Few bands have been through such a profound evolution as the UK’s Anathema. Starting out as a Doom Metal band in the early 90s (originally called Pagan Angel), Anathema moved towards a more Gothic Metal sound in the mid-90s, before the 21st century saw them embrace Progressive rock. Their first real foray into that space was 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit, which featured heavily in Anathema’s set on 6 December 2017 at 170 Russell.

The night was opened by Melbourne Progressive post-rock four-piece Bear the Mammoth, who took to the stage to release half an hour of cosmic wonder. Stephan Evans laid a solid foundation for the band’s instrumental compositions with his bass, while James Kershaw and Ben Sharpe kept the tunes moving on guitar. The stand-out performer of the band however was drummer James Carman, whose high energy regularly provided a breath of fresh air through compositions that had some tendency to err on the side of meandering. Carman also acted as a de facto frontman, being the member who took to the mic to address the crowd. At their best moments, Bear the Mammoth’s music took on a truly grand scale, opening up in the manner of classical music as relatively simple ideas grew into increasingly complex pieces. The downside of these instrumental excursions was that the set lacked in diversity to a point; though the climactic final piece really played to the band’s strengths, and left the listener with a strong impression of what the band were all about.

Anathema were introduced with the beginning sounds of their latest release, 2017’s The Optimist. Reviews for the album were mixed; it won Album of the Year at the 2017 Progressive Music Awards, while some reviews panned it, so it was always going to be an interesting experience to see how these songs translated live.

The first four songs of the set were all from The Optimist: ‘San Francisco,’ ‘Can’t Let Go,’ ‘Endless Ways’ and ‘The Optimist.’ These initial songs did prove the weakest part of the set, both in terms of delivery and audience response. The crowd were positive but relatively subdued, in line with an album that in some ways struggled to build energy. Nevertheless, lead vocalists Vince Cavanagh and Lee Douglas both immediately demonstrated the power of beauty of their vocal ranges, with their harmonies pure perfection. Daniel Cavanagh’s vocals were notably absent, and his overall demeanour low in energy early in the set; though this was undoubtedly due to his being ill, rather than the songs being performed.

‘The Lost Song Part 3’ saw a palpable lift in energy as the first song to come from another album: 2014’s Distant Satellites. From there the set continued to rise in power, with V. Cavanagh and D. Cavanagh switching seamlessly between performing keys, electric guitars and acoustic guitars depending on the needs of the song. When D. Cavanagh did start performing vocals, his was as impressive as his band-mates; without having been told, the listener might never have realised he was ill. Much of this part of the set focused on material from A Fine Day to Exit, a welcome addition as the story of The Optimist followed a character from 2001’s album, telling the story of what happened after we last saw him, standing on the beach. ‘Barriers,’ ‘Pressure,’ ‘Panic’ and ‘Looking Outside Inside’ were all played back-to-back, with the latter seguing into ‘Thin Air’ from 2010’s ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here.’ Throughout this part of the set, V. Cavanagh led the onstage banter, claiming that the band didn’t just use Aussie slang because they were in Australia, but because they’d picked it up watching Australian television back home in Liverpool; but he promised, “We’ll go back to speaking Scouse from now on, aye ya pack of cunts? Oh, you understood that!” He followed on with a wry look, assuring the audience, “As you can see, we’re a very fucking serious band.” It was D. Cavanagh however who made the observation, “You’re alarmingly quiet… you’re not a bunch of Prog rockers are you?”

The heaviest part of the set was to follow, with ‘A Simple Mistake,’ ‘The Beginning and the End,’ ‘Universal’ and ‘Closer’ – the only track played from 2003’s A Natural Disaster – rounding out the climactic part of the evening. These songs saw bassist Jamie Cavanagh, and more especially drummer Daniel Cardoso truly come into their own. Keyboardist John Douglas unfortunately wasn’t present, as he was back home “being a good dad,” as V. Cavanagh put it – eliciting a cheer from the crowd.

After playing ‘The Beginning and the End,’ D. Cavanagh responded to repeated calls for older material (overwhelmingly ‘Sleepless’) with, “Was that heavy enough for you?” while V. Cavanagh observed that, “The trouble with a quiet moment is that people start yelling out for songs we’re not going to fucking play!”

The band exited the stage very briefly before returning to the stage for a four-song encore, returning to The Optimist with ‘Firelight,’ ‘Springfield’ and ‘Back to the Start.’ With this selection of Optimist tracks, the live presentation was indeed far more powerful than what was recorded on the album. The songs took on new life, with the pathos of the band’s shared love for each other, the music and the audience, the beautiful projections, and flawless performance. Finally, Anathema played ‘Untouchable’ parts 1 and 2 from the beloved album Weather Systems.

Overall, Anathema put on a deeply satisfying show – powerfully presenting their new material, giving ample room to output from the last 16 years (though nothing from the 90s, as is to be expected), and a good balance of banter and shared emotional resonance. Anathema are undoubtedly one of the classiest acts within the broader heavy milieu, and it’s comforting to know that having risen from performing the Corner Hotel to 170 Russell, Anathema have every intention of returning to Australia before too long.

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Photos by Vanessa Jarvis