Anathema, Durham Live Lounge, Feb 9 2011

“When we write songs, we just do it for ourselves, you know,” mused Vincent Cavanagh between songs, “So this actually has nothing to do with any of you!”

Vincent Cavanagh, Durham Live Loung, Feb 9 2011
Vincent Cavanagh, Durham Live Lounge, Feb 9 2011

The shouted response from below signified that the crowd gathered in Durham Live Lounge that Wednesday night believed that the music had an awful lot to do with them, in fact.  A motley crew of students in skinny jeans, huge middle-aged metal-heads and elderly couples, we were united only by the fact that that this music had something to do with us.  Whether inspired by the uplifting messages of the Liverpool band’s latest offering, We’re Here Because We’re Here, or reminiscing about the heavier anthems of earlier albums, we had all been touched in some way by Anathema’s unique sound.

I had the pleasure of discussing the tour with guitarist and vocalist Vincent Cavanagh a couple of weeks before the Durham show, and his interest in the diverse range of  “Anathemaniacs” was explicit: “There’s kids and parents, young and old, from any walk of life or any taste in music, and that’s really positive”, he enthused, “And hopefully that’s a reflection on the open-mindedness of the music, really, that anyone can kind of get something from it”.

Anathema is a band that has seemingly managed to both define and escape genres throughout its twenty-year history, having originally been instrumental in the development of the Gothic metal sound.  When asked whether these early influences still affect the band’s sound and outlook today, Vincent stated, “I’m proud of some of it! I think there are certain aspects of Crestfallen [the band’s first album] and certain ways the harmonies worked that were quite unique at the time, even though we were a lot more genre specific… it was a bit more like a classical piece of music really, rather than doomy and dirgey, it was quite uplifting.”

Having achieved the seemingly unachievable in introducing uplifting doom metal, Anathema has gone on to develop their sound into something that can only really be generalized as “progressive”, a term as fluid as the band’s own sound, and one at which they have excelled: We’re Here Because We’re Here has been named the “Prog Album of the Year” by Classic Rock magazine, amongst other accolades.  While positive about this interpretation of the band’s sound, Vincent is keen to avoid any clichés: “Progressive, yes, in the sense that the band never stands still, we always look to do new things, it’s a constant evolution, but not musically what you’d expect!”

Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, Durham Live Loung, Feb 9 2011
Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, Durham Live Loung, Feb 9 2011

Listening to the entirety of We’re Here Because We’re Here in performance did not assist any further in firmly placing the album into a genre, as the heartfelt lyrics and complex layered harmonies drifted effortlessly from the mellower, autumn-day epiphany feeling of the recorded material to the much louder, heavier emotional intensity of the live sound, losing none of its subtle depth of feeling in transition.  The contrast between the newer material’s euphoric sentiments and the older crowd-pleasers’ cathartic darkness left the audience with an overwhelming sense of everything, the joy and the sorrow of the human condition combined into a single celebration of multi-faceted passion; a concept that certainly fits the band’s outlook on life:

“It’s one of those philosophical questions, you know,” Vincent mused, ”of whether if you had a hard time in life, but then came out of it and it changed you in some way and taught you quite a lot, would you change that?”  The question fits the theme of the new album well, more intense tracks such as A Simple Mistake and Angels Walk Among Us delicately balancing doubt and hope in both the lyrical content and dramatically shifting tone of the music, while the softer sounds of Dreaming Light and Thin Air command, as Vincent enthused, “an absolute expression of pure love, really, and not just love for somebody, but a euphoria for life”.  This is a mature and messy happiness – the happiness of a group that made their name on melancholia, but found new life in joy, or as Vincent surmised, “This album is specifically about purging those necessary emotions, and realizing that you are not fucked after all”.

Danny Cavanagh, Durham Live Lounge, Feb 9 2011
Danny Cavanagh, Durham Live Lounge, Feb 9 2011

While willing to talk loosely about the philosophy behind the album, Vincent was keen not to give too much away, instead challenging listeners to find themselves in the songs: “They’re about specific people and experiences, and I never really want to explain any of it, because other people get the chance to tie those people and experiences into their own lives, and that’s much more interesting to me, and it means more as well”.  Perhaps this open-ended accessibility is the key to Anathema’s enduring appeal to those from all walks of life.  Indeed, I couldn’t help but feel as I watched the band perform that I was witnessing a sound as comfortably paradoxical as its audience, a gathering of students and aging rockers singing along to a tour-de-force of carefully crafted spontaneity.

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