What’s to like?
Anathema’s main songwriter branches out with a solo release of deeply personal songs that enhance his reputation as a composer and musician, and touch a chord within the more sensitive of us.
The low down
It’s been a good year for Anathema fans, what with a well-received new album The Optimist (which you can read about here), and a well-attended tour to support the album (you can read a live gig review here). But if that wasn’t enough to keep the fans happy, principal songwriter Daniel Cavanagh has now just released a solo album Monochrome.
Usually when a musician in a successful band releases solo material, it’s usually driven by a need to experiment outside the confines of the band’s trademark sound, or by frustration at material being rejected by the rest of the band. But that’s not really the case here with Monochrome, which Cavanagh describes as a collection of songs that he wanted to release outside of Anathema, purely because the experiences behind the songs are very personal to him and I guess he wanted the finished album to reflect that.
Interestingly he admits that the songs would have been good enough for the band, and could have been earmarked for another Anathema album, with the rest of the band having given them the thumbs up. “The Exorcist was considered so good by Anathema that the rest of the band would have made this the centrepiece of an Anathema album, taking it from the band was not an easy decision but I am glad I did!”
And once you listen to the opening track, it does feel reassuringly familiar in tone to what you’d expect from an Anathema album, so I can only imagine what kind of soul-searching Cavanagh went through before deciding to release the seven songs here as a solo album. But happily this is one solo album that can be enjoyed without the usual caveats described above, and if you find yourself slowly relaxing into the opening track then you’ll likely stay on for the rest of the album until the final fading notes.
Here’s that opening track, The Exorcist
The songs have been inspired by internal feelings of love and loss, and Cavanagh has pitched the album as “a late night, candlelit feeling, evoking the light of dusk as the summer sun sinks below the horizon, setting the scene for thoughts and meditations that many people will relate to.”
It certainly feels a little like “comfortable slippers” as the music starts flowing, and given Cavanagh’s considerable contribution to Anathema, it would be hard to escape comparisons. But Monochrome does offer notable alternatives along the way. Firstly, you’ve got Cavanagh being the principal singer, and although his voice lacks some of the presence and potency of his brother Vincent, that frailty works really well in the context of the songs here.
The music is piano led for the main part, and at times is so gentle and almost hesitant, that it needs that vocal frailty to complement the stripped down sound. Guitars are limited to acoustic strumming or discreet solos, but there’s none of the impassioned riffing associated with Anathema’s material.
By itself, Daniel’s voice isn’t really enough to carry a whole album, so he plays the first of two trump cards by having Dutch singer Anneke Van Giersbergen take the lead on three of the songs. Van Giersbergen is already well known to the prog community for her collaborations with Devin Townsend and Arjen Lucassen’s Ayreon projects, and her presence is immediately recognisable as soon as she sings her first notes. She has a lovely voice, strong and yet tender, rich and full of presence, and it works wonderfully on the likes of Soho and Oceans Of Time.
Then comes the second trump card in the form of violinist Anna Phoebe, who guested with Anathema on their acoustic set A Sort Of Homecoming. Again, no stranger to the prog community, Phoebe’s empathic violin contributions to The Silent Flight Of The Raven Winged Hours and Dawn are beautifully judged and performed. If Cavanagh’s piano keys are the monochrome, then Phoebe’s violin brings a layer of tint to the music.
Cavanagh pretty much plays the remainder of the instruments – piano, guitar, keyboards – but it’s very low key and understated, with the focus being on mood and ambience, rather than a showcase for his multi-skills as a player. And that’s why the album works so well. I’ve never met the guy or watched any interviews, but if this collection of songs is a window to his soul, then I’d imagine he’s a quietly a self-reflective individual.
I did read a recent interview where he discretely referred to a period of depression in the run-up to writing Anathema’s current album, and for some reason I was strongly reminded of this in the song Oceans Of Time. Speaking from personal experience, depression is an incredibly painful thing to go through and it never truly leaves you, but I’d like to think that Cavanagh has found some degree of release and happiness through writing these songs, recording them on his terms, and finally sharing them with us.
And yes, in true Anathema fashion, Monochrome had me wanting to shed tears at several points, not really knowing why, but just feeling that way. I guess the music here has a universal spirit that reaches deep into some of us, and triggers a sense of internal exposure and vulnerability that some of us will embrace in a rare moment of self-awareness. But then music should be able to move you, whether it makes you sad or happy, and it certainly helps me appreciate ‘the moment’.
But Monochrome is by no means a miserable album – far from it – and many of you will simply find it a relaxing experience to kick back to. And for those of us that like happy endings, the album closes with an optimistic track titled Some Dreams Come True!
If you’re an Anathema fan, then Monochrome is going to be a winner and you’ll probably end up lobbying Daniel to include some of its songs in future Anathema shows. If you’re not familiar with their music, it doesn’t matter, because Monochrome stands up well as an album in its own right and is a very enjoyable late-night listen.
Just keep a box of tissues to hand.