Going back to an earlier album for inspiration isn’t usually a winning strategy, but Anathema are no ordinary band. The muse for The Optimist is the unaccounted-for protagonist from 2001’s A Fine Day to Exit. The final sounds on that record were waves lapping on a shoreline. They introduce opener “32.63N 117.14W.” These are the coordinates for Silver Strand Beach in San Diego, the last known whereabouts of that character. A radio gets tuned, and of course, Anathema is playing on it. Frenetic electronic beats enter to introduce “Leaving It Behind,” and it erupts, canceling all musical similarities to the earlier album. Fans may remember that in 2001, the band were indeed leaving behind their identity as a ferocious, doomy Liverpudlian metal band to enter a period of moody introspection. It would last until 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and expand from there, widening a scope that would include more lush textures and atmospheres and result in some of their finest songs.
Here Anathema have brought the experiments of the last seven years to a culmination of sorts. Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh, drummer John Douglas, vocalist Lee Douglas, bassist Jamie Cavanagh, drummer/keyboardist Daniel Cardoso, and producer Tony Doogan deliver nothing short of grandeur here. The Optimist is aggressive, expansive, and unforgiving. “Leaving It Behind,” with its brittle junglist loops, is answered by sharp guitars and Vincent‘s voice as it reaches for the lyrical margins to break free of the past. Two minutes in, the band kicks in, blasting and demanding that freedom. It’s a hell of a kickoff, but the gears shift when Lee Douglas‘ lead vocal claims the balladic entry to “Endless Ways” backed by an acoustic piano, strings, and a lilting tempo that borders on pop, but it’s only an intro. Anathema up the ante adding layers of electronics, urgent sweeping guitars, and cymbal and snare crashes as the tune ascends, shedding its frame. Anathema work magic in the longing atmospherics of the title track and the crashing proggy shoegaze of “Springfield”; it’s fleshed out in set highlight “Ghosts” as Douglas sings like a bereft angel surrounded by piano, wispy percussion, and elegant strings. This is all followed by the post-new wave urgency of “Can’t Let Go,” and the spectral electronica of “Wildfires.” Set closer “Back to the Start” brings back the lapping waves, this time with an acoustic guitar. Cavanagh‘s delivery is cathartic; he’s answered by driving, squalling lead guitar, waves of synths, a densely harmonic backing chorus, stadium rock drums, and a wall of strings before the mix unravels into more “found” sounds providing an entrance into yet another place. (Sorry, no spoiler.) The Optimist concludes the 2001 story not by ending it, but by opening another chapter altogether. This is Anathema at full throttle, bringing not only their previous musical identities to bear but also projecting possible futures. This set is unified, fully realized, and eloquent, on par with the grandest of musical statements, yet utterly accessible.