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Anathema – The Optimist [Finely Tuned]

Anathema’s music bears a close resemblance to an oasis in the desert. While not many are aware of its existence, those persistent enough to make the journey of discovery will unravel all the boundless glories awaiting them. The concept of making albums designed to tell a story has played a predominant role in the progressive rock community since its very inception. Anathema has spent the better part of the last two decades shedding their alternative rock side ever since 2001’s ‘A Fine Day to Exit’, an album whose tale ended with a cliffhanger.

Its closing track ended when the protagonist parked his car by the beach. He hobbles listlessly towards the water, the waves receding steadily further into the sea as if beckoning him to join them, when the track comes to an abrupt end. With sixteen years having elapsed since then, fans by now had come to terms with it as an idea left unfinished. That is, until the cover art for ‘The Optimist’ featured the very same car which was left abandoned on the cover of that masterpiece from well beyond a decade past.

The opening track of ‘The Optimist’ is not a song, but sounds designed to depict the scene from which the album embarks. Our long-lost friend appears to have emerged successfully from his attempt at faking his own death. He can be heard gasping for air, washed up on the shore after putting on a good charade of drowning.

Overburdened as he might have been with the travails of life, he was not going to contend with it by welcoming Death’s beguiling embrace just yet. Instead, he undertook the burdensome task of feigning his own demise so he could start afresh with a new identity. Traipsing his way to his car, he shuts his door as the engine roars to life. As is typical of anyone seeking solace, the first thing he does is put on some music, with the voice of Anathema’s own Vincent Cavanagh playing.

Cover of ‘The Optimist’

This flows seamlessly into the next track, aptly titled ‘Leaving it Behind’. A fast-paced EDM beat slowly fades in, engulfing our senses with just the right backdrop to have whilst making a getaway through a forlorn place unknown. Frenzied guitars accompanying this add a sense of consternation, stoking the urge to put more and more miles between himself and that barren California beach. The upbeat tone of the vocals is indicative of the character now being in high spirits with this new lease of life he’s given himself.

Having two vocalists in a band provides a break from the monotony of listening to the same voice for an entire record. It also brings in an element of contrasting styles of singing as we are treated to two different vocal ranges, and the most delightful of harmonies when the duo comes together. As with anything that involves two people sharing a leadership role, it can also on occasion prove to be a double-edged sword. We have seen this in the power struggle for dominance on System of a Down’s records that ultimately led to their downfall.

Anathema, on the other hand, faces no such issues as they have a male-female pair sharing vocal duties. Lee Douglas ushers in the next track, ‘Endless Ways’, with her celestial lilt. An eloquent piano ensemble paints a funereal scene, of the woman he once loved, but is now under duress to leave behind. Though they may not be physically speaking to each other anymore, they remain eternally intertwined through mind and soul.

This song thus becomes a way for her to communicate with him. She gives him the motivation he needs to not lose hope at the thought of having abandoned the one bright spot in his previous life. She clings on to a dream that they will one day reunite, but for now she must be selfless, for she knows that this is what is best for him.

The piano piece comprising the framework of the title track takes on a shade of despondency. What was once a feeling of anticipation of all the possibilities that lay ahead in his new beginning, has dwindled to fatigue from this unending trip. Vincent and Lee sing a duet together, as her character in this story conspires to run away with him. This was now no longer a solo expedition, it was two people on a quest for self-renewal.

With the outset of ‘San Francisco’, it becomes abundantly clear that guitars have been put on the back-burner in favour of thought-provoking electronic music and the now established dominance of the piano. While fleeing from the hollow vanity of their lives in Los Angeles was no easy task, entering the serene city of San Francisco made it all seem worthwhile. Roads winding through gloomy forests on the way here made way to street lamps shining on top of his car while he took in the hilly landscape all around. The air here was not defiled by excessive amounts of cologne, hairspray, and exhaust fumes. It was pure, and gave succour to his plagued soul.

‘Springfield’ is an unembellished way of doing little, but saying a lot. Lee carries the interspersed repetitions of the same couple of piano keys throughout, with just two lines, “I don’t belong here. How did I get here?” The very purpose of his arrival here was to evade a life of misery in a place he felt was unsuited for him. However, it turned out that this new sanctuary wasn’t all it seemed, either. This begs the question if there even existed some corner in the vast expanse of this planet where he didn’t have to fend off the feeling of being out-of-place.

While ‘Ghosts’ purports to be a haunting track if you go by its title, it is, in actuality, the most placid yet. Lee graces our ears with her restful humming, as she speaks of a moment of pondering, when the man pauses to reflect on his memories past. Scenes from a life gone by flash before his eyes as they would in the dying moments during a fatal crash.

It dawns upon him that deserting an entire identity was not nearly as trifling as it seemed on the surface. He was essentially casting aside the details he is made up of, that distinguished him from the rest of the world. The daunting feeling that such a realization brings is portrayed perfectly by the percussion work that mimics the beating of a heart once dormant, now becoming sentient.

‘Close Your Eyes’ sets a mellow and subdued backdrop as our protagonist allows himself to get lulled by Lee’s dulcet singing, her affection blanketing him with a sense of well-being. He awakes with a start in the middle, only to be told that it was all just a bad dream that will go away.

‘Can’t Let Go’ is a much-needed diversion from the saturnine and slow tracks thus far. Injecting the atmosphere with life as the tempo speeds up, the guitar chords start ringing and drums kick in at full blast. He has grown listless in wait of his love to come join him. No longer does he have the spirit to carry on alone. Without her, he might as well give up because everything feels amiss.

The bleak striking of piano keys in ‘Wildfires’ gives the unmistakable sensation of death lingering nearby. This character’s nighttime sojourn in the wilderness has taken a gruesome turn, as a forest fire erupts like a bolt from the blue. Mimicking the intensity with which the flames devour away at all signs of life, the music too takes on a hue of greater belligerence. It is a ballad that mourns the loss of yet another spot of green on our planet now being reduced to a smoldering heap of ash.

In typical Anathema fashion, this story too draws to a close with yet another unfinished tale that leaves so many questions unanswered in ‘Back to the Start’.  Diminished as it may be, the suffering is clearly brought forth in Vincent’s stifled voice. The unwavering, zephyr-like music with the faint sounds of a synthesizer in the distance gives one the impression that our protagonist has now reached acceptance.

The song ends with a hand brake being pulled, keys being taken out of the ignition, and a knock on the door. When the person behind it opens it, he says, “How are you?” This could denote one of two things: Perhaps he did meet his end in that wildfire, bringing his attempt to start life over to an end before it could even begin – or maybe he decided to put an end to it all and head home, to the welcoming embrace of the only person who could have ever brought him back.

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