Monday, November 8, 2010
Anathema - Serenades
Darren White - Vocals
Daniel Cavanagh - Guitar
Vincent Cavanagh - Guitar
Duncan Patterson - Bass
John Douglas - Drums
Ruth - Additional vocals
I can hear the laughter already. Early Anathema are a hard band to like in current metal circles. As mentioned in past articles, the 'atmospheric metal' experiment in which English romantic doom/death metal tentatively contributed to, was a way out of the canon for many musicians. It had many ties to punk rock (defocus on technicality, at the same time when the rest of metal music was becoming hyper-technical), dark wave (morose subject matter, fixation on darkness) and indie rock (enduring dissaffection) it's no wonder that after a couple of Heavy Metal records most of the collectives involved moved on to different pastures, and even less wonder that the form doesn't enjoy a positive reputation with metalheads today.
Now, this is a strange situation: when a metal band breaks away from the mothership they usually try to get a different target audience. It's a very risky endeavor and it usually ends in failure, but the few bands that achieve that keep everything but the name, effectively. They change their whole aesthetic to suit the demands of their new followers. 'Atmospheric metal' bands that go off in non-metal territories however are naive in a special way: they keep their surface aesthetic signifiers but they just do away with the heavy guitars and growly vocals. They are trying to become indie, electronic or gothic rock outfits while they're still earnest - though moribund - metalheads at heart. They didn't get the memo you can't play metal without the metal and expect it to still work.
This creates special situations. Most of these bands, Anathema foremost, retained some of their metalhead audience (lost some hardcore doom/death fans, got some mainstream metalheads, perhaps) and gained little to no broader fans to justify their switch of style. The metalheads that retain their interest in them are those that either are a) open-minded to the point where their brains leak out when they tilt their heads or b) feel guilt over being metalheads and try to camouflage the hard liquor with a false front of more palatable tastes. It is oddly fitting, after all, the most self-loathing type of Heavy Metal to have the most self-loathing metalhead fan-base.
It might be difficult to understand in the current climate where metal music's coolness is judged on a crazy 'purity' two-end scale where on the far left is how extreme you can be on your instrument and on the far right is how conservatively you connote your aesthetic concept, but in the early to mid '90s - where this Atmospheric metal business came to a rise and fall - metal music listeners were constantly bombarded with outsider communication on how the music they were raised on - Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Manowar et al. - was now considered dreadfully passé. But they still wanted to listen to metal music and new metal music to boot. The self-loathing of that era was channeled into mainly two psychologically parallel paths: black metal and doom/death (and eventually 'atmospheric metal' as it were). The former cried denial of the modern and a return to the - mostly retroactively invented by teenagers with shallow historic appreciation but sensitive instincts - aesthetic origins of the form. "So what if what we play is passé? It is more than that, it isancient! We haven't died, we never existed" they cried in a shrill womanly voice, blastbeats and tremolo clattering in their mists. The other path was of doom/death where the conceit was subtly different, diversionary. "No no, we are not passe. We are instead, misunderstood" they murmured and moaned. Aren't you misunderstood too? Some tragedy marks your life as well? Join the club. More akin to the gravitas and self-awareness of gothic rock, they said. A type of music that had survived its own brief stint with public awareness and hadn't died away. Would someone accuse Joy Division, theurgically sealed in everlasting public reverence by suffocation, of being passé? I think not.
But the metalhead take on gothic rock was still Heavy Metal music for a simple reason: what draws people to Heavy Metal, then and now and forever, is the promise of beauty, romance, hope and imagination. Gothic rock was - and is, last time I checked - a far more facetious type of music, where irony and double-talk are grimly celebrated as extracts of modernity. "I dare you to be real" wasn't a real dare. Bela Lugosi's an actor that played Dracula, not Dracula himself. Dark wave fundamentally remains post punk in this way. One cannot get too excited about an ironic type of music. The goths, for all their frilly embroidery, are very obvious about their dress-up being an exploration of a character in a play. This self-awareness was lost on the metalheads that turned their metals of doom and death to 'atmospheric metal'. Their romance was earnest to the degree that it was required for their Heavy Metal to strike true.
What is more powerful than death? Is there a truth more real than death? Will anyone survive it and come back to tell us of its falseness? There is no reply to death. Death is forever, he shall never die.
Yet, what is more painless than death? Will anyone suffer it and come back to tell us of its horrid torment? Will any of us truly be there to die? Or will our faculties breathe last a moment before death comes certifiably? Death is unknowable, he will never have a face.
What a perfect combination that is then, for reclusive introverts that seek the most powerful symbol with which to adorn their ordinary, middle-class existences, yet do not have it in us to go through the fullest hardship to achieve it. For one to love death they must be alive. Heavy Metal is a music fundamentally based on this attraction to death. No sub-genre captures the drama (and melodrama) of this than doom/death. The most embarrassing type of metal, how I love it. Well, some of it!
Anathema here come late to the doom/death mope party, and they have distilled the lessons of their forerunners to a great degree. They aren't concerned with appearing super-metal, there isn't a slayer riff to be found here. They get their credibility by appearing super-sad instead. It's all slow, all the time. This doesn't mean that 'Serenades' is a focused album, it is in fact, very torn between what it is and what else it briefly entertains being instead. However when it is on, it is beautiful and touching.
'Serenades' is a difficult record to like. The vocals of Darren White are very weak as death metal vocals (from whence they definitely trace their pedigree). Whereas most death metal vocalists of the era endeavored to sound as inhuman - and therefore extra-terrestrially powerful - as possible, he sounds short of breath and winded. Shallow lung moans and whimpers, a human in anguish. Whereas death metal inspires violence, this doom/death vocal style suggests the outcomes of violence. The beauty of this approach is only made apparent to those that spend time with the lyric here. What could possess a human being to voice such language
All tears restrained for years
Their grief is confined
And destroys my mind
An ode to their plight is this dirge
Some yearn for lugubrious silence
Serenity in the image of coffins
Shall life renew these bodies of a truth?
All death will he annul, all tears assuage?
Fill the void veins of life, again with youth
And wash with an immortal water, age
In tones so wretched and foul? In this dynamic is the strength of Heavy Metal. It will take all that society taught us is useless and bad and ugly and with the sharpest edges it will chisel a monument to everlasting beauty. The vocal of Darren White here is sublime, the entity summoned, that 'Anathema', the voice of the disembodied, rotting head. Its mouth aghast and between the stinking humors and bile has grown a flower.
In fields where
Grass grows tall
Golden carpets swell
Dawn breaks open
Like a wound that bleeds afresh
In bleak misery
The lifeless lie in squandor
Love has left me
Fled from me
Fragrant lust waits beside
Like flowers that wilt
In midday sun I sit
And bide time
A lovelorn rhapsody
The only death left from death metal here is in the pulse and rhythm of the songs. Shambling, see death walking, death alive. Oft stop-starts, while a vocal punctuates, as if the corpse is struggling to do more than two things at once. It's a wretched sight, this slow-motion re-animation and yet, beautiful because reanimation implies sorcery - power, will. Music such as this is misunderstood as a consumer product (like which is undoubtedly reached the listener's possession) because it doesn't seek to entertain in a surface way - in fact those that are entertained by 'depressing music' misunderstand this the most. This is not music to cry over, it is not music that inspires sadness. It is a celebration of magic. Our bodies may die but look what beauty comes from the knowledge of the end. Your sadness is ours, we take it and fashion with it a flag, a tapestry, a cloak, a shield. Very few casual listeners that dabble in with fringe tastes of the metal multiverse get to the core of this.
The beauty of this world is shown in the guitar interplay of the Cavanagh brothers. For all the ridicule that their future career as 'Radiohead for metalheads' has brought them, their debut album finds them in perfect sync with each other. One guitar will start a voice and let it linger mid-way, only for the other channel's guitar to pick it up and give it conclusion and rest. This game between brothers touching and yes, harmonious and joyful. There is no death-lust in the mental image of two brothers playing their instruments together, reaching agreement. I have been enchanted by their conversation on their early material before and long since I could realize similar musicality in my own multi-part composition. Though the brothers here connote this record has come from common grief (a family loss is alluded to directly in the liner notes of the record via a commemoration) I hear in their guitar stereo compositions, joy and lust and desire for something beautiful.
It is in that dynamic that is record can be found to be inconsistent. Though the lyrical material is uniform in its melancholy, the music strays from the mourn path often. For a fundamentally doom metal record, there is much here that puzzles the new listener. One example is the third song, 'J'Ai Fait Une Promesse'. An acoustic and vocal piece of relative simplicity that has a medieval feel to it. The promise being that the woman singing will 'pledge herself unto us' is repeated in French and English. Regardless of the success of the song in melodic or thematic terms, it's easy to get the vibe from the song that this is someone's girlfriend that is being asked to participate in this record they're making. Although this is a metal faux pas if there ever was one (no girlfriends allowed), the end result - curiously due to the still tones of the voice, no vibratto at all - sounds lifeless and distant. More a sculpture of a girl than a girl herself.
Anathema succeed in their excursion from metal in spite of themselves.
There are more examples to this (besides the obvious up-beat 'Sleepless' that everyone loves to hate). The end track 'Dreaming: The Romance' appears to be the perfect storm of kitsch at first. Pretentious title, obvious overstatement and a 23 minute synth pad ambient track that sounds like an outtake from a Tangerine Dream record. And yet, it works. It works as the bookend to the high drama of the record, it's a gentle wash to a shore outside, shallow consciousness, almost dreaming. Though the heights the record reaches are artificially pushed (as in most metal records - how often does your life make you scream in guttural tones about the death of everything?), the long stretches of melancholy are very human and real - Heavy Metal fantasy peaks and long stretches of gentle melancholy. 'Dreaming: The Romance' serves this notion. Anathema succeed in their ambient excursion in spite of themselves again.
The clearer and most focused Anathema are here is on the fourth track "They Die", a reworking of their own earlier composition. The lyric and music are in perfect synchronization. The brothers complete each other's sentences while Darren White gives his weakest (as in, best) performance to his most beautiful and poignant lyric. Is it a wonder that by the end of its length the doom/death dirge rises to a symphonic, hopeful end?
Anathema would oust Darren White from the fold an (brilliant, yet also uneven) EP later. They would go on to slowly mutate into an alt-rock/mope rock outfit without him. For the fans this would gain them they also suffered nigh-universal derision from other quarters that saw them to be escape artists. It is difficult to like old Anathema and make a case for them as I am here because so much of what they achieved seems to happen almost by mistake, and is foreshadowed by their tendency to wander outside the form. But then again, the form of doom/death (and 'atmospheric metal' as a whole) proved to be a limited one, exsanguinated for all that was potent in a mere five years. So although I do not enjoy later Anathema material, I do not participate in the hate towards them. I take from their long career a full-length and two EPs worth of enduring art. Sadness is marred by hope like a crack on the funeral monument, yet through the crack often senseless, joyful flora grows, the artifact of grief is as beautiful as what it inspires.