Anathema has done something rather unique in the metal world. They have managed to maintain, and even grow their fan base, despite moving outside of metal. They are an ambient band now, yet their music still connects to people who crave the pounding heaviness of metal. I don't quite understand the overlap, but I see that it exists. I have a theory or two, but those thoughts aren't fully fleshed out right now. What I can say is that Anathema is a band I've been hearing about for years, but one that I never tried to get into, because the word 'ambient' is one that scares me. It is, pardon the pun, anathema to my perception of what music is supposed to be. But, fair person that I am, I decided I would give them a chance.
Being a conceptual piece, the album starts with the obligatory and useless set-up piece, which is thankfully only a minute long. The first real track is "Leaving It Behind", which opens the album with a shuffling electronic beat. I am not a fan of these artificial sounds, which gets reinforced when the whole band joins the song. The drums come in, but the electronic beat plays undernearth the acoustic drumming. Two different beats fighting each other to establish the song's rhythm, with neither winning out. It's hard for the song to gel together when it doesn't lock in with any one particular groove.
It doesn't take long before the nature of ambient music reminds me of why it is I usually avoid it. The way the songs are composed is supposed to use the tension of repetition to build drama, but what I hear is the same few ideas being repeated again and again, to the point where I'm desperate for the song's development to come along. It isn't the laid-back energy that bothers me, it's the balance between length and volume. There don't seem to be enough developments in the songs to best use their running times.
That carries over into the ideas themselves. By nature of the atmosphere the band is going for, neither the riffs nor the melodies are of the big, hooky variety. Everything is subtle and subdued, which has a place, but struggles what it's all that the songs have going for them. "Endless Ways" has some nice build-up and vocal deliveries, and it would work nicely as a palate-cleanser in the middle of a weightier album, but it's as propulsive and central track as anything on the album. It barely gets into second gear, and that's the closest the band gets to putting the hammer down.
Here's the thing; Anathema can make beautiful music. Sonically, "The Optimist" is a gorgeous record. It has strings of melancholy running through it that glisten like liquid diamonds. I can't fault their taste when it comes to picking tones. But like most music that falls into categories like ambient or post-rock, I don't hear enough songwriting to engage me. My belief has always been that song is defined by its melody, that melody is the most important thing in music. You can change everything about the backdrop, but the song will always be the song if the melody is there. Anathema takes a different tact. These are songs based on the coloring, not the outline. It doesn't make it good or bad, but it means it's basically a foreign language to me. "The Optimist" isn't at all for me, but maybe it'll be for you.
All I can do is be honest here.