Prog magazine darlings ANATHEMA touring with blackgaze pioneers ALCEST only really feels like an odd match once you actually sit down and think about how disparate their sounds are, the initial instinctual response to such a line-up being to smother yourself in cushions and prepare for an evening of intense, unrelenting loveliness. Both are bands who seek to envelop you within a sonic world that is luscious and full of warmth, and so tonight promises to have a certain serene and heavenly quality to it.
Even more so than the headliner, it is ALCEST who truly epitomise this. Mainman Neige’s massively influential black metal project is quite literally a vessel in which he attempts to capture the sound and feeling of otherworldly experiences felt as a child. To say their music is immersive, mesmeric and frankly gorgeous would be an understatement. Despite coming on a mere half an hour after doors open, they are granted wonderful sound that perfectly translates the lush and dreamlike textures of their music. ALCEST have mastered the art of being extreme without being abrasive. Even Neige’s throaty howls don’t cut through the atmosphere they create. Drummer Winterhalter’s thrashing head of hair as he throws himself into his blasts is the reminder that you are indeed watching a metal band, but rather than slice through you their music washes over you, wrapping you in a warmth and beauty that within metallic circles is very much their own.
It’s almost exactly a year since the release of most recent album Kodama, and as they open with the breath-taking oriental flourishes of the title track, it’s obvious that these songs are only continuing to grow in stature. Their 2014 experiment with throwing metal out of the window entirely and diving headfirst into the world of pure shoegaze Shelter remains a surprisingly fruitful and enduring record, but with Kodama ALCEST are firmly back doing what they do best, and the likes of Eclosion and Oiseaux de proie fit perfectly amidst older songs like a wonderful Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles and the irresistible Percées de Lumière . The one song from Shelter that they continue to play though proves to be to an inspired choice, Délivrance arguably stealing the whole night as it closes their set with awe-inspiring vocal harmonies that seem more angelic than human, while retaining enough distinctly ALCEST qualities to not feel jarring alongside their more blackened material. As the only support act on this tour, they are granted an hour set, and they could easily have played an hour more and not overstayed their welcome. The one thing left to be desired would be a tad more material off their unsurpassable Écailles de Lune record, and when the only possible complaint is to do with something outside of the actual set given, it’s evident that we’re dealing with a pretty special band.
ANATHEMA meanwhile are a band with over twenty-five years of growth, work and progress behind them, leading them to today’s point where frontman Vincent Cavanagh notes that this is their biggest headline show in Manchester to date. As an elaborate intro of San Francisco segues into the opening strains of Untouchable Pt. 1, the reaction from the crowd is practically euphoric, this song and its more delicate sister half having become two of the most adored songs in ANATHEMA‘s back catalogue since the release of late career highlight Weather Systems five years ago. With a fired up crowd moving and singing those soaring melodies right back at the stage, it’s an electric way to open, and impressively ANATHEMA maintain this momentum throughout almost all of their two hour set time with only a couple of exceptions. New album The Optimist is easily their weakest this decade, but that doesn’t impede ANATHEMA too much here, as the songs take on a greater power live and they choose to play mainly the best songs from it such as the electronica-infused Leaving It Behind and especially the pensive but expansive Springfield which allows additional singer Lee Douglas to take centre stage. Closer with its heavy use of robotic vocal effects does feel a little dated and doesn’t fully justify its six minute runtime, but it does offer some interesting staging, with a virtual rendering of Vincent’s lips on a screen behind him echoing his words as he sings them.
ANATHEMA talk a lot between songs, with Vincent, brothers Danny and Jamie Cavanagh, and Lee all spending time behind the mic chatting and bantering with the audience, but importantly they all come across as funny and likeable figures and only once does a woman in the crowd yell at them to get on with the music much to the amusement of everyone else. There’s a sense of fun that permeates their set despite the contemplative nature of much of the music, with things happening like Vincent jokingly chasing a roadie wielding his guitar as a weapon when his strap comes loose, preventing things becoming too dour. At one point Vincent shouts out a man in the front row wearing a Serenades t-shirt, and while they’re an entirely different band to the death/doom outfit that put out that album in 1993 and are certainly far beyond the point of playing anything from those early heavier beginnings (as nice as it would be), that they’ve been able to retain the continued support of a not insubstantial amount of those fans while sounding the polar opposite is solely down to artistic integrity. They do however give old school fans the most gratifying of surprises by closing with three songs from 1998’s Alternative 4. The stark nature of Lost Control and Destiny sees Vincent giving his rawest vocal performance with little instrumentation to hide behind, before the anthemic guitar lines of Fragile Dreams takes the night home in capable fashion. They may sound far more Radio 2 than Peaceville Records these days, but ANATHEMA remain one of alternative music’s real gems.
Check out our photo gallery of the night’s action in Manchester from Occult Photography here: