optimist /ˈɒptɪmɪst/ noun: optimist; plural noun: optimists
1. a person who tends to be hopeful and confident about the future or the success of something. 2. a person who believes that this world is the best of all possible worlds or that good must ultimately prevail over evil.
The title for Anathema’s eleventh full-length would also serve well in describing the Liverpool sextet’s uncompromising dedication to fearless artistry since forming in 1990. They’ve continually evolved by placing hope in the future – from leaving the underground scene they were fundamental in establishing to continually mesmerising the world with stargazing post-progressive alternative rock that knows no borders. Led by brothers Daniel and Vincent Cavanagh, along with drummer John Douglas, singer Lee Douglas, bassist Jamie Cavanagh and keyboardist/drummer Daniel Cardoso – this is a band that have forsaken all notion of expectation – highly evocative music simply pours out of them. And in a world of plastic conformists so desperately awaiting their moment of recognition, it’s a potent truth very much needed…
“We’ve been honest with ourselves from the start in writing deeply personal music,” admits lead singer/multi-instrumentalist Vincent. “It’s just that in the earlier days, it was cloaked in heavier instrumentation. When you’re a teenager, it’s natural to want to go ‘all or nothing’. We had a 23-minute ambient piece, classical ideas, multi-layered guitar harmonies, acoustic folky stuff, reversed tape experiments, long psychedelic sections, spoken word… all of that. But we quickly learned that the best way to get to the core of emotion in music is to strip away the layers. Melody is everything, then lyrics, rhythm and bass. Is it meaningful? Does it move you? Start with that… if the answer is yes, then you can start to think about experimenting.”
Despite those early records being hailed as classics, the band left their heavier roots and transcended into a more emotional heaviness that resonated deep within the heart of the listener. Alternative 4 (1998), Judgement (1999), A Fine Day To Exit (2001) and A Natural Disaster (2003) marked an era of bold experimentation for the band – taking the notion of self-exploration to its furthest limits – before 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here truly cemented their stature as world-beating post-progressive kings.
“Any musical growth we have achieved has been a natural process,” says lead songwriter Daniel Cavanagh. “From our early bass player Duncan Patterson’s Pink Floyd-leanings onwards, we’ve never really looked back. We feel lucky to have developed into a writing team that at times can feel telepathic. Oh and by the way – if we wanted to sell out, we would never have changed at all.”
After 2012’s award-winning Weather Systems and 2014’s spellbinding Distant Satellites, the ambient rockers are back with their eleventh full-length, The Optimist: some of the darkest, most challenging and – quite frankly – unexpected music they’ve put their name to. It twists and turns like no album before it, bringing miraculous wide-eyed wonder to even the most well-versed of fans. Recorded in the winter of 2016 and produced by Tony Doogan [Mogwai, Belle & Sebastien, Super Furry Animals] at Attica Audio in Donegal and Castle Of Doom studios in Glasgow, the 11 tracks of The Optimist manage to somehow push more boundaries then ever before, yet remaining forever loyal to the heart of every song. It could very well be their greatest masterpiece yet – stemming from an idea first planted in the artwork for A Fine Day To Exit all those years ago. Daniel Cavanagh explains how its front cover became an unlikely source of inspiration…
“I suppose you might say the album is semi-autobiographical because this time we used a surrogate,” he says, of the character that is The Optimist. “We put sound, feelings and crucially, our own hopes and fears into another person and made him the subject of the songs. I also began to write with visual stimuli more this time, using the feelings evoked by a certain image or moment and then weaving my own internal monologue into the narrative of The Optimist. It was John’s idea to write a narrative, so I took A Fine Day To Exit as the starting point. The brilliant songs of Vincent and John fit right in… we were a single mind during this writing process.”
“The guy who disappeared – you never knew what happened to him,” shrugs Vincent. “Did he start a new life? Did he succumb to his fate? It was never explained. The opening track title is the exact coordinates for Silver Strand beach in San Diego – the last known location of The Optimist – shown on the cover of A Fine Day to Exit.”
The character’s unresolved destiny was something that fascinated the three songwriting members and together they meticulously brought the unfinished story to an end – and most strikingly of all – one which is decided by the listener.
“Most of the songs are happening within the mind of the character,” adds Daniel, “and we intentionally left things open to interpretation. His feelings, his path, his fate, are ultimately up to the listener. It is for others to fit in the missing pieces from their own narrative… these songs are ambiguous.”
From the screaming guitar-driven post-rock of Springfield to the filmscore jazz noir brilliance of Close Your Eyes to the cerebral electronica of San Francisco, The Optimist is a journey full of wonder – each track carrying a kaleidoscopic spell of its own. It also marks a darker sound for the band in quite some time – perhaps most notably Daniel’s spine-tingling vocals on Wildfires circling around haunting piano chords before Vincent warns ‘It’s too late.’ By their own admission, it’s a darkness rooted in themes around mental and emotional struggles – how all of us, in some way or another, are forced into battles we can’t tangibly see in front of us…
“There’s always been a stigma around mental health because it’s invisible,” says Daniel, “and thankfully that is changing. Many people go through this kind of thing. One in four of the population I believe… it is as normal as any other illness, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Things are better now, but the last few years haven’t been too easy and it came out in the music. I kept writing these dark piano moments like Wildfires or Springfield, which Vincent and John felt was the best material I had.”
Vincent, who undertook all of the pre-production duties in London before the band began tracking in Donegal and Glasgow, agrees there are definitely moments that feel unusually bleak and ominous in comparison to their more recent meditations. “There are moments on every song that put you on edge,” he nods. “When everything kicks in it sounds fucking massive – which, in a large part, is thanks to Tony. The first thing he suggested was the drum sound. He knew we wanted something ‘big’ so he suggested Attica, which has this enormous stone-walled live room with a high ceiling. He didn’t need to do a lot of tweaking, it already sounded massive – from there we were on to a winner. The second thing he suggested was that we record as a live band, which we hadn’t done for years. Having played a few tunes on the last tour, we were ready for that. Tony wanted to capture that energy you can only get with everyone facing each other… it makes a big difference. He was a superb guy to work with and I learned a lot making this record.”
Whatever the secret is – with undoubtedly The Album Of 2017 under their belts, it definitely seems to be working. Theirs is a name built on the most soul-baring and introspective forms of artistic expression. Rightfully so, Anathema’s shooting star looks set to burn perpetually brighter and brighter.
words: Amit Sharma