Yorkshire doom and Mersey gloom: Anathema and Solstice

Yorkshire – and the North of England in general – is a fitting setting for melodic and gothic doom metal to have gained a foothold. Land of the perpetually downtrodden, self-assured yet hard done by. Boasting many proud cities that still embody the drab spectre of England’s industrial past. But also the gateway to the country’s finest natural landscapes, both charming and pastoral whilst hinting at the closest thing England has to wilderness. This tension between crushing and grey mundanity found in the urban heartlands of Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, and Liverpool on the one hand, and the spiritually enriching landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales, the Moors, the Lake District and the Pennines is folded neatly into many of the metal bands that arose out of this corner of the globe. Although stylistically it grew out of death doom, it quicky developed an affinity with goth, thanks in no small part to the North’s strong claim as the home of UK goth. Whitby, Bram Stoker, The Sisters of Mercy; the exact narrative linking the contemporary goth movement with deeper history currents may be contested, but the agreed facts form a pattern too striking to ignore.

Next to My Dying Bride and Paradise Lost, Liverpool’s Anathema are somewhat the runt of the Peaceville three litter. Their debut ‘Serenades’ (1993) is one of those glorious meetings of creativity and lack of experience, something that usually invites adjectives like “charming”. ‘The Silent Enigma’ which followed in 1995 was certainly a more self-assured affair, but lacked the bold swagger of ‘Draconian Times’ or ‘The Angel and the Dark River’ that their label mates were throwing out at the time. But then there’s the ‘Pentecost III’ EP released that same year (although recorded in 1994), that arguably outdoes all the preceding works for a purer statement of gothic infused death doom. It may be an EP, but at over forty minutes in length it’s a significant work in its own right, one that takes the time to develop ideas over the course of its lengthy five tracks, emphasising the powerful manipulation of traditional melodic structures – a key strength of the genre – whilst still leaving plenty of room for blunt heaviness to take over at key junctures (see the ‘We, The Gods’ for example).

And the key to this EP’s success is just that, the harnessing of epic doom metal, touches of Fields of the Nephilim style goth, to straight up death/doom riffs; all are carefully brewed together into longform compositions, making use of these diverse antecedents to re-iterate the same refrains and passages from differing perspectives. There is a vulnerability to this music that feels entirely authentic, resulting in a mood that the listener can become totally immersed in without self-indulgence or tacky sentimentality. The guitars veer from a throbbing, bass-heavy distorted tone to clean and delicate arpeggios which are given almost as much airtime as the full-blooded metal riffs. Drums offer a loose, swinging rhythmic foundation, accenting the droning chords with plenty of clattering cymbals and protracted fills. Darren White’s vocals tentatively meander between low-end Carl McCoy style histrionics and aggressively guttural death metal barks. In this setting, where all is melodrama and emotional range over showy technical ability, this vocal approach is entirely fitting.

The reason the fine balance of influences works so well on ‘Pentecost III’ is the way that Anathema have pieced together the flow of one track into the next. The first half is defined by passages of mournful melodic threads picked out on clean guitars, which are extended out to a duration well beyond normality for death doom. The metallic elements are visible on the first two tracks for sure, but they are presented as antagonists to the fragility of the central themes and momentum of the music. The Candlemassesque riffs that do jump out follow in the same melodic framework as the sombre clean guitars, picking up the narrative with the help of greater rhythmic urgency.

But then things reach a turning point with ‘We, the Gods’, which structurally is an overture, but in its context at the heart of this EP acts as a transitional piece, followed as it is by the instrumental title track which functions as an interlude and preamble to the most “metal” track on this release, the closing number ‘Memento Mori’. By this point the fragile melodicism and pained rumination to the vocal delivery have given way to the percussive and physical aggression of death doom that wraps up this EP.

Speed up the graceful melodies that litter gothic doom metal, work in some bouncy folk flourishes to the lead guitar melodies, and you essentially arrive at epic/melodic doom metal, or “slow heavy metal” to the laymen (I mean, how many ways do you really wanna cut the same cake?). For that reason, Bradford’s Solstice should be mentioned in the same breath as the Peaceville three for offering a kindred brand of Northern melodic metal with a more upbeat outlook. For the sake of symmetry with Anathema’s ‘Pentecost III’ we’ve opted to sidestep Solstice’s powerful debut ‘Lamentations’ released in 1994, and the epic follow up that came in 1998 in the form of ‘A New Dark Age’ (contender for most underrated album in metal), and instead shine a light on the overlooked transitional release, 1996’s ‘Halcyon’. At half an hour in length this is still a chunky EP. Although it should be noted that it’s transitional in terms of the band’s clientele rather than any stylistic growing pains. It sees Solstice opt for straightforward heavy metal, with only a tangential connection to doom, but the common thread between these approaches is easy to tease out.

Solstice often get compared to Candlemass. And whilst that’s literally true and will provide you with a good idea of the territory they are ranging here, there are notable differences. The first is how they have inverted the Candlemass approach in order to create a glum Yorkshire equivalent. The riffs themselves are more brimming with energy, layered and complex, with familiar melodic flourishes and licks supplemented with bouncy folk refrains and percussive diversity (the joy of the Yorkshire countryside?). The vocals by contrast completely sidestep the self-assured, operatic style of their Scandinavian cousins for a more grounded, measured approach that many may find more authentic (the grit of urban West Yorkshire?) .

This was to be Matravers’ last outing with Solstice, and whether you prefer his style or the more measured approach taken by Morris Ingram on ‘A New Dark Age’ is really by the by. What’s more notable is how clean vocals tend to divide opinions and make or break a piece of music far more than the plethora of distorted variants we are used to discussing here. That being said, Matravers voice is not the most powerful. He can carry the melodies with enough character to bring these pieces to fruition, but there are scattered moments where a note is sustained beyond his ability to carry it. But I’m of the opinion – in this setting of overtly DIY ethics – that such displays of human limitation are all part of the charm.

Even a Manowar cover (a band and shorthand for all that is ridiculous in metal) feels smuggled in under the veneer of deadpan English delivery. If one tunes out the lyrics to ‘Gloves of Metal’ which were written by Manowar’s random-metal-cliché-generator, it fits perfectly with the preceding tracks on ‘Halcyon’. The only thing to note which is to the detriment of this EP is the absence of the self-assured character that can be found on the album’s that sandwich it. The riffs are perfectly formed from traditional melodic flourishes that amalgamate over the course of each track into satisfying chunks of epic heavy metal. But the unique identity and immersive story telling that defines the LPs of Solstice from this is era is lacking, leaving ‘Halycon’ to offer nothing new or novel to a format that was already well passed its shelf-life by 1996. That being said, it still amounts to a neat little intermission between two intimidatingly good albums, one that is well worth looking into.

So admittedly we levelled the playing field in Anathema’s favour this week by selecting a Solstice EP from the same era, but we are definitely siding with ‘Pentecost III’ this week. Taking the virtues of the sombre, gothic drenched doom metal that Anathema were churning out at the time, and the virtues of the bracingly epic style of Solstice, Anathema are simply in a different class. It is at once more immersive, more diverse, more experimental yet still a fully realised, unified vision, and arguably offers some of the best moments of the genre full stop. And that, dear reader, is all that is left to say on the matter.  

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