Sound — 9
Anathema have always been a very dynamic and progressive group right from their inception, and the shift from death and doom metal of their early-'90s material to the alternative "new prog" sound of their later albums has been a very organic and natural one. With each album, the band has seen a lot of growth and maturity, and their credentials as one of the best bands to grace the prog-rock scene are serious, with 2010's "We're Here Because We're Here" receiving the "Prog Album of the Year" award from Classic Rock magazine.
Sadly, this is about where my familiarity with the band's material ends. Not for any particular reason other than the band having fallen off my radar. But "We're Here Because We're Here" was a true powerhouse of a record, featuring some truly beautiful and progressive music, big-name guest appearances (Ville Valo of H.I.M. on "Angels Walk Among Us", and Steven Wilson as mixer throughout), culminating in one of the most truly beautiful records this reviewer has ever listened to.
Following 2012's "Weather Systems" and 2014's "Distant Satellites", both albums that have received a huge amount of critical acclaim, "The Optimist" continues the band's more progressive style, while also incorporating some post-rock textures and electronic sounds not present in Anathema's sound until "Distant Satellites". The album is a sequel of sorts to the band's 2001 record "A Fine Day to Exit", mostly on a lyrical level, but after the brooding intro track, "32.63N 117.14W" (which, if you plug this into Google Maps, will take you to San Diego County's Silver Strand Beach, the location on the cover of "A Fine Day To Exit"), we get "Leaving It Behind", which, aside from its pulsating and undulating synth percussion, would have actually been a fine fit on that album musically as well. This track gives way to "Endless Ways", a very gentle piece that introduces Lee Douglas' absolutely beautiful vocals. The piece builds up in intensity in the middle to a very post-rock-ish climax, and a recapitulation of the vocal melody over it. It's an absolutely stunning track, and merely sets the stage for what's to come over the rest of the album. "The Optimist" is another stunningly beautiful track, with a lovely piano intro in 5/8 and lulling string sounds, slowly building with drums and reverb-laden backing vocals and another ridiculously beautiful and melancholic climax. Actually, two climaxes, the second time around a little bit faster with a gorgeous guitar melody. This is a band that really knows how to tug on one's heart strings.
Piano is again in full force on the album's instrumental number "San Francisco", another tune with a strong electronic element to it, though it seems the electronics never really get in the way of the "traditional" rock instrumentation. Sadly, the piece isn't really my favourite from the album, and though it's a pretty decent instrumental, it is a touch on the repetitive side. The album's first single, "Springfield", is next, and it really comes through as a very competent track in the vein of Steven Wilson's solo works, with a dark atmosphere and a great drum groove, before another huge-sounding climax reminiscent of bands like God Is An Astronaut. "Ghosts" is another showcase for Lee Douglas' vocals, and she gives a wonderfully chilling performance on this dark, string-laden tune. "Can't Let Go" starts off showing a bit of a sort of '80s post-punk/shoegaze influence, but is a significantly more uptempo number than most of the tracks on the album so far, though not quite as hard-rocking as "Leaving It Behind". The piano-dominated "Close Your Eyes" is a dark, lullabye-like track also focusing on Lee Douglas' vocals, with the band entering later in the piece, in an almost jazz-like tone, complete with what sounds like real saxophone. "Wildfires" is a strange, almost Pink Floydian piece, with heavily effected vocals and jarring piano chords in its intro, building up to a heavier climax later in the tune, with Danny Cavanagh powerfully singing "it's too late" over one of the album's heaviest guitar moments, before the track drops out to just clean guitar and glockenspiel. Finally, the album closes on the epic "Back to the Start", one of the album's most proggy moments, with some odd time signature arrangements and some decidedly Steven Wilson-esque vocals, and some chord progressions and vocal melodies reminiscent of Devin Townsend's softer solo works, leading to a later-era Beatles sort of string melody jam, and some absolutely perfect, glorious vocal harmonies. This is definitely my favourite piece on the album.
Nearly all of the songs on this album have an absolutely lush and full sound, with the production being quite modern and beefy, but the album never really sounds like it's overproduced. Frankly, at many points on "The Optimist", it sounds rather minimalistic. While sometimes, the reverb and delay effects are pretty maxed out (particularly on the vocals in "Wildfires"), I don't feel it detracts from the experience of the record like these things often do for me. The flow of the record is also fairly well-done, with the tracks building up and coming down in a very natural way. The performers on this record do a wonderful job, though there aren't really any traditional guitar solos or riffs as you'd normally see in prog-rock. Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh's guitar playing is usually quite buried in the mix, focusing on either clean picking or louder octave melodies, and it's not at all unlike many post-rock bands. Daniel Cardoso's keyboard playing is pretty much front and center on this record, with a lot of songs emphasizing piano parts over all else. Bassist Jamie Cavanagh and drummer John Douglas form a competent rhythm section that accentuates a lot of the pieces without ever getting in the way.
Lyrics — 9
Following the themes of the album "A Fine Day To Exit", "The Optimist" follows its titular character from its starting point at "32.63N 117.14W", Silver Strand Beach in San Diego County, also the last known location of the character and the location on "A Fine Day To Exit"'s album cover, and follows the story from there. A lot of the songs are centered on the sort of themes of leaving one's life behind, and we were never quite sure if the character on "A Fine Day To Exit" succumbed to fate or simply started anew. The themes are interpolated into a sort of narrative about a west coast drive ("Drive at night, slowly/Running in headlights, run away, run away/The great escape and the slowly/But fall, it's too late to run away, run away/The life we left behind/See, they all are alike/The life we left behind/Dreaming all our life" from the title track), and the mention of place names such as "San Francisco" and "Springfield" offer us some clues. Some of the songs feature incredibly sparse lyrical arrangements, like "Wildfires" consisting mostly of the song title and Daniel Cavanagh chanting "it's too late", and "Springfield" merely consisting of the lines "How did I get here?/I don't belong here", lending even further to the album's post-rock ambitions. But other tracks feature a more full set of lyrics, such as "Leaving it Behind": "The lies, they know/They know every little thing, inside/But I said no/And I'll make everything inside alright/Cause I am leaving it behind/Stop feeling dead inside tonight/Cause I'm leaving it behind/Stop feeling satisfied inside". While the album is most certainly a narrative, the sparseness of the lyrical arrangements still lends a bit of an enigmatic character to the ending of the story.
Vocally, this album has some rather incredible performances. Danny and Vincent Cavanagh take the male vocal positions, both complementing one another's voices well, but for me, the real star of the show is vocalist Lee Douglas, whose voice is both hypnotizing and chilling. Having first appeared as a guest vocalist on 1999's "Judgement", usually considered to be their first album in a more progressive/alt-rock style, she has gradually done more and more vocals for Anathema records before finally becoming an official member on 2010's "We're Here Because We're Here", a high water mark for both the band and the genre in general. Having her as a full-time vocalist is possibly one of the best decisions this band has made, and I dare say her performance on this record is absolutely flawless.
Overall Impression — 9
For me, "We're Here Because We're Here" is one of the few rare records I'd give a 10/10. One of the few truly "perfect" records. And after tons of critical acclaim from both the press and the fans, it's clear to see why recent Anathema records have been getting a good name. This is a band that has been on top of its game for so long that I'm not sure they ever could release a bad album. And the band's sound has been growing this whole time, as well, reflecting the changing musical landscape, but never merely following trends, instead making them their own.
While this album is not quite the perfection that "We're Here Because We're Here" was, to me, it's damn close. This is the kind of album you simply let wash over you. It's not an album you're going to want to cherry-pick favourites from for bite-sized listens on your way to work, but something you're actually going to want to set aside an hour plus change for and truly absorb, as if through osmosis. The way this band sets up atmospheres and builds their songs up to a climax is nothing short of heroic, and they certainly display this trait well on "The Optimist". There are few, if any, clunkers on this album, with the only track I wasn't as keen on being the instrumental "San Francisco", but I can't deny that even that track is a very well put together piece that only adds depth to this album.
Along with the great songwriting is the epic vocal performances and the stunning production. Needless to say, this album is about as close to perfect as anything that's come out in 2017 so far.