alternative 4' appears to be to portray a vast array of negative emotions to the audience. Despite this, there can be moments of a truly touching nature:
"When the silence beckons,
And the day draws to a close,
When the light of your life sighs,
And love dies in your eyes,
Only then will I realise,
What you mean to me."
Lyrics are never usually that important to me, but it's nice to feel a connection with what the bands vocalist is singing about. Not only are the lyrics quite touching, but they are also universal. I'm sure the majority of us have felt inner struggles such as these, or will do in the future. It's inevitable. The effectiveness of the lyrics is obviously down to the vocals. Whilst I used to consider myself a fan of the old Anathema style, the experimentation of the band brings out the best in their abilities. The vocals, which are now cleaner than ever before, are more affective. The lyrics now have a greater chance of being coherent with the vocals being of a clean nature. Whilst the old growling style wasn't exactly incoherent, the overwhelming style of the clean vocals suits the style of Anathema more. Of course, albums like 'The Silent Enigma' were designed to be heavier, therefore the vocals were also heavier, but this more subtle venture appears to be where Anathema can truly get to work on cementing their reputation amongst the best rock bands not only to come out of England, which there are a fair few, but the world no less.
As I said, the subtlety of Anathema is something I can greatly appreciate right now. What with being ill, I needed some soothing music and this is just the right thing for my mood. It's not only because i'm unwell, but as i've got older, my tastes have swayed more and more towards a softer sound than ever before. This is something Anathema provides, both in terms of their soundscapes and their lyrics:
"As I drift away... far away from you,
I feel all alone in a crowded room,
Thinking to myself
"There's no escape from this
The soundscapes, which i've touched upon, are gorgeous. They're concealed under a shroud of emotion, but gradually, after steady build up play, they're released for us all to gaze upon. Using acoustics and clean vocals are to Anathema's gain. The acoustics add a whole new atmospheric touch to the music on 'Alternative 4'. They don't sweep you off your feet like the electric's do, but they softly take you by the hand to look out upon the marvellous creation that 'Alternative 4' is. There are times when the pace quickens, so it certainly doesn't become drab at any stage. The percussion element of Anathema would never allow that anyway. Musicianship is again credited here. The use of varied tempos, varied sounds from the acoustics to the piano or keyboards all add up to a fine piece of work. So, my opinion of Anathema is slowly developing. As my knowledge on their music continues to grow, so does my appreciation. 'Re-connect' is my favourite song on the album.
This is, perhaps, their weirdest album: lyrics talkin' not 'bout love, but instead, they write about trust. Songs almost entirely piano-driven and there's a lack of guitar solos, different from the previews albums, specially "Eternity". From the very start, when Vincent sings the intro to "Shroud Of False", I knew this would be a trip through desperation, conducted by this beautiful soundtrack made by the Cavanagh brothers and co. A touching piano intro sets the mood and then we hear a whisper: "we are just a moment in time, a blink of an eye, a dream for the blind" by Vince. Then the song really starts with heavy guitars and fast drums. This one minute and half piece is pure Pink Floyd, the vocals even remind me of Davild Gilmour.
But it's just the introduction, what comes next is the real thing! "Fragile Dreams" starts with a brilliant riff provided by guitars and an atmospheric keyboard and then the singing. The verses are cool, talkin' about shattered dreams and grief, but the chorus stands out; catchy and precise. Perfect. One of the highlights, for sure. Then comes "Empty", the angriest song here, and of their most desperate anthems. It's not a melancholic tune, instead, a really really mad (and fast as hell) chant about emptiness with lots of screams and the lyrics... Well, pure Anathema. And to complete this album's holy trinity comes "Lost Control", their most beautiful and depressive song ever. The riffs are remanescent from earlier works and this, my friends, are the three songs that alone, would made this album a great release.
I usually listen to it a few times in a row, because of these songs and I prefer the first half of the album, although in the end there's "Regret", another classic. If your going through hard times and need a soundtrack, buy "Alternative 4" and enjoy, but not too much. This is by far their most depressive album.
Highlights: First 4 tracks, Inner Silence, Alternative 4 and Regret (yeah, almost everything)
Anathema has been one of my favorite bands ever since I got into metal music early on. Their blend of melancholy, progressive experiments and doom in a rock format equals an addictive atmosphere similar to Katatonia in feeling, but not in aesthetics. "Alternative 4" evokes an experimental 70's rock feeling instrumentally, while still mostly remaining fairly standard in terms of songwriting. The album is filled with emotion displayed through memorable clean guitar passages and the occasional piano theme.
"Shroud of False" serves as an intro to "Fragile Dreams", one of the bands biggest fan favorites. Its dreamy atmosphere and whispering vocal delivery is a perfect buildup. "Fragile Dreams" is driven by a rather sentimental, folky guitar melody that still avoids being cheesy. The vocal delivery alternates between rather calm vocal on the verses and a soaring, sorrowful chorus. "Empty" is another strong number. It's more aggressive in nature, with almost cleanly screamed vocals in places. Anathema also deliver some excellent dynamics in this song with a piano section as emotional as ever. My favorite song on this album.
Lyrically, this album is firmly rooted in negativity. The songs are about failed dreams, mental illness and despair. The vocal delivery follows suit but remains quite varied. "Inner Silence" rides on a wave of melodic piano and string arrangements, with a polished, almost pop-like vocal performance. The more unpolished parts of the other songs almost recalls the tortured screams on "The Silent Enigma"; the absolute opposite in terms of the aesthetic quality.
Towards the ending the album gets more gloomy and unorganized. The songs aren't as precisely written, but the aforementioned feeling remains. "Regret" and "Feel" are almost dreadfully depressive in their gloomy expression of sorrow, which doesn't make them as appropriate for every day listening as the catchier pieces in the beginning, if your every day isn't dreadfully depressive of course. "Destiny" finishes it off Anathema style, with some light clean guitars and slow vocals.
This is my favorite Anathema disc along with "Judgement". The only minor complaint I have is that the first, more focused part of the disc encompasses the second, more disorganized part by far. I suppose it's an equation though. What it removes in quality, it adds in variation. Overall, "Alternative 4" is a very good album and a mandatory one for the metal fan with a taste for the depressive.