‘Cathartic’ is a term that is often slapped clumsily onto music reviews when writers fail to find a better synonym for ‘epic’, ‘soul-crushing’ or ‘really very good’, and as a result has been hyperbolised and misused so much that it has lost a lot of its power. Even when used correctly, what makes music sound genuinely cathartic (i.e. actually conveying the catharsis of the artist to the listener, rather than simply portraying it through sound) is so hugely subjective that the word is often misunderstood anyway. For this reason, when one encounters music that one truly considers to be cathartic, the impact is colossal.
Eternity is not a cathartic album.
It is not the sound of the band shedding the pain that drove the majority of their career and replacing it with peace – if anything, it is even more depressing than its woefully tortured predecessor, The Silent Enigma. It does capture a longing for relief whilst in the darkest realms of abjection, but they fail to achieve it – the earliest point in Anathema’s discography that can be considered vaguely tranquil is A Natural Disaster, and even that is far from content. However, the reason for my earlier mention of catharsis is that in striving for it, they do create an album so gloomy, anguished and desperate that the listener is left with a sense of peace by the end (the aptly-titled instrumental closer, Ascension, makes this feel somewhat intentional). This may sound rather unlikely, but it holds true all the same; the magnitude of the album’s emotional impact is such that by the time ends, the listener has nothing less to feel but a sense of finality.
After such a description (which you must take with a pinch of salt; this is largely subjective, but I hope that you will feel the same on hearing it), you must be wondering what the album actually sounds like, and this is just as complicated to explain as what it feels like. What Anathema did here was to take the doom metal of The Silent Enigma, cut out most of the aggression (there are no moments as ostentatiously heavy as Restless Oblivion or the Shroud of Frost chorus to be found here), expanded on the dark atmospheres present in Cerulean Twilight and Black Orchid, making them beautiful as well as constrictive, whilst creating a dour effect through exclusively clean vocals (with the exception of a few shouts here and there) that sound extremely mournful and moving without being as dreadfully strained as on The Silent Enigma.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Silent Enigma and confused by these comparisons, I’ll look at three songs which give a broad overview of the whole album. Opener Sentient is a stunningly beautiful, piano-driven song that shows right from the start that the band is focused on atmosphere. It manages to sound sad without being melancholic, starting the album fittingly (since Ascension closes it extremely melancholically, but is too upbeat to be outright sad). On the other end of the spectrum, The Beloved is the closest thing here to a metal song, maintaining a fast pace, agile riffs and a good deal of variation. It isn’t outright heavy, but it is certainly more energetic than the rest of the album and uses its contrast between forceful and soft to great effect. Finally, Eternity Part III combines the spacey, atmospheric sound with huge doomy riffs that creates an otherworldly experience so powerful that to this day it remains one of my favourite songs of all time.
Each song retains a distinct identity whilst fitting cohesively into the album as a whole and whilst it isn’t quite perfect – Far Away is one of the most boring moments in Anathema’s whole discography (however, the acoustic version is excellent) and Hope can be quite grating at times – the emotional journey (a term that is almost synonymous with ‘Anathema album’) is absolutely breathtaking. As I mentioned before, this review is very subjective (it would be impossible to write anything vaguely convincing if I treated it otherwise), so I do not expect complete agreement with it – I can completely understand why some might consider it melodramatic or forced (just as the cover art can be seen as a symbol of hope contrasted with an infinite, overwhelming background or as a poorly constructed attempt to be prolific, so too can the listener react to the music in many ways) – but I can assure you that if any of what I said sounds remotely appealing, this is worth investigating.
Released: November 1996
- The Beloved
- Eternity Part I
- Eternity Part II
- Suicide Veil
- Far Away
- Eternity Part III
- Cries on the Wind
Eternity Part III, Radiance, Suicide Veil, Cries on the Wind, Sentient, Eternity Part I, The Beloved
My Dying Bride – The Dreadful Hours
Porcupine Tree – Up the Downstair
Agalloch – Pale Folklore