My passion for the British band Anathema is very recent, taking its initial spark right after the release of the Weather Systems album. They were to me a name on the list of many names to be checked out later until Weather Systems exploded onto the scene. With so many people whose opinion I highly valued recommending it, I bought it without question, and was hooked after one listen. Soon after, I saw a simple post from a small metal venue in Oakland, California that simply said “Anathema/Alcest, Oct. 1”. The six months of anticipation began, and in my free listening time, I slowly worked my way through their discography.
The Oakland Metro Opera House, as it is ironically called, is about as classic a metal venue that there can be. Located a few blocks away from Jack London Square in Oakland, it is in an industrial warehouse complex, the only thing differentiating it from its neighbors is its black and white zebra facade and the comically elegant Opera House signage. One step inside though, and it’s metal-goth central, with its dimly lit interior bars that serve as corridors to the venue proper, the walls painted a dull mash of black and red, the gruesomely exquisite gothic chandelier hanging from the ceilings, it just makes you feel metal. Due to work commitments, my partner in metal, my brother Mike, wasn’t able to make the show, so I was flying solo on this one, usually a blessing in disguise since I have total liberty to arrive disgustingly early and get my choice of where to view the show. As the time approached, I selected a comfy spot leaning on the waist high stage on the left side. Opening act Mammifer took the stage.
Hailing out of Seattle, Mammifer is an experimental musical group consisting of Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner. Being totally new to me, I had no idea what to expect, and was given exactly that. Upon the end of their short set, I still had no idea what I had just listened to. Bringing a tremendous amount of tech and tricks into the performance, they created a tremendous cacophony of sound that seemed absurd for just two people. With the occasional guitar work of Turner and the soft, wispily angelic vocals by Coloccia serving as the ground from which all the surrealism arose, they surely were trying to take us somewhere, though I’m not sure the short set would allow it. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for them to kick it up a notch and really explode, but as the anticipation built, it ended. I decided my natural needs for some water and a smoke superseded my need for the front, so I sacrificed my sacred position for Alcest.
Now about ten rows back, and on a tension high from Mammifer, I was ready to seriously kick some butt. Alcest was also new to me, I had given some of their stuff a cursory listen before the gig, but I tend to avoid music in other languages since the lyrical aspect is so important to me. I did enjoy their musical style though, so I was ready to dig in and rock out. As the band went through their sound check, something seemed awry. There was a heavy focus on the vocal mics of the lead and the drummer, an issue that wasn’t resolved to their satisfaction until the fourth song, and to my ears was never really resolved at all. When they went in to bring the thunder, they sounded great, but in the softer, more delicate moments, the flaws in the system showed. At first, I thought it might be something intrinsic to the venue, since I had had similar issues when I saw Firewind there, and we all know there is nothing wrong with Kelly Sundown’s voice. Still, Alcest did a magnificent job at fighting through the technical difficulties to deliver a solid performance that truly got the crowd rocking. Another break, another smoke, and upon returning, I see that there is a clear line of site to my original spot in the front. I take it, being behind only one gentleman who conveniently was a good six inches shorter than me. I was concerned about the sound, being a foot from the stage left monitor and Lee’s vocal monitor. I needn’t have worried. And also, the previous sound issues were not the venues fault, as Anathema would soon show.
Showing up on stage were brothers Jamie, Daniel, and Vincent Cavanagh, and brother-sister pair of John and Lee Douglas. Keyboardist Daniel Cardoso was not available for this tour, and the duties were split between Daniel and Vincent. They wasted no time, immediately jumping into Unforgettable, pts. 1 &2, my personal favorites from Weather Systems, and nailed them. The buildup of energy was of insane proportions, as they piled layer upon layer of sound, each crisp and perfect, until they just let it all fly, a virtual musical explosion upon the audience, and we loved it. The energy of Vincent and the intensity of Daniel provided a perfect match. Jamie’s intense bass work, coupled with John’s fiercely aggressive drumming owned the crowds heartbeats. Then they slid into part 2, and Lee took over. Her voice was clean and powerful, with just a touch of wavering on the longer notes. Though I know some people have issues with this, I have always liked that little vibrato on the long notes by a female lead, I feel it adds intensity and character to the sound. A brief hello, and they jumped right into the next two songs from Weather Systems, Gathering of Clouds and The Lightning Song. Gathering of Clouds was a brilliant onslaught of sound, wave upon wave rolling over us, then The Lightning Song did me in, as Lee once again laid it on thick with a brilliantly emotional vocal performance. I was done in, they had much more to go though, and many surprises too.
In my Anathema listening previous to the show, I had only covered We’re Here Because Were Here and A Natural Disaster, there was still plenty of their discography that would be new to me. By the end of the show, I was convinced I would be making a full discography purchase. Song after song just floored me. The sets progression went from Thin Air to Dreaming Light to A Simple Mistake to Deep, a succession of four brilliant numbers to serve as a solid body to the set list before going in for the kill. Asking us to pull out our cell phones for ambience, they dimmed the lights for A Natural Disaster. Being old school, I busted out my trusty Bic lighter. There are some things I refuse to let technology take from me, and one of my most beloved is the brilliant burning sensation of holding the Bic high in honor of killer music. A few fellow rockers held the same belief, as we knowingly eyed each other in mutual respect. Right on brothers, right on. The band then went into the number most were screaming for at that point, Closer, and they delivered it perfectly. Then came the closer, Fragile Dream, which pretty much did me in. After an extended curtain call and a wonderful shot of the crowd by the drummer, they left the stage. Stage hands appeared and started dismantling the set, there was to be no encore, and I really didn’t need one.
Anathema delivered everything I could ask for in a live performance. Perfectly pristine sound, enormous stage charisma, and an endless onslaught of fiery intensity, they made sure they rocked as hard as every soul in the audience, and more. Their brilliantly intricate mix of atmospheric prog and wall-of-sound metal driven home in a perfect fashion made it crystal clear to me why they were awarded best live event for 2012. That was an award they truly deserved, and I had the good fortune to see them bring that brilliance for the first time to the San Francisco Bay Area. Now if they only hold on to that mid show promise that they will be back after the next album. If so, I will be front and center, belting out every single note. Look for me, I will still be proudly waving my Bic.