If you like, you can call this ‘the Opeth syndrome’. A band starts out in one of the ‘extreme’ metal subgenres, but as time goes by and the members grow older, elements of non-metallic genres creep in. Usually, records will alternate between famailiar heavy guitar passages and segments which are more reflective, perhaps taking their cue from 70s prog-rock or early 90s shoegazing. One day, these outside influences squeeze out the traditional metal content altogether.
That is certainly the case with the aforementioned Swedish band. A forbidding death/doom band on their 90s output, Opeth shifted ground during the 00s until, on 2011’s Heritage, they’d made an unashamed modern prog record; the vocals no longer growled, the guitars no longer shredded.
And so, this is also true for Anathema, who emerged from Liverpool in the early 90s as part of the original UK doom metal boom. Yet on the new album, Weather Systems, they appear to have abandoned metal signifiers completely, having previously produced a series of records that had been moving away from the style. Now the guitars are often acoustic, and the arrangements are stately and considered. After playing for the first time, I was struck with the thought that, as L A Beat’s new metal correspondent, I couldn’t possibly review this, as it’s frankly outside my remit. But I’ve been thinking about what constitutes metal, and the how this fits in with the rest of guitar-based popular music. So please allow me a quick digression.
In 2012, metal has almost totally divorced itself from the mainstream, at least as far as the English-speaking world is concerned. The position is slightly different in Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, where metal is still seen as pop music. But in the British and American media, populist puclications largely ignore metal altogether, save for a couple of token names; maybe Mastodon and Rammstein are the only modern metal bands with a mainstream profile. Metal records are now mostly released on independent labels that only distribute metal; metal bands play at festivals which only feature metal; and increasingly these bands use guitars manufactured by companies who specialize in instruments designed especially for metal. That’s right – metal bands are not even using the same instruments as other rock bands anymore. I’m delighted to be writing for this more general webzine now, simply because the stuff I like rarely travels outside this independent metal ecosystem, and I think that’s a shame.
The point I’m making is that metal is more than a genre now; it’s a tribal identity which has severed ties with the mainstream. Many metallers refuse to listen to any other music, and are happy with that tunnel vision. Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair to accuse a band like Anathema of selling out. If they continued making identikit doom records, even though they didn’t feel like doing that anymore, they’d sell comfortable numbers of discs inside this safe niche. By embracing new ideas and approaches, they risk alienating their core audience with no guarantee of finding a new one. But metal magazines in the UK have been kind to this disc; extreme metal mag Terrorizer gave it a five-star, album-of-the-month review, while more generalist publication Metal Hammer felt it was worth 9 out of 10. See, some metalheads can be open-minded…
Anyway, I ought to mention what’s on the record, which I actually enjoyed greatly. Basically, this is closer to the territory occupied by Porcupine Tree, Sigur Rós or M83; it’s full of subtle textures. At its worst, it’s too close to apparent influences; ‘Untouchable Part 2’ has a plodding piano motif that is too reminiscent of Coldplay (and that’s never something I want to hear), while ‘The Lost Child’ sounds too much like ‘Pyramid Song’ by Radiohead. Yet most of the time, they manage to create something quite fresh. The songs, written by Daniel Kavanagh and sung by his brother Vincent, deal with questions of mortality and loss, but rarely sound depressing or dirge-like. Pretty acoustic guitar patterns are prevalent, while Vincent’s vocals soar high in the mix.
However, as someone who prefers music that rocks, I found this inevitably more satisfying when songs climaxed with a more full-on guitar assault. Even so, the climaxes of ‘The Gathering of the Clouds’ and ‘Lightning Song’ feature a warm, fuzzy mesh of guitars that actually recall 90s alternative rock; at one point I found myself reminiscing over long-forgotten names such as The Catherine Wheel. Finally, near the end of ‘The Beginning And The End’ we do get what sounds like a very polished take on the band’s original doom metal sound. On the final, haunting track, ‘Internal Landscapes’, we return to blissful serenity.
Part of me wishes they would, for old times’ sake, make another fiery metal record. That’s probably not going to happen, so the best we can hope for is that their next album is as good as this gem.