Photo credit: Antonio Sediles.
Anathema’s recent gig at the Phoenix was probably the first time I was determined to cry that week. Anyone who listens to opening act Alcest will understand. Anyone who doesn’t listen to opening act Alcest should listen to opening act Alcest.
I’ve briefly written about the French blackgaze pioneers before, during my gleefully self-indulgent column entry on experimental metal, in which I described them as ‘having effectively turned black metal on its head by fusing its raw, distorted infrastructure with hazy, atmospheric shoegaze’. This might not sound like the description of a band who can evoke more emotion in French than most bands can in English, but maybe it would do if I wrote it in French:
‘Je suis trop paresseux et pas assez qualifié linguistiquement pour traduire correctement cette description.’
Perhaps I should clarify – I’m not some kind of fetishistic weeper who stands at the back of hipster gigs and sobs, but it has recently occurred to me that the level of catharsis provoked by a heart-wrenching novel or film does not often extend to concerts, and there is surely no better way to challenge this than by watching Alcest play live. As they launch straight into the eponymous track of their latest record Kodama, the music sprawls across the stage and washes over the audience, like something which is able to sprawl and wash over things simultaneously. Soon frontman Neige’s mournful, understated vocals make way for his visceral screams to take centre-stage, as the music vacillates between atmospheric arpeggi derivations and frenetic cries of guitar distortion.
To call it an emotional rollercoaster would cheapen the experience. The poignant delivery of songs like Eclosion and Oiseaux de Proie makes you feel as though you’re mourning something which you never even had the chance to properly know, whilst Percées de Lumière is quintessential black metal in its evocation of a fog-suffused mountainside under a rapidly darkening sky. The highlight may be the final offering, Délivrance, which abandons the band’s metal leanings entirely, instead giving itself to swells of ambient noise and post-rock reverie which build to an almost ineffable climax. Great stuff.
After unwittingly wandering backstage and taking an impromptu picture with Neige, my friend and I head back inside to catch the main event. The comparison between the respective sets of Anathema and Alcest is certainly an interesting one, and the first thing anyone ought to notice is the considerable difference in stage presence. The members of Anathema are affable and enthused, interacting with the audience at every possible moment. This is in stark contrast to the deeply taciturn Neige, whom I earlier misheard as saying ‘Good evening, et cetera’ – it wouldn’t be out of step with his approach.
Anathema’s lively aura suits their music – although both bands proffer deeply melodic and emotive sets, theirs is perhaps less desolate. They kick things off with the instrumental San Francisco, before launching into the two-part quasi-epic Untouchable, featuring the desperate refrain of ‘I had to let you go / Into the setting sun / I had to let you go / And find my way back home’. There’s a real accessibility to their lyrics, which sound all the more earnest and sorrowful in a live setting. Electric instruments are traded for acoustic weapons of choice for the song’s second part, as a modest instrumental backbone and endearing backing vocals tie the whole thing together beautifully.
The focus soon shifts to their more recent work, and predominantly to their latest album The Optimist. Amongst the group’s strongest live offerings is the lovely post-metal gem of Springfield, whose lyrical content consists solely of confused and lonely cries of ‘How did I get here? / I don’t belong here’. The six minute piece is largely an instrumental rumination, but less is certainly more in the case of Springfield. The clever ambiguity of the lyrics leaves the listener to fill in the gaps and infer their own meaning, whilst the actual music follows its own agenda. A very deliberate piano motif establishes itself early on as gentle keyboards undulate in the background, before squealing guitars and thunderous drums claim the musical territory for themselves. By the time the space clears and the dust settles, a lot of people seem to be wondering how they got here.
I think Anathema know that no modern prog gig would be worth its salt without a musical excursion or two – a criterion which is filled by a seemingly impulsive cover of a Hans Zimmer piece and a somewhat more rehearsed rendition of the stellar introduction to Pink Floyd’s seminal work Shine On You Crazy Diamond. During the final song of the evening (Fragile Dreams), and shortly before saying goodnight, one of the Cavanagh brothers cries ‘Oh bollocks. Fucking hell – it’s all gone wrong’. I beg to differ.