Here’s a fascinating album that came my way through a newfound interest in the music of the band Anathema — quite recent interest, in fact. Anathema started in the early nineties making doom metal, a subgenre of metal characterized by slow, very melancholy songs and extremely dark, gothic lyrics. Over time the band’s music has gradually metamorphosed from a vibe of pretty absolute hopelessness to one of, if not optimism, then at least a determined interest in finding meaning in the tragedies and joys of life. The result has been a series of albums characterized by simple but highly effective and heartfelt lyrics that meld with grand yet ethereal rock, driven by piano and string arrangements. The prog-rock community has certainly embraced this latter-stage Anathema sound, and well it should, though I can’t help but feel that the intent and the results are closer to the “Big Music” of the eighties, a term invented by Mike Scott of The Waterboys to describe his band’s unapologetically intellectual, emotional and grandiose stylings on albums such as This Is the Sea. “Big Music” was unafraid to tackle grown-up ideas, and the sorta-genre contained such bands as U2 (pre-mega-Bono-ego) and Big Country. To me, that’s where Anathema sits musically speaking, the spiritual descendent of thinking and feeling folks’ bands like Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues rather than an alternative rock combo or a noodly prog-rock band.
Anyway, let’s just say I really like this music. Having fully investigated the band’s discography and decided that doom music wasn’t for me, I came across this interesting side project that expands on a theme found on the last track of the 2012 album Weather Systems. That track combined spoken word by Joseph Geraci with a moving song by Cavanagh based on the near-death experiences Geraci describes.
The spoken word audio on that song is derived from a series of interviews conducted by researchers in 1977 on the subject of near-death experiences. Geraci, a New Englander, had one such experience after an accident and told his story. Now, views on this subject vary from annoyed disbelief to absolute credulous acceptance. I’m pretty agnostic about anything I can’t verify one way or another, but it’s hard to believe any listener could remain completely unmoved by Geraci’s plain-spoken, almost matter-of-fact recounting of his experience with death and return, or so he surmises. There’s almost a poetry in the way he tells the story of bidding his wife farewell and the feelings that went through his dying brain. I will admit openly that while I am indeed neither here nor there on the possibility of life after death, I find the material intensely moving; songs on the subject of death get me teared up, if they are well-composed and sincere, my fave piece of all time being Justin Hayward’s “New Horizons“. A better song about death you will not find, if that interests you! As a songwriter who has written many songs on this topic myself, I consider myself something of an expert!
Clearly, Cavanagh, Anathema’s main songwriter and arranger, felt the same way about Geraci’s interview, because shortly after his use of the interview on the track “Internal Landscapes”, this musical collaboration resulted. The Passage is almost more suitable for this site’s usual predilections than Anathema’s albums are, being a combination of instrumental/ambient music and recitations by a much older Geraci. I have to admit, I’m not generally a fan of spoken word. I’m also, despite being a book editor by trade, not a fan of poetry in general; the poetry business thrives on obfuscation and insularity. I don’t mind a poem in theory (I’m quite fond of Tang dynasty-era poetry, ahem) but the whole ouevre is now so precious that it’s hard for someone from outside the circles of poetry-lovers to develop an appreciation, or even know where to start. I’m sure some poetry-loving readers will be gnashing their teeth at this, but as always … it’s my blog!
Anyway, this is a melding of Geraci’s words and Cavanagh’s music. Geraci’s voice has not changed much with time, with the same stoic, matter-of-fact tone. Some readings are done by Heather Huddleston, another American. The theme is, of course, the passage from life to death, or from one state of being to another (us Zen types do not consider death the cessation of life but just another transition, as birth is).
First, the music: Cavanagh has primarily composed for and played the pieces on piano, an instrument he is clearly very comfortable with; just listen to his band’s latest, distant satellites (which I reviewed in detail), where you’ll find the piano or Rhodes is at the root of almost all the arrangements. Cavanagh does not pretend to be a virtuoso, instead focusing on simple, poignant melodies, as found on the first two of the seventeen short pieces, “Metamorphosis” and “Alone”. In fact, the pieces would stand up quite well on their own; I’ve reviewed a lot of solo piano albums here, or piano-dominated albums by the likes of Bruno Sanfilippo that fit in the “modern classical” subgenre, and Cavanagh’s gift for pleasant, unassuming melodies fits well with that kind of music.
Some pieces, like “Within”, are accented with ambient guitar and delicate electronics, thus bringing this even further into the wheelhouse of our preferred genre, ambient. I would love to hear, with all due respect to Geraci, an entire album of such music from Cavanagh, uninterrupted by words; he clearly has an aptitude for it.
A bonus to fans of Cavanagh’s band are two songs sung by Daniel but with words by Geraci; as a kindred spirit, the words flow quite nicely from Cavanagh’s tongue. While not in possession of the virtuosic tenor of his brother Vincent, Daniel Cavanagh has a very pleasant, emotive and clear voice of his own, and “Within 2” and “Brief” are really lovely additions to his songbook. They are, in fact, a ballad lover’s delight. “Brief” makes really good use of reverb to create an effect worthy of the finest textures of ambient music (which we know quite a lot about here at Make Your Own Taste!).
I can see that things are getting lengthy here, so I should tell you about the recitations. I’m probably as qualified as any music reviewer to evaluate these poetic readings, given my background (and despite my general disdain for pee-otry!). Clearly this is very serious material on a topic to which Geraci is very devoted, and that passion shines through. Geraci’s authorial voice is similar to his speaking voice: measured, formal but with a very succinct turn of phrase that makes clear the profundity of the transition he describes, as well as the possible joys of “waking from” a “long, deep sleep” beyond life, “from blind cocoon to endless flight”, “back to where I’ve always been”. Thankfully, there’s no effort to rhyme made at all. The effect is completely unpretentious, which is quite the achievement.
There’s no doubt that a considerable amount of people will not be able to listen to a minute of this seventeen-track effort, becoming bored or uncomfortable. However, if you are the sort of person who spends a lot of time contemplating these matters, as I am, you will not only find Geraci’s thoughts interesting, but also that they contain a good measure of wisdom.
This is not a recording for those with short attention spans, since it’s essential it be taken in in a single sitting, but if you are able to tolerate or, one would hope, actually enjoy recitations of meaningful and well-composed thoughts, delivered with the accompaniment of some very fine ambient/modern classical music, then Cavanagh and Geraci have made an album that should find its way into your very-much-alive consciousness.
The physical version comes with in an elaborate package featuring some lovely photographs, if you’re the kind of person who likes to have the actual object; looks like it’s well worth the cash.
(NOTE: you can also read my annotated Anathema discography)