Anathema: Reggie's Rock Club, 9/21/2013

Sun Sep 22 2013

It’s hard not to get a little depressed thinking about the precipitous downfall of Milwaukee Metal Fest. Once upon a time, our town was the unofficial U.S. capitol of metal, and every year we’d get a chance to see performances by all the European masters who would never otherwise set foot in Wisconsin. One such year was 2001, when the burgeoning fest was on the brink of disaster but none of us fans had any inkling of it, and Anathema played its first U.S. show ever on the heels of its masterpiece of melodramatic ambient prog, Judgement. The magnitude of the event was lost on me at the time, but from the opening notes of “Airbag” (a brief introductory tease of the Radiohead tune) to the rousing “Comfortably Numb” closer it was one of the most magnificent sets of live music I’d ever experienced. Naturally, the band never managed to build up enough of a following Stateside to justify a tour here, so I assumed my chances of ever seeing Anathema live again were slim, but apparently last year’s excellent Weather Systems garnered just enough of a response; 23 years into its career, the band launched its first U.S. tour ever. No Milwaukee date obviously, but Reggie’s Rock Club was a sellout, and justifiably so. The band definitely lost its way for the better part of the aughts; following 2003’s potent A Natural Disaster, Vincent and Danny Cavanagh (lead vocals and lead guitar, respectively) floundered, rehashing old material, losing all label support, and generally concentrating on duo acoustic gigs and occasional festivals, with very little new material coming to light. When 2010’s dismal prog-lite retread We’re Here Because We’re Here finally arrived, I was about ready to give up on Anathema, but just two years later, the band somehow regained its focus and recaptured its inspiration. But the actual show was a far cry from the brash, ominous, arena-ready confidence of the band I saw in 2001.

The cozy confines of Reggie’s probably won’t allow for any sort of elaborate stage production, but the brightly-lit onstage ambience was devoid of atmosphere or subtlety; it’s not like it made much difference once the band started playing, but the lack of mystery was a bit inappropriate for the band’s moody music, not to mention, um, sequined Beatles t-shirts? Vincent was really the only person onstage who seemed interested in projecting any sort of presence; Danny played the cliché rock star, demanding way, way too many off-kilter crowd clapping sessions, although he was very gracious and down-to-Earth when addressing the audience. Maybe image shouldn’t matter, and maybe I take Anathema’s music way too seriously, but I could’ve used a bit more effort as far as the presentation.

That’s about all I can come up with as far as negatives. Through the initial onslaught of Weather Systems tunes I felt like Daniel Cardoso (usually the band’s keyboard player, he was forced to take over drums when the band’s regular rhythm section couldn’t make the trip “due to unavoidable circumstances”) wasn’t a perfect fit, but as the show went on Cardoso’s more punchy, experimental style actually stripped away a layer or two of straightforward normalcy from the overall sound. Who knows how this would’ve gone down if longtime member John Douglas could’ve made it, but it was a real treat to hear Cardoso’s take on the material.

Okay, I suppose I could gripe a little about song selection; for a first U.S. tour, this show was pretty damn short, an hour and twenty for eleven total songs, only two of which originated in the 90s, not to mention leaving out latter-day epics like “The Storm Before The Calm” and “Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second”. But the performances of the songs they did play were superb; Vincent’s vocals in particular were stunning, and thankfully, Douglas’s sister Lee was able to make the tour, contributing her now-essential voice to about half the songs, notably gorgeous on the very Portishead-esque “A Natural Disaster”. The modern Anathema sound is admittedly just a notch or two below Journey on the cheese-o-meter, but the songs are similarly effective at evoking the pain and yearning of relationships and life situations I’m very grateful to not quite relate to, as well as the simple poignancy of the eternal quest for spiritual understanding that permeates the most recent tunes.

It’s been pointed out ad nauseum I suppose, but sometimes the most profound truths about life and love are the corniest to express, and Anathema captures very real emotions bluntly and simply in a way that cuts right through me. This show wasn’t on the level of Metalfest by any means, but after 12 years and a slew of great music I’ve been dying to hear live, Saturday’s show in Chicago was all I could’ve hoped for; I just wanted a lot more of it. This band should be playing bigger rooms for at least two hours a night, dammit, but since that will never happen in this country, I’ll count my blessings that the band actually played a second show within driving distance of my house.

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