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Road Reports

Who: Anathema, Alcest, Mamiffer
Where: Reggie's, Chicago, USA

"Years removed from anything resembling metal, Anathema may now have emeritus status, but old fans can stretch to unexpected lengths once the roots set in."

"It's good to finally meet you." Brushing aside a tangle of bangs and shading his eyes against the glare, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh gives the crowd a grin. With his dark disheveled locks, leather jacket, black collared shirt half-unbuttoned, and rock star boots, he looks like the well-adjusted cousin of The Cure's Robert Smith or Edward Scissorhands. One superfan a few rows deep shouts, "I've been waiting eight years!" Vincent points at him, smiles wider, and replies, "We've been waiting even longer."

Hard as it is to believe, Anathema have never before toured North America. They appeared twice at the Milwaukee Metalfest in the hard rocking, long-haired era of 'A Fine Day to Exit', but that festival has been defunct for a decade. Through much of that time it seemed Anathema were also outbound, stretching out a couple DVDs, a single, and a revision of old songs ('Hindsight') over seven years without an album of new material. Then in 2010 came 'We're Here Because We're Here', and everything changed. Like the lambent image on its cover, the album was more radiant, expansive, and utterly unabashed than anything Anathema had done before. That's saying quite a bit for a band whose back catalogue includes songs like 'Feel', 'Deep', and 'Are You There?'

But whereas the Anathema of yore was introspective and absorptive, 'We're Here...' showed a spirit of illumination, expansion, and newfound clarity. 'A Natural Disaster' of days passed gave way to 'A Simple Mistake', and serene imagery of nature and open space suffused such songs as 'Dreaming Light', 'Everything', and 'Presence'. A full two decades after their founding and 'An Iliad of Woes', it seemed finally that Anathema had found contentment. But not complacency. After 'We're Here...' came another LP of re-recordings ('Falling Deeper'), more new material in 2012's 'Weather Systems', and a reclamation of the European tour circuit. And at long last they have come across the pond for their first ever North American tour, packaged with France's Alcest as (nominal) co-headliners.

The Chicago stop sold out Reggie's Rock Club, a favorite for mid-sized metal packages, and our evening's entertainment began (one hesitates to use more kinetic language like 'kicked off') with Mamiffer. The third touring act on the bill and the one from the United States, it's a duo ostensibly led by keyboardist and vocalist Faith Coloccia. More metal fans will recognize her husband, guitarist, and chief effects pedal-twiddler, Isis alumnus Aaron Turner.

I confess not to being much of an Isis fan, so perhaps my experience of Mamiffer was skewed. But it's difficult to approach any band without reservations when their press material includes such gobbledygook as "minimalist tone worship, choral meditations, syncopated funeral marches, elaborate odd-time classical passages, and deconstructed doom metal." Pick out 'minimalist' and 'deconstructed' from that list be done with the rest. Broadly summarized, Mamiffer is quasi-musical drone, driven by Turner's compulsive, looping "riffs" and Coloccia's insistent bass strobes and occasional ethereal vocalizations that, at least in the live context, were completely indecipherable. It's difficult to call Mamiffer's live show 'tone worship' in the sense of SunnO))), for instance, since Mamiffer's soundscapes are so synthetic and saw-toothed that there's little actual 'tone' there to worship for all the electronic haze. That said, the duo held most of the audience rapt for their full 30 minute set, though few seemed to know when (or had much inclination) to clap. And it was a thoughtful and cleansing kind of ritual, different and deeply focused. But just as I personally find with Isis the product was less than the sum of its parts, and those were even more ambivalent than usual.

Thus lulled into trance, it was almost too easy for Alcest to come pluck us like dandelions and carry us along in their ethereal breeze. When last in Chicago supporting Enslaved in 2011, Neige and his French compatriots put on a good show, but since they they've clearly grown as an ensemble and are ever more at home on the stage: no more glancing at one another to be sure of their cues, better acknowledgement of the crowd both in body language or comments between songs (still brief), and even a surprisingly rock 'n' roll climax to 'Summer's Glory'. Following fan-favorite 'Percées de Lumiére', this one-two was the high point of their set.

Despite their waxing presence as a physical force, any Alcest set is still a brush with the fey: Zero on second guitars and vocals, with his sprawling nest of hair, draped lightly in linen and shoesless; the impassive Indria on bass, wreathed in smoke; and Winterhalter behind a spare white Ludwig kit (shared with Anathema), with hardly a stage light cast his way all set. At the center, of course, is Neige. Not wearing any feathers this time, he chose a true grunge-era uniform of tapered blue jeans, low-top Converse All-Stars, and a baggy long-sleeved bootleg Slowdive T-shirt. Above the shimmering and constant stream of cluster chords, Neige and Zero stand still at their microphones with eyes closed and one heel a little lifted, as if tip-toeing up into their tender tenor harmonies.

The atmosphere was compelling as always, but it's not yet clear that Alcest is ready for serious headlining status. Their 70 minutes on stage (not including several minutes of pre-recorded material playing over their exit) felt rather long, especially compared to Anathema's tour de force. Part of what makes a presence otherworldly is its rarity, and this is a luxury Alcest no longer has as an internationally touring band with hour-plus sets. Nor did the new material bode especially well: though charming enough, its familiar strumming patterns and straight chord progressions are hardly breaking from the mold. More of the same, in Alcest's case, may mean less of everything.

The crowd was deeply appreciative nonetheless and shouted out song titles exuberantly, unashamed of how execrable their French accents might be. Neige seemed to understand in any event, ducking his head and smiling shyly while tuning his Fender Toronado. A simple "Al-cest" was also the only chant of the night to last.

Still, there was no doubt which band was the real prize of this night, no matter what the press releases and tour bills said about co-headliners. A decade's absence will generate that kind of buzz. Yet Anathema are still a band apart: in a scene with a reputation for putting on airs and manufactured personalities, such honesty as theirs is hard to come by. Years removed from anything resembling metal, Anathema may now have emeritus status, but old fans can stretch to unexpected lengths once the roots set in. The Chicago audience was peppered with first-generation Anathema swag, showing the scripted logo that last appeared on 1998's 'Alternative 4'. Shirts for bands like Aeternus and Norway's Shining (who'd gleefully shattered minds at Reggie's the previous night) far outnumbered those in office or casual attire. But the two sides mingled freely, and one woman in a Dave Matthews Band Caravan shirt was standing front and center from the time doors opened till the final curtain call.

Anathema's layover was an efficient 20 minutes, putting the band on stage around 11:20 pm. A bit late perhaps, but Anathema tapped a fresh spring of energy from the second they appeared. Brothers Daniel and Vincent Cavanagh have a rare chemistry as frontmen and partners, able to share the spotlight or command it equally. Their vigorous presence established an immediate rapport with the audience, from the neck-craning devotees of the front row to those leaning on the upper balcony out deep in the darkness.

They brought with them a fill-in rhythm section for this tour, shifting the well-traveled Daniel Cardoso from keyboards to drums while his Portuguese countryman Tobel Lopes handles bass. The pair performed steadily and without a hitch, though their involvement with the band and crowd was not especially pronounced. Understandable, and hardly of consequence—the Cavanagh brothers have enough presence between them to bear all of Anathema's prodigious pathos. The completing touch came from female vocalist Lee Douglas, whose periodic appearances were fluid and never for a moment superfluous. Her highlight number 'A Natural Disaster' was met with particular applause.

The entire set of nearly 90 minutes seemed to fly by in half the time of Alcest's, running in full 'Untouchable, Part 1 + 2', 'The Gathering of the Clouds', 'Lightning Song', 'Thin Air', 'Dreaming Light', 'Deep', 'A Simple Mistake', 'A Natural Disaster', then an encore of 'Closer' and 'Fragile Dreams'. Through it all, the band were equally at home in their most cathartic, life-affirming swells and trading easy banter between songs while the Cavanaghs changed out guitars. And unlike Alcest before them, whose mix was muddy and whelmed by bass frequencies, Anathema's sound was surprisingly clear for its breadth, spanning two guitarists, bassist, drummer, three vocalists, two keyboards, vocorder, and backing tracks. All who sang turned in top-notch performances, though this comes as no surprise. Their development over the years has had a single trajectory—up—and translates seamlessly to the live environment. Vincent's range, from belting tenors to husky croons, was especially impressive and invariably on-pitch.

The audience was plenty willing to help, too. Compared to most Europeans metal fanbases Americans aren't much known for singing along (call it preference or passion, it's a fact), and this one evening isn't likely to turn the tide. But rarely have I seen such broad participation from both men and women in a crowd, raising their voices for new and old(ish) material alike.

Nor was this exclusively preaching to the choir. One teenage girl in the third row had only discovered Alcest a few weeks ago and had "yeah, heard of Anathema, kind of." A nearby 20-something tagging along with his girlfriend was even less experienced, knowing nothing about metal or any band on the bill, but was unanimously impressed. Of Anathema he said, "You can tell they really feel it." And it's true. Anathema's lyrics are unabashedly sentimental and often delivered in the most intimate arrangement. Such naked emotion can be off-putting to those who find it tacky or too unabashedly personal. But Anathema have neither time nor the tolerance for this convention, and their level of professionalism and passion makes it easy for us to agree. In one such moment, after perfectly scaling down from the epic heights of 'Dreaming Light' into its delicate finale, Vincent turned away from the mic with his hand raised. Stirred up 'like the sunrise', he needed a moment to collect himself before coming back to face the cheering crowd. And they waited for him. What was one moment more after all these years?

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