Review: Anathema – Distant Satellites

Location: Liverpool, United Kingdom
Genre: Progressive/Atmospheric Rock
Released: June 4, 2014
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

One thing that can be safely said about Anathema is that they are definitely not afraid to reinvent themselves instead of merely reinventing the wheel. Starting off as a doom metal outfit on albums such as Serenades and The Crestfallen, they have continued to evolve their sound into a powerhouse of atmospheric rock with soaring vocals, orchestration and meaningful, relatable lyrics. Their evolution continues on Distant Satellites to such a degree that I almost labeled this an “off the grid” review.

Their previous album, Weather Systems, was met with near-universal (no pun intended) acclaim, and with good reason. I rated that a 4.5* on my album review guide and may revisit it later to write a full, comprehensive review because it is that good and deserves a discerning audience’s full and undivided attention. The opening two-thirds of Distant Satellites is almost identical to the previous album, and is in some cases even better. After that, it takes a weird turn that will probably cause some debate among fans and critics.

“The Lost Song” parts 1 & 2 are very similar to “Untouchable” parts 1 & 2. If you loved those songs, the album openers will definitely appeal to you. Part 1 starts with a string intro that slowly adds more elements, picking up steam as it goes along with a beautiful melody and an unrelenting drum pattern. The ending, in which Danny Cavanagh repeats “The fear is just an illusion,” is one of the best moments in Anathema’s discography.

Part 2, as well as “Ariel,” are both ballads that heavily feature Lee Douglas on vocals. Part 2 builds up in wonderful fashion and references lyrics from Part 1, giving the two songs a cohesive feel. However, Part 2 doesn’t hold as much staying power as its counterpart. “Ariel” is especially notable for an alternating vocal pattern between Douglas and Cavanagh, as they both belt out “Staring at the sun/Love so strong, it hurts” and “Look into your eyes/See my life defined” several times. I’m usually not one who enjoys repetition for emphasis, but it works so well with Anathema’s sound. The fadeout to “Ariel,” using the aforementioned lyrics with Cavanagh singing, is amazingly well-crafted.

“Dusk (Darkness Is Descending)” is another fantastic track that, on first listen, reminded me of “The Storm Before The Calm.” The best part here is the piano break midway through following a heavy duet passage between Cavanagh and Douglas. “The Lost Song Part 3” is alright, but doesn’t rival the other songs on the first part of this disc. “Anathema,” meanwhile, is in the running for best overall track with “The Lost Song Part 1.” Dominated by a repeating piano rhythm paired with Cavanagh’s vocals in the first half, it morphs into a resemblance of a doom metal track that continues to build up steam until the piano returns to finish the job.

So far, Distant Satellites doesn’t look so distant from Weather Systems. It is at this point, however, when the album veers off course and winds up in the Republic of Electronica. This is not necessarily a bad thing; again, I’m all for creativity and evolution, but that doesn’t mean I’ll love anything that the band puts out. My verdict: I like most of it; the rest, not so much.

For instance, “You’re Not Alone” is extremely catchy and represents another example of repetition in lyrics working well for the group. It reaches what may be the album’s heaviest point a little after the midway mark. “Firelight,” on the other hand, is 163 seconds of pure ambiance and is therefore way too long to hold much interest, although it could be described as an intro to the following song.

The title track kicks off with electronic drums and more stunning vocals by Cavanagh, which is especially noticeable in the chorus. It takes a weird turn after the halfway mark with what I consider to be a basic club beat, but a nice blend of drums and keyboards keeps it interesting. “Take Shelter” concludes this adventurous effort with an ambient vocal intro that is accompanied by faint noise, becoming progressively louder as it progresses. It fades with a string outro, a lush ending for another powerful Anathema album.

Since I received Distant Satellites yesterday, I have already listened to it five times. Part of the reason for this is because most of it is that good, but I also spent some of that time trying to process everything. It took a couple of extra listens to understand the final two tracks, but it’s worth the extra effort. I use the term “effort” loosely because at the end of the day, it’s still beautiful music.

Overall: Even with some parts feeling out of place, Distant Satellites is still a highly rewarding listen, and will probably be just as rewarding the 94th time around.

Rating: 4.0*

Additional thoughts: Anathema is among the greatest live bands on the planet. Seeing them paired with Alcest in 2013 is on the short list of the best shows I have ever seen.

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