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Anathema - "The Optimist" (CD)

Anathema - "The Optimist" CD cover image

"The Optimist" track listing:

1. 32.63N 117.14W
2. Leaving It Behind
3. Endless Ways
4. The Optimist
5. San Francisco
6. Springfield
7. Ghosts
8. Can’t Let Go
9. Close Your Eyes
10. Wildfires
11. Back To the Start

Reviewed by on June 28, 2017

"Anathema is already about as un-heavy as an outfit can get and still be covered by metal sites, but this album takes it a step further and is sort of like the easy listening version of the band."

Plenty of metal fans don't care for the lighter, fluffier, more emotionally-focused sound of Anathema in the past decade. Personally, I've loved the switch in sound and find “We're Here Because We're Here” and “Weather Systems” to be beautiful albums that are on the must-hear list. On the first few listens I didn't dig “Distant Satellites” nearly as much as predecessor “Weather Systems,” but after a few weeks I really came around and found something to love in most of the songs there. It was my sincere hope something similar would happen with “The Optimist,” which is why I've waited so long to write up this review, but alas it doesn't seem meant to be. This might be the first Anathema album I've found to be actively boring.

Things start off on the odd side with the opening track, and it just hasn't grown on me in subsequent spins either. I get that its tied into the album's storyline, but as a song it isn't particularly enjoyable to hear some guy get in a car and switch across radio stations for awhile before getting to the meat of the album. In other words, it's “skip” time. Follow-up song “Leaving It Behind” is in pretty much in classic Anathema territory though. Although the looped effect is a little by-the-numbers, there's still a nice upbeat tempo that builds over time, trademark clean vocals, and just a tinge of a heavier sound in the backing guitars.

“Endless Ways” finally gets us into the female vocal side of the band. There's a slow start to the track, but when that hopeful sound comes in at 1:30 (yep, Anathema knows how to make guitars sound “hopeful”) you know exactly what band you are listening to and the kind of quality that will be on display. Excellent symphonic elements pepper the background of the track for an added sonic layer. There is a downside though – while repeated segments are a hallmark of the Anathema sound, they drag on too long at the end with the line “the dream I created” repeated over and over.

A lot of the material past that song feels like standard Anathema, but sadly heard through a drowsy filter. The backing atmosphere of “Springfield” has a quasi-synthwave sound that I'd really like to hear expanded on in some other song, but unfortunately this track is just far too low key for its own good. While I dig the True Detective reference in the voice over at the end, and a heavier version of the main riff does show up halfway through, the song as a whole feels like the band members all took some Valium before recording.

“San Francisco” seems like it belongs over some sort of artsy driving montage in a drama (or maybe something sci-fi instead, since there's a mechanical element to the sound), but its lacking the visual movie segment to maintain interest. “Ghosts,” “Can't Let Go,” “Close Your Eyes,” and the first half of "Wildfires" are sort of like musical non-entities. They aren't bad tracks, but there's nothing memorable about them. On one playthrough I literally forgot I had my headphones on during those tracks.

The band's three previous albums all have a specific feel – optimism about life to an absurd degree in “We're Here Because We're Here,” melancholy tempered by epic purpose in “Weather Systems,” and a mixture of sadness and hope created by a spacey feel with a longer-scale view of things on “Distant Satellites.” The feel here on "The Optimist" is perhaps a sense of movement forward for the main character, but its more like observing that forward momentum from the outside through a hazy filter, rather than experiencing it first hand.

Thinking back to those amazing song transitions and heavier or more epic sounds from “Weather Systems,” its disappointing that there's just nothing like that here. Anathema is already about as un-heavy as an outfit can get and still be covered by metal sites, but this album takes it a step further and is sort of like the easy listening version of the band.

Highs: Trademark Anathema sounds and the gloomy-meets-optimistic feel

Lows: The song structures are laid back to the point of being asleep

Bottom line: Did you think Anathema couldn't get any softer? You were wrong.

Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls
2.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)