Anathema, Brighton, 06/11/2016

Eyes wide, one hand clutching at my heart, the other rising involuntarily into the air, words tumbling freely from my lips. Five and a half years on, the elation brought on by an evening with Anathema is more spiritual than ever, a raw and restless hymnal, both primal and sophisticated in equal measure.

Understand, dear reader, that the songs spilling off the tiny stage at Brighton’s Haunt have been the soundtrack to the best and worst of the days between, scoring takeoffs and landings, loves and losses with equal, infinite grace.

And from the moment the six familiar figures stepped onto the stage, it was everything I needed  and more. Polished and perfected anthems washed viscerally through me, comfortably commingled with intimate introductions to untried new material.

The band were in high spirits, it seems, guitarist Danny Cavenagh linking songs with off-the-cuff anecdotes and an easy North-Western charm, peppered with brother Vincent’s deadpan interjections. The relaxed atmosphere was a testament to a band completely at ease with one another. When there was a slight hitch with the backtrack, they laughed about it together before picking back up seamlessly.

If the moments between songs were easy-going, they were far from a reflection of the music itself. From the slow, spine-tingling build-up of Thin Air to the paradigm-shattering rage of The Storm Before the Calm, each track was a perfectly-orchestrated force of nature, rising up and demanding release.

It is this relationship between order and chaos that has always defined Anathema for me, the line becoming increasingly blurred as unwavering vocal control and tight time changes feed into a spontaneous emotional experience.

For much of the set, the live experience was a high-octane twin of the band’s recorded sound, bearing testament to each musician’s flawless knowledge of highly complicated material. However, the deviations from the script were as breathtaking as the source material, breaking me from my trance-like ecstasy like a bolt from the blue.

A particular surprise was the band’s rendition of Distant Satellites, the title track from their most recent and critically acclaimed studio album, but one that to my mind has always been a little too polished, with electronic drum tracks detracting from bittersweet lyrics.

The onstage version began in much the same way but soon melted into a tribalesque drum breakdown, performed in unison by drummers Daniel Cardoso and John Douglas, and headed up by frontman Vincent on a single floor tom. While the gimmick is one I’ve seen before, the sudden transition from dreaminess to brute fury held me enthralled.

Likewise, Lee Douglas’ vocal variations at the end of transcendent tear-jerker A Natural Disaster are still sending shivers down my spine as I write. Soaring effortlessly one moment and wracked with emotion the next, her flawless performance and subtly-stated agony made me feel almost voyeuristic to watch.

Another surprise, and indeed one of the key reasons for the band’s small-venue tour, was a smattering of new material. While it was brave of the band to open with previously unheard track Gotyou To, the initially surprised audience soon settled into the band’s characteristic flow.

We were later treated to further new material in the form of Springfield, which managed to create a complex and unsettling experience out of a single guitar riff and four lines of lyrical material. These flashes forward were rounded off nicely with The Optimist – the title track for the upcoming album, and a return to the thick layers, emotive piano and wailing guitar that have accompanied the last five years of emotional sojourns.

To be fair, Anathema never needed to win me over. I was sold long before I pushed through the gathering crowd to the Haunt’s low stage. But by the time they’d finished pounding through fan favourite Fragile Dreams, I was convinced that I’d just taken place in an act of worship – not of the band themselves, for humility runs deep with this family – but of the immense wealth of emotion and experience that had brought us together in that darkened room on that rain-soaked November night.

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