“It was then that I experienced what we call a near death experience. For me, there was nothing near about it; it was there. It was a total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security. I did not have an out of body experience. I did not see my body or anyone about me. I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It’s difficult to describe; matter of fact, it’s impossible to describe. Verbally, it cannot be expressed; it’s something which becomes you and you become it.
I could say that I was peace, I was love, I was the brightness; it was part of me.”
This testimony from the 73-year-old author and retired college professor Dr. Joseph Geraci lent a truly profound dimension to an already deeply profound and crushingly emotional album, Weather Systems by Anathema, to mark it as my number one record of 2012. When Anathema frontman Daniel Cavanagh discovered a YouTube channel of interviews with near death experience (NDE) survivors, he was so captivated that he sampled Geraci’s story and drew upon its motif of death and transcendence thereof to close Weather Systems in not despair, as had been typical of Anathema in years past, but in triumph. Geraci and Cavanagh’s bonding over such experience continued to the point where Geraci’s poetry written since the event combined with Cavanagh’s music to translate an NDE into musical form. Attempting to express such an enormously powerful event considered far beyond the expressive range of the English language requires enormous emotional range and maturity. Yet every pebble on the roads Cavanagh and Geraci have traveled in life have prepared them for this once-in-a-lifetime collaboration. This album could not have been made ten years prior. The Passage is simultaneously an irreplaceable moment in time and a vivid portrait of an irreplaceable moment in a place beyond time.
“It went beyond my traditional religious upbringing to a profound spiritual level. It would be months before I could share it…”
Although Cavanagh’s songwriting in Anathema has minimalistic elements despite a penchant for sweeping orchestration, The Passage is a radical diversion musically, a headfirst dive into sonic minimalism. As the instrumental vocabulary consists only of piano, ambient synth, organ, acoustic guitar, and rare sound effects, the music’s expressive ability depends less on what is there than what is not there. The very sparse instrumentation leads to an expansive mix, producing a balance between the intimacy between the speaker’s story and the listener, and the expansive empty vacuum which the narrator travels in. Cavanagh’s propensity for building and sustaining momentum by means of repetition within a song is manifest within pieces, but is now also manifest in how pieces and their melodic themes blur and blend into one another with total lack of distinction, as if entirely unaware of the concept of time, or beginnings and endings. The music, completely improvised as one continuous piece to the tune of Geraci’s poems, rarely yields its stark uniformity. The almost complete dispensation with traditional musical elements such as tempo and rhythm, and the cession of any instrumentation associated with rock music, leaves the album feeling almost perpetually still, absent of forward, backward, or any temporal movement, totally suspended in another plane of existence. The dry, warm, treble-oriented recording bathes the music in the otherworldly solar radiance described in Geraci’s account, and enhances the effects of the disembodied piano, sentimental acoustics, and angelic ambience.
Each instrument has its own period of dominance, in representation of various stages of the narrator’s journey. The piano plays during the first movement, its fuller tone and more corporeal form representing the journey from Earth and one’s body. The elegant melody that composes Metamorphosis plays, then stops, and plays again, in pensive reflection.
Among the three narrators of the story, the grandfatherly voice of Geraci is a richly textured bass-baritone laden with wisdom far beyond even that afforded by his advanced age, and with the peace conferred upon him by the experience of being clinically dead and having returned. It lends an irreplaceable authentic tone to poems such as Metamorphosis, in which he speaks of life in contrast to death and the hereafter. Heaven or eternity is almost always described as he describes it: a place of light, peace and love. But, he suggests, we once lived in that realm, the here before, and have been wrenched away from perfection to a world of fear and anger, with the pain of breath, touch and thought. Life may seem a miracle, but is misery in comparison to from whence he came. The fallen state of humanity depicted in such religious worldviews suddenly becomes a literal, inevitable fact of existence. We were once perfect. We were once in paradise. But paradise was lost when we were born. Now we must live subject to the ravages of time and the flaws of humanity, “immersed in a search for things unreal,” those material things we live for but are nothing more than ephemeral shadows. Far less real. Perhaps from the eternal perspective, not even real at all.
Along the way, we learn all over again. The piano line accumulates additional notes as our life experience and life lessons become knit together into “a quilt of joys, sorrows, life and death.” Someday, this patchwork will be finished and the artist will lay down the needle and retire. Birth into this world became death. And now death in this world will become birth. Geraci’s lethargic, solemn tone is far beyond resigned to this, but welcomes it. For in time, his life has spanned over 70 years. But from the perspective of eternity, our earthly lives are a drop in the ocean. It will be as if we never left.
The transition out of the piece into Alone is completely transparent except for the melody transposing into a higher octave, growing quieter and more distant as the narrator becomes aware of his gradual disappearance from reality. The voice of the female narrator, Maryland yoga teacher and spiritual writer Heather Leah Huddleston, takes over halfway through to complete the transition towards the state of non-being. Although he is aware that he is disappearing, no one can think about or conceive of non-being. We could not be aware of our own non-existence. And so his awareness slips away as he crosses that rubicon and he ceases to be who he once was.
“I had no recollection of anything biological. It’s not like you could see something. Because your sight is biological, it’s necessary here. Hearing is necessary here. Speech is necessary here. It’s not there.”
The Orbit gradually changes from peaceful quiet to dissonant and eerie, signaling a transition from life on earth into an alternate dimension between life and death. Comparisons to Lunatic Soul begin to emerge with the development of this theme along with the drastic stylistic departure, and yet The Passage is a completely different perspective on life and death, maintaining their exploration of the meaning of life through a fantastic journey to the in between, and some of the trepidation of the unknown, but taking a hopeful and life-affirming stance from then on. The music completely disappears, a moment of silence in memory of the moments that never were and that were treasured. As much the regrets of the one passing through death’s door as of the survivors left in death’s waiting room.
On the other side of that door, the piano line changes to an uplifting major-key interval brimming with ever brighter light, its notes steadily ascending towards the highest frequency throughout the music’s progression, growing more drifty and peaceful. Shimmering synthesizers begin to surface, their droning Siren calls beginning to form voicelike phrases and timbres, the voices of those gone before. Life is compared to an orbit around the truth. Even those who resolutely persist circling around it can never flee it, and will eventually be drawn in. Those who embrace the truth will find healing, and find their way through the afterlife as well as this present life.
Time passes without notice as Within stands perfectly still. As the narrator is trapped in this moment, he undergoes a life review, during which the melody evolves into a more bittersweet tone. For as he enters eternity, he sees all that has been, his past. But he has lost all awareness of the present. The purpose of this journey is first revealed: for him to look back upon where he has been with the wisdom he will be granted, to realize the incompleteness of his life before, and to change what is Yet to Be, his future.
With an ascent into another plane of existence comes Freedom. But to Geraci, it’s strange how the greatest freedom he will ever know would permanently cut him off from the only reality he has ever known. The ties that bound him to his family, friends, and memories are stripped away. The words “Lighter, I float away” are followed by a transposition into the distant upper range of the piano, the notes now feathery and becoming less separated from formless sound. Despite the narrator’s increased sense of clarity, this constantly building melodic progression carries an undercurrent of desperation. In the beyond, as in life, he feels the burning desire to find his way through the vastness and to reclaim his identity, all that has been lost.
On The Return, the music disappears completely, imprisoning Cavanagh in what appears to be nothingness. His narration is alternately elegant British accented and the angst that so often characterized Anathema’s music. All his words fall on deaf ears in this vacuum of space. Unable to breathe. To see. To hear. To smell. To touch. To taste. To find his way. To feel anything.
With nowhere left to go but Within, Cavanagh sings for the first time, an infinitesimal glimpse of self-awareness. Himself and the blackness seem as one. But as he peers out from within himself into the blackness, the piano resolutely builds structure around his voice and he feels emotion for the first time: determination that the individual essence which lies within himself must somehow remain intact.
A new chapter of the journey now begins. The synthesizer replaces the piano, fully discarding all traces of corporeality. The Islands is awash with a dual synth backdrop. One provides a melody akin to an arpeggiated piano line that steadily oscillates in volume; when overcast with a comforting aquatic lead line somewhat like ambient music from an aquarium, it produces a hypnotic revolving effect that captures the scene of an island representing a utopia in which all of humanity has discarded routine, haste, and the very concept of time, and peacefully coexists in love. The album’s resolute dispensation with other musical elements enhances the sense that the narrator is fully present in what seem to be far more than dreams or visions, but realistic spiritual journeys his soul undergoes in the in between. Some claim that an NDE generally occurs to those in need of one, not to the saintly who might “deserve” one. Now it becomes clear that this is his journey’s purpose, a lesson for him to begin the process of becoming perfect in order to someday enter this perfect realm.
The lead line is sustained throughout the following two pieces. Water Fire paints a vivid scene by an English nighttime river, appropriately narrated by Cavanagh. Night descends on two young lovers, figuratively in the scene of the poem, and literally, as their forms are engulfed by the shadows. They died in a seemingly tragic manner, with their whole lives ahead of them, ready to burn bright enough to enlighten the world. Yet a ghostly image remains behind, bringing light back to the nocturnal scene of mourning and transforming it with hopeful imagery: the pure white that represents the eternal continuity of existence, and the sweet-smelling rose for love and beauty. For those who have gone on are not gone. They still remain present in the memories, the essence of each human being that lasts forever in the hearts and minds of their loved ones. They are always with us, just in a less corporeal form. And their presence leaves the world behind them more beautiful, in a way that couldn’t have been possible if they were still living.
Perhaps this is another vision of the narrator, linked to the even greater one to come. In I Am You, it becomes unclear who is who, whether the actual narrator is Geraci or the entity strongly implied to be God, or whether Geraci has been endowed with enhanced perception, to be able to connect with and be a part of everything in creation, from the lowest valley to the highest mountain, from the humble grass to the majestic animal, from the darkest cave to the brightest sun. The poem ends with this affirmation: “I am everything and nothing more. I am you.” This is the apex of his spiritual journey, the moment from Paradiso of reaching the furthest reaches of the Empyrean. He can see everything for what it truly is. He has seen perfection, and now it is time to bring perfection down to a world of imperfection.
“You just know you’re all-knowing. Everything is a part of you. It’s just so beautiful. It was eternity. It’s like I was always there, and I will always be there. That my existence on earth was just a very brief instant.”
Brief is the only other traditional song. Despite the narrator’s reawakening into self-awareness, its smoothly muted, doleful organ laments the resultant discovery that his very soul is almost unrecognizable. The song and vocal style are reminiscent of the Judgement era in Anathema’s career: distanced from their doom metal past in sound but not in its bleak atmosphere, which has merely been translated to a grim resignation to what death really is instead of a revelry in all things mortifying. For the narrator’s spiritual transformation has been so profound that he has figuratively died and been “born again,” in a similar fashion to the evangelical use of the term.
“After I had recovered the second time and went home everything just seemed to change. It was almost like I was starting my life all over again. I was a baby. I hadn’t made the mistakes that I had made in my life. Things weren’t messed up or whatever.”
“It is interesting to note that a number of married people who have had a NDE end up in divorce. The experience may cause such a profound change in personality that they are not the same person when they married. It was like living with a stranger.”
The poignant Childhood Lost pays tribute to Geraci’s daughter who recently passed away. The hopeful tone of his spiritual poem is an indication of the radical effect a NDE leaves on one’s life outlook, as Geraci stares into the eyes of the most paralyzing of all losses, that of one’s own child, and rapidly bypasses the five stages of grief to come to acceptance, with the certainty that he will be reunited with his daughter in the afterlife. The hollowness of Huddleston’s motherly voice and even the hesitancy and labor with which she draws breath portray the unfathomable pain of absence. Yet, perhaps Geraci’s journey through the in between also had the purpose of preparing him for that most paralyzing loss. For having learned that existence continues on in a perfected form, Geraci is not merely comforted, but uplifted. His daughter, now fully one with the love, peace, and warmth, can be present to guide him in a way she never could while living on earth. Any time he feels any positive emotion, she can be there. Any time he feels any negative emotion, her guidance can bring him towards where she is. And someday, when his turn has come, she will be there to take him home, and they will never remember that they had been apart at all.
Still, among the most profound poetry to be found on the album is the forthcoming philosophical treatise, Color. An acoustic guitar joins the piano, both layering emotionally driven patchworks of arpeggiated chords across each other, carefully selected to be as luminous as possible. For color is seen as a fundamentally flawed human construct, a sign of incomplete human awareness. An imperfection that, like all the others, will pass away and be replaced with pure bright light. No flaw can exist in a state of perfection, so no shade can exist in a state of pure brightness, and no color can exist in a state of pure light. All colors come from a division of light, yet no one living in color can ever comprehend the brightness, the source of all peace and love, where we were in the here before, and where we will be in the here after. Those who see the world in color see with their eyes, and have not yet learned to love. Those who see the world in brightness see with the love in their hearts, and need not look with their eyes. And they see clearest of all.
The piano returns in By Myself as the narrator emerges back to reality, its notes losing all sense of cohesion, melody, or beauty, as much a rift in his inner self as in the fabric of space and time. The notes swirl like a tornado as he spins through the emptiness. His nerves are torn away. He has grown dead to the pain as dissonance and imperfection become facts of life. Having seen the world in white, the world of color becomes as harsh and inhospitable as the Arctic. A fleeting glimpse of perfection, the celestial melody from Within and Yet to Be, tantalizingly pokes through the static, then slips back out of tune. Remembering that place of love, light and warmth, even for a moment, makes him yearn for it for the rest of his life. But now that he knows that is his destination, the rocky journey ahead becomes meaningful. A strive for perfection through living life in an imperfect world. To one day transcend it, and be where he has always been.
“My first frustrating experience was with the television. I couldn’t watch television. There would be a cosmetic commercial … I’d have to turn it off because it was something false, it was unnecessary, it was fake, it just didn’t belong, you know…insignificant. Any type of violence, even if there was a western movie, an old western movie, I’d have to turn it off, ‘cause to me that was total ignorance. There was just no reason on earth to show people killing people.”
The sound of rocky shores and jostling waves carries the first half of The Beginning, the beginning of his acceptance of this new life and journey back home. He is a miniscule ship navigating a vast sea. The waves and the wind from the gale quickly become overwhelming. He has always feared the sea. Now, all alone, he begins to lose his way. Try as he might, none of his own efforts can save him and find the path back to the light. His ship is about to sink. Until a distant high-pitched noise echoes in the distance. The wind begins to disintegrate and his ship begins to glow with light from a lighthouse far in the distance. As he lets it take the helm, the sea smoothens out. The lighthouse, again like a Siren, does the steering for him to bring him towards the destination he could never find on his own. The narrative is quite similar to Jesus Christ calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee in the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark, offering a stronger suggestion towards a religious motive built into the work originally hinted at by the capitalization of “Him” in the preceding piece, but otherwise left completely vague for a universal audience.
The closing title piece reprises Metamorphosis exactly, as Geraci looks back upon the entire journey and begins the creative process of telling his story through his poems and Cavanagh’s music, in hopes that it will bring others closer to home like it has him. The repetition also suggests the cyclical nature to life suggested throughout the album, that one ends where one began. However, a novel musical theme surfaces at the very end, a harmonious piano coda ending with resolution. This artistic choice shifts the final emphasis of the work from eternity to the continuity of the narrator’s earthly life in light of his spiritual rebirth. Even the famous book and film Heaven Is For Real, based off a 3-year-old boy’s NDE (or a resemblance thereof), had less focus on the afterlife than how the fallout from the experience affects the earthly life: the resulting radical change in the lives of his family, even his father, a Wesleyan minister who thought his belief was strong, yet it was dramatically shaken. Nobody comes away from a NDE without such a fundamental change in their lives. Though I have not had such an experience, I was in a situation where I thought for about ten seconds that I could die. It felt as if time stopped in those moments, and after the initial panic, I was mentally preparing for the possibility of death, saying my prayers and letting go. Ever since then, I have been much less afraid and my faith and fundamental worldview have grown much stronger. For the moment, we are locked in time. But occasionally, glimpses of eternity will surface along the way to the end.
The Passage depicts this feeling of stepping into eternity, timelessness, perfectly for a full 41 minutes. So much so that, after finishing the album, a listener will not feel as if 41 minutes have passed. It could be one second or one thousand years. The sense of timelessness is so vivid that I find the album persistently affecting my attitude and mindset. On the first night I began writing, I stayed at work for an hour completely unconcerned with the time until it was past my bedtime. Simply playing the album, and sometimes merely thinking about it, eliminates any of my worries, any consideration of time constraints. It’s one of the most profound, deeply spiritual musical experiences I’ve ever encountered. And although radically different from Anathema, it is as much a part of the band’s spiritual journey from dark to light as any other album. Indeed, it is Anathema’s logical thematic pinnacle.
You can read more about Joseph Geraci’s NDE below (as interviewed by NDE researcher Dr. Kenneth Ring on YouTube), and an essay he wrote in retrospect here (on Facebook), for additional clarity.