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16 January, 2005

Review: A Natural Disaster (Anathema, 2003)

An advantage of the 'PT-Trans' Porcupine Tree discussion group is that other bands are occasionally mentioned which may be of interest to fans of Porcupine Tree*.  One such band repeatedly cited favourably has been Anathema.  Their having been the support band at Blackfield's London debut concert on 10 September boosted my mild curiosity, (though I hadn't particularly enjoyed a recording of their set), as did the inclusion of a track from their latest album, 'A Natural Disaster', on the October 2004 'Classic Rock' magazine cover disc, a sampler of 'contemporary prog'.  I liked that track, 'Closer', so bought the album, even though a couple of brief (20-30 seconds) online samples of other songs at the band's website had failed to impress.

I'm reluctant to compare bands to others – few artists like to be pigeonholed – but a benchmark is useful for those who haven't heard their music. However, Anathema isn't particularly similar to other bands with which I'm familiar (possibly not a good sign, on reflection). Their use of strong guitars and percussion over keyboard textures is a characteristic they share with Porcupine Tree, but I don't think they sound similar.

Now I've heard it a dozen or so times, over a couple of months, I have very mixed feelings about 'A Natural Disaster'. To borrow a cliché, it's an 'album of two halves':

  • Hard
    A common characteristic of five tracks is a keyboard-dominated, near-ambient beginning, the gradual introduction of percussion and guitars building to a hard-rock climax, typically dropping back to an ambient close. I'd expected this style, and the (very) tangential similarity to Porcupine Tree helps. I like these tracks; I wouldn't rate them as all-time favourites, but they bear repeated listening.
  • Soft
    The remaining five tracks were something of an unpleasant surprise, being altogether too much like ballads for my taste.

The opening song, Harmonium is a good, loud but slow-paced rock track, particularly enjoyable through headphones. However, played on a normal CD player, not giving it my full attention whilst cooking, my second impression was that without the richly textured soundscape, it sounded very ordinary. I'm not sure what that says; that it's poor background music isn't really a criticism.

Balance: Apart from the clarity of the vocal delivery, this could be compared to mid-Nineties Radiohead.

Closer: Apart from something lost within the cacophonic (in a good way!) climax of the song, all vocals are fed through an electronic filter, making the words themselves indistinct but emphasising their use as a musical instrument, almost a modulated drone. Like 'Harmonium', the track builds slowly from a largely electronic beginning, gradually adding drums and guitars for the first half, further adding feedback and energy for another minute, then dropping back to the initial state. This track was included on Classic Rock magazine's October 2004 sampler CD of modern 'prog'. It isn't an obvious representative of the rest of the album, though on repeated listening I do hear common elements.

Are You There?: My first reaction was "no, I'm not". I hadn't expected something so close to a ballad, and it wasn't a particularly pleasant surprise. On repeated playing, it's not so bad, and entirely listenable; I don't feel a need to skip it, though nor would I regard it as a highlight.

Childhood Dream: An odd, short (2:10 min) track consisting of a keyboard melody over an electronic drone and the wordless chatter of a baby. Good through headphones, the stereo soundscape is mildly startling towards the end!

Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second: Another quiet, ominous beginning dominated by keyboards, this song builds quicker, kicking into an all-out angry rock track after a minute or so.

A Natural Disaster: The downbeat title track is my least favourite. I don't think the female vocals add anything, and the male vocals in the final minute are just annoying. The change of pace and tone from the foregoing song also jars. This song sounds like something from an entirely different album and even band – not one I'd be interested in hearing again.

Flying: Maybe it's just me, but the vocalist seems to be attempting an impression of Morrissey – and I'm not a fan. I'm not criticising it as in any way inferior, it's just not something I'd choose to hear often. That said, it sounds better loud, somehow shifting the emphasis towards the instrumental elements, and the latter (non-vocal!) half of the track is much more enjoyable.

Though not overwhelmingly wonderful, I quite like five of the first six tracks on the album, but the presence of this and the previous song does give me serious doubts.

Electricity: Another low-key 'ballad'. Pretty good, but again, quite a contrast to earlier tracks on the album, which are much more to my taste. In isolation, I quite like 'Electricity'. Having adopted the mindset instilled by the earlier, harder tracks, it simply seems a little out of place.

Violence: Very good. An instrumental distillation (if the longest track on the album can be termed a distillation!) of the feel of the other rock tracks: a near-ambient, keyboard-led intro gives way to a high-energy, and building, section dominated by electric guitars/feedback and drums. This fades out rather abruptly to be replaced by an introspective piano-led piece, itself giving way to an ambient drone; hence the end mirrors the start of 'Harmonium', neatly closing the album much as it began.

So; I don't have one, conclusive opinion of the album. I do like the heavier, rockier material, though it's a bit forgetable ('good', not 'great'), but I'm less impressed by the lighter (musically, not emotionally), more mopey tracks, two of which I just skip outright. If all Anathema albums were like this, I'd walk away; experiment failed.

However, I asked an existing fan of the band (Hi Adam!) whether 'A Natural Disaster' is representative of Anathema as a whole, and whether it's a suitable place to start investigating their catalogue. Apparently it isn't; it's "quite a change of style" from previous albums. This may have been a reason for some of my disappointment as, expecting Opeth, I encountered Morissey. Away from the context of a 'rock' album, some of the other songs actually aren't so bad (if not entirely to my taste); my expectation may have been at fault.
'A Fine Day to Exit' was recommended as a good first impression, being most like Porcupine Tree, whilst earlier albums are "heavier/darker". That's reassuring, and I'll probably try the recommended albums and earlier ones some time – the heavier the better.

*: Conversely, an advantage of the 'Dark Matter' Porcupine Tree group is that discussion is fairly strictly 'on-topic', avoiding significant digression into other bands than P-Tree and directly-related projects. The approaches of the two groups are complementary.

Comments

I'd recommend "Alternative 4" and "Judgement", their 5th and 6th albums, as their best.

For some reason, "A Fine Day to Exit" never clicked for me, although I've heard a lot of other people who's opinions I respect praise that one highly. I liked "Natural Disaster" a little better, but nothing beats the first two I mentioned.

The earlier albums are more death-metal orientated with grunting vocals, and suffer from muddy production.

Posted by Tim Hall at January 16, 2005 03:53 PM
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