Anathema - Weather SystemsWhen Anathema switched direction in the late 90s from a respected doom metal band to a Floyd-influenced prog outfit I don’t think anyone could have predicted where the fork in the road would take them a decade later. Inexorably, album after album, they chipped away at the Floydisms to create a style of their own. This culminated in 2010’s “We’re Here Because We’re Here” which was well-received and brought the band to the attention of a wider audience. Ironically, at the time I called the album a Dark Side of the Moon for a new generation – although they had created a sound of their own the themes and the seamless flow of “WHBWH” were reminiscent of the 1973 classic. Having created a bona fide modern prog classic Anathema would have to pull another very special set of songs out of the bag to rival their own success. I must admit I was sceptical that they could do it, simply because that album was so good. When I heard the first few seconds of “Weather Systems” it was clear that my scepticism was misplaced. This is every bit as great as, if not better than, their 2010 opus.

The two-part “Untouchable” begins with an insistent finger-picked acoustic guitar figure. I get the impression Danny Cavanagh’s penchant for looping in his own live shows has influenced his writing. Brother Vincent Cavanagh’s plaintive vocal sets the tone from the outset – this is going to be another heartrending put-the-listener-through-the-wringer onslaught. Drums enter. The beautiful voice of Lee Douglas harmonises with Vincent. Heavy guitars are introduced to mark out the chord progression and “Untouchable Part 1” builds and builds and builds in intensity, carrying the listener along on a tsunami of naked and vulnerable emotion: “I had to let you go/To the setting sun”. A string section and piano segue into “Untouchable Part 2”. Lee Douglas takes the spotlight momentarily with a lead vocal before the song becomes a duet between two irreconcilable lovers backed by cello and more string orchestration that sends the song towards a soaring crescendo. Vincent describes the approach to the album as “‘not background music for parties. The music is written to deeply move the listener, to uplift or take the listener to the coldest depths of the soul”. An incredibly powerful and moving start to the album.

“The Gathering of the Clouds” hints again at the loop-inspired composition with another repeating fast fingerpicked acoustic motif. Interlocking vocal lines create a dazzling tapestry. There’s a nod to the album’s predecessor in the lyrics, “We’re here ‘cos we’re here/There’s nothing to fear”. Swirling strings dance around the cyclone of voices as an insistent kick drum pounds away, reminiscent of the propulsive force of “Closer” from 2003’s “A Natural Disaster”. “Lightning Song” emerges from the eye of the storm, and Lee Douglas is again given centre-stage. Throughout Lee is given a more prominent role than on previous albums and she shines, here harmonising with herself over a cello and acoustic guitar backing before heavy guitars come crashing in. This is an album of opposing forces, “an album of polarity. The play of opposites; light and shade, birth and death, love and fear”. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the duality of “Lightning Song”, from fragile dreamlike quality to crushing crescendo.

“Sunlight” enters with a smouldering intensity. John Douglas is the star here. His tension-building drumming comes out of nowhere. Tasteful and unobtrusive tom work helps the song gather momentum towards a rush of release and a brief acoustic outro provides the calm before “The Storm Before the Calm”, a nine-minute epic and undoubtedly one of the standout tracks. Synths become more prominent, creating a swirling vortex of inorganic sound. There’s an electronica feel to “The Storm Before the Calm” which marks it out from the others which heavily foreground acoustic instruments. Once the vortex subsides a clean electric guitar picks out some tentative chords and the outro assumes a Porcupine Tree feel. Then the orchestra return, sending Vincent’s yearning vocal skyward, “This is fucking insane/This is fucking insane”. Quite Vince.

“The Beginning and the End” is probably the most straightforward song, with a repetitive chord sequence which highlights Vincent’s lead vocal, away from the harmonies which dominate large parts of the album. This lends more power to the delivery as he rails and rages against unfulfilled dreams. Penultimate track “The Lost Child” is another instant standout if only for the starkness of its arrangement compared to what has gone before. Beginning with Vincent’s unaccompanied wordless vocalising, then introducing piano and orchestra, there are echoes here of Peter Hammill’s seminal break-up album “Over”, not only in the instrumentation but in the sentiment.

“Internal Landscapes” sees the return of the voiceover device, used to such good effect on “We’re Here Because We’re Here”, as a man describes his near-death experience. Lee’s voice makes a welcome return, in an emotional and uplifting duet which rounds off an album which is poised to become another modern prog classic. “We’re Here Because We’re Here” topped polls in 2010 including Classic Rock’s Prog Album of the Year. “Weather Systems” sees Anathema maturing as songwriters and arrangers and I will be very surprised if it doesn’t surpass those accolades. This is essential listening.

Anathema – Official Website