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This Life This Dream - 90%

TowardsMorthond, May 28th, 2012

Nearly seven years since their last full-length studio album, Anathema return with the unfortunately titled We’re Here Because We’re Here, a work sharing much in common stylistically with the band’s last two efforts, 2003’s A Natural Disaster and 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit, but expanding that format by way of an increased sense of atmospheric vastness and a more cohesive quality of thematic development. The style has essentially remained an atmospheric form of lushly melodic and emotive rock music with elements of post-progressive rock and symphonic rock, but expressive tone and mood is brighter and far more positive than anything they’ve produced before, easily the furthest they have moved from the romantic sorrow of their doom-death metal origins or even the brooding melancholy of the Pink Floyd-inspired post-doom of Alternative 4.

Lead vocals and instruments are all in a higher key than what is familiar to longtime listeners of the band, which may be initially disagreeable until proper immersion and subsequent reflection on the relation between concept and sound. The sound is incredibly uplifting, delivered in an inspired, life-affirming tone, with nary a mournful moment to be heard in what is essentially an expansive development of the sound that defined the past two albums. It is a very layered and vibrant sounding album, and may be the most accessible approach of their career, but without compromising their trademark emotional depth and sincerity. The album is overflowing with pure sounds of beautiful experience, enhanced by a warm and clear production emphasizing the ethereal without forsaking the organic.

“We’ve come too far to turn back
This is where we stand
And face it
This is who we are”

True to form, each brilliantly melodic song is a strongly distinct expressive project of chasing an emotion to its essence, an objective of discovery of the purest moment of emotional awareness as if there is no other way to validate this life (“feeling is being”). This has been their compositional agenda from the start, and though the kind of emotions and their respective realizations have changed over time, the method of grasping them through powerful rises in intensity towards the ultimate revelation in climactic moments of self-apparent truths and their subsequent gradual reflections in a dream of tranquility has only become stronger. Nothing else exists but the song as its own idea, an expression of what it means to be alive and feel, never losing sight of the greater scheme of eternal connection, but always digging deeper into the heart and soul for new meaning. Lengthy instrumental passages in “A Simple Mistake”, “Universal”, and closing instrumental “Hindsight” stretch the perception of experience in vast harmonic space beyond its fragmented moment of individual orientation to the timeless realms of eternal reality, that which has held true in human experience for all times and will for all time to come. Structural variety allows Anathema to initiate and maintain expressive identity in the context of songwriting without becoming formulaic, a quality consistent through this band’s entire catalogue. Masters of constructing albums as reflections of unified experience in the context of a particular conceptual framework, they sequence everything brilliantly and with great attention to momentum, establishing natural flow of emotional fluctuation intuitive to the human perspective of self-awareness. The music is rich and vibrant, but its beauty and power is enhanced by the lucidity of elegant simplicity, a delicate equilibrium not realized this effectively since 1999’s Judgement.

All sound components blend very nicely, and the sound as a whole emits a sort of airy, dreamlike quality, very detailed and textured with a fantastic mixing job by Steven Wilson. Particularly impressive is the way in which vocals coalesce with the music in both tone and melody, with very rich, inventive vocal harmonies often delivered by both Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas in unison, or with Douglas complimenting Vincent with subtle accents. These are quite beautiful and floating, and always emotively charged. Almost all singing is in a higher register than before to keep consistency between expressive tone and the more uplifting and positive concept, but what is most remarkable about the vocalizations is the aspiration towards an eternal sense of harmony, removing the structural paradigm of individuality and replacing this common character of rock music expression with the personification of the song as an idea. Because of this harmonious quality, there are fewer instances of dynamic vocal changes, but what variety is maintained is only so for the good of the song as a representation of its concept, such as Vincent’s soft, tender singing in the heartfelt ballad “Dreaming Light”, his desperate mid-song pleadings in “Angels Walk Among Us”, and his distant echoed cries of “It’s never too late” in the final moments of “A Simple Mistake”. Lee Douglas, now an official member after serving as guest vocalist for the past decade, has surprisingly fewer stand-alone moments than before, but has never been more complimentary to the band’s sound. Her shining moment arrives in “Presence”, which follows “Angels Walk Among Us” as a brief spoken-word reflection on that song’s theme of making peace with mortality, in which Lee brings closure with the soothing refrain “Only you can heal your life” over an exquisite arrangement of strings, guitar, keyboard, bass and soft percussion.

The guitarwork is as emotional and atmospheric as always, but the playing has never been so subtle and elegant as it is here, particularly Danny Cavanagh's leads, which are always in direct harmony with established rhythm and vocal melody, and act more as lucid enhancement than isolated embellishment. The frantic and restless “Summernight Horizon” boasts the most charged guitar playing on the album, but, along with the vibrant “Everything”, also some of the disc’s most tasteful lead flourishes. Among the delicate acoustics and resonant clean guitars, highlights include the cosmic riff ushering “A Simple Mistake” into its epic and sublime instrumental resolution, the classic Anathema sorrowful lead melody introducing “Angels Walk Among Us”, the cycling, spiraling riff in opener “Thin Air”, the soulful lead work during the climactic event of “Universal”, and the gentle chords and shimmering leads in instrumental finale “Hindsight”. More than anything, it is the simplicity and grace of the guitars reverberating with pure feeling and a correlating ambiance that works toward an embracing sound of universal harmony. Bassist Jamie Cavanagh has never been more harmonically supportive of both rhythm and melody, providing excellent accents to guitar and vocal throughout, particularly impressive in “A Simple Mistake” as his subtle basslines nicely shadow Vincent’s vocal melody during the verse sections.

Most of the music is performed with a slow tempo, with a few uptempo bursts of manic energy, most notably “Summernight Horizon”, a quick-paced song that moves with a charged, emphatic rush fueled by the anxiety of existential urgency, and steered by the excellent rapid drumming of John Douglas, perfectly matching the swift piano melody introducing the song. The drumming is powerful and tasteful, never obtrusive, but fluid and inventive, with well-placed fills and percussive shifts, often responsible for some of the album’s most sonically intense moments, as in the pulsing beat that, like the insistent rhythm of life, stresses the urgent, enthusiastic movement and electric, inspirational energy of “Thin Air”, the crashing, stomping beat during the cosmic instrumental finale of “A Simple Mistake”, and the relentless transfusion of percussive energy during the transcendent climax of “Universal”.

Piano has never played as important a role in the sound of Anathema as it does on this album, forming defining melodic and rhythmic patterns throughout the album, specifically crucial to the developments of “Summernight Horizon”, “Dreaming Light”, “Everything”, and “Universal”. The usual abundance of subtle atmospheric keyboards is here, but shares space with lush orchestral sections, particularly gorgeous in “Dreaming Light” and “Universal”, both of which benefit tremendously from beautiful string arrangements. The symphonic element advances Anathema’s sound into the realms of a more elegantly orchestrated approach, and significantly enhances the power and reach of their music.

“One life
Feel it”

Thematically this is much more positive than what longtime fans are accustomed to. Once mourning the tragedy and sorrow of despair-ridden existence, Anathema now affirm life with as much conviction as they once cursed it. Though the music remains intensely emotional, its outlook is completely different from the morose and depressive disposition of the past. Essentially, the band have taken to a philosophy of love as the answer to the riddle of happiness; not love in the hippie sense of passive tolerance and naïve togetherness, but rather a deep affection for life rooted in a reverence for the interconnected eternal reality coursing through all of nature. No better evidence of this can be provided than the statement in “A Simple Mistake” that “We are not just a moment in time”, a reversal of their own sentiment as expressed in Alternative 4’s “Shroud of False” : “We are just a moment in time”. This reversal in perspective recognizes the individual as an extension of eternity, not burdened, but blessed, with the gift of life, meant to be embraced in the present moment with full awareness of it as the only reality known to us immediately, and it is an eternal moment “free from the constraints of time”. There are no politics, no moral preaching, and no glorification of personal agenda in this music, only genuine awareness and affection for the eternal essence of life and what this means to human experience. Anathema once wrote soundtracks for suicide; now they urge the listener at every step to live life with passion and perseverance, and it runs through every song with verve and determination.

We’re Here Because We’re Here has more unity and better production than A Natural Disaster and is not as emotionally restrained as A Fine Day to Exit, which makes it Anathema’s best work since Judgement. It is not quite the masterpiece that Judgement is, but only because it ultimately cannot equal that album’s consistency of emotional intensity combined with compelling composition, and falls short of that effort’s masterful sequence of dynamic variety. “Get Off, Get Out” is an odd track in the context of this album’s style and sequence, with an offbeat rhythm and repetitive structure that lacks the dynamic intrigue and discernible spirit of the other songs, leaving it with no real sense of presence other than a disruption to the natural flow the album established through the first seven tracks. It is interesting in its own right, but is low on desire and thematic purpose. The only other real issue is with the female spoken voice in “Hindsight”, which might have been more effective if reduced in text, but as it is distracts from the otherwise engaging instrumental’s origination and fading reflection of its expression of beautiful awakening in the course of its fantastic rise and fall dynamics. Aside from these complaints, some of Anathema’s best music is on this album, with “Universal” being one of their most accomplished compositions in their catalog, and the album’s best-composed track, a powerful presentation of their amazing ability to gradually increase tonal intensity until they reach an ascending, enveloping sound of transcendent awareness. On a more conventional note, “Dreaming Light”, an emotionally overflowing, beautifully orchestrated ballad in the vein of “One Last Goodbye” or “Inner Silence”, but considerably more positive in tone and disposition, is one of their most uplifting demonstrations of surging melodic ascension towards a serene resolution. This is in many ways a rebirth of sorts for Anathema, and any preconceptions will serve only as an obstacle to appreciating the pure beauty and power of this music. On the surface, this album seems like too far a move for accessibility, but, as has always been the case with this band, their honesty and emotional depth will keep it from mass acceptance the likes of which their influences enjoy. It is redundant to point out how the band’s approach is no longer relevant to metal, as this has been the case in truth since 1996’s Eternity. Even the Pink Floyd influence is less on this album than in the past, as the band’s sound has more in common with modern experimental rock from the progressive, post-rock, and ambient rock styles. Some have named Radiohead and Sigur Rós as reference points, but Anathema’s music rejects the millennial paranoia associated with these bands for a more direct and genuine expression of a purer emotional observation, with a passion and sincerity that transcends pretensions to specific styles and their dictates. No matter how many old-time fans deny this band as a sell-out because of the change in direction, this is music of expression as reflection of perception and experience, with no dubious advancements of particular aspects of style and the associated appeal.

“Feel the truth in life
See beyond...”

This album is not an immediate revelation. It takes time to blossom and reveal the full capacity of its entirety, and for that it gets better with repeated listens. It’s interesting to note that while Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, who together with Anathema formed the British triumvirate of gothic doom/death metal in the early 1990s, stagnate and wallow in redundant functionary process disguised as relevant and profound musical creation, Anathema soar with pure inspiration and continuous regeneration of creative motivation with a fresh and immersive sound. I will eternally affirm this band’s existence for their artistic bravery to treat the experience of life seriously and directly, with unflinching honesty, expressive passion, and profound perceptual insight, no matter what style they’ve chosen to present their ideas.