By James Whitlock
Date / Venue: Saturday October 24th, 2015 - Kings Arms, Auckland
I'm a relative newcomer to Anathema's music. So much so, that I've been happily going around mispronouncing their name (my emphasis was on ‘thee' not ‘na'... guess I should have paid more attention in Latin class). I'd heard enough of their music to be looking forward to this concert though. Their latest release Distant Satellites has some well-formed and interesting content.
I wasn't worried about the fact it was an ‘acoustic' gig either. Progressive bands usually set the mood very well, and some of the most beautiful and touching music I've heard comes from this sort of genre.
Before Anathema took the stage though, we were treated to a really intriguing set from Mice on Stilts. I'd not heard of these guys before, but I was really taken by their honest creations... five tragic tales of woe, delicately offered up by singer/songwriter Benjamin Morley (kitted out in a Morbid Angel t-shirt and cardigan) and his group of multi-instrumentalists (bass, sax, keys, trumpet and... count ‘em... two volins!). They finished up with a well-crafted cover of Steven Wilson's Insurgentes, which got me amped and ready for a night of fantastic prog action like nothing else could.
Imagine my disappointment then, when the main act turned out to be a bit average.
It started off well enough, with a recorded intro of the a capella version of Beatles' Because setting the scene. The band's three touring members then took the stage, looming over us as silhouettes and leading into The Lost Song (Part 2) - a haunting anthem featuring vocalist Lee Douglas.
This segued into both parts of Untouchable where I got my first listen to the live voice of front man Vincent Cavanagh. He's got a lot of presence and power in his delivery... but as the songs flowed from one to the other I realised that it's somehow compromised by the fact that it just all seems to mean SO GODDAM MUCH to him. This wasn't really a big surprise... even listening to their stuff on Youtube you can tell that Anathema is all about big emotion, but I was expecting that their live show would take me on a bit of a journey. It didn't. Right from the word go, it was bleeding heart central, and there was just nothing for me to latch on to.
It was obvious that there were some serious fans in the crowd who were drinking in every emotional nuance... but to those of us who, upon entering, were still standing on the doorstep of fandom, it was too much too soon. By only the second song, Vincent had turned the mic around so that the audience could chant his own anthems at him. Yeah. Definitely too soon.
So I switched off, and started focusing more on the musicality of the performance. I'm sorry to report that I found little refuge.
Part of what makes Anathema's recorded material good is its use of intensity. The intros of their songs sow a seed that then germinates, grows and flourishes into a grand climax.
At this gig, each song started with a seed of Daniel Cavanagh putting together hit-and-miss creations on his loop pedal (and on more than one occasion, telling the audience how hard it was to do it well... I mean... seriously!?). They then reached their peak intensity too soon because there were just too few instruments to build it with.
Maybe with the full band behind them things would have been different, but as it was they seemed a bit like magicians with no sleeves. Nowhere to hide their tricks... and me wishing that they'd just put on a damn coat. So, it wasn't long before I went looking for my own coat.
I've not been put off Anathema altogether... their music still interests me a bit, and some of the audience were clearly having a quasi-religious experience - not every bunch of musicians can create that kind of connection. But a band's performance should generate emotion, not require the audience to arrive already full to the brim.
So, of the two acts I saw that night, Mice on Stilts took my heart. They were just a whole lot more lovable.