By Jonathan Smith
I cannot speak for the whole audience attending Wednesday’s show, but from where I was standing that night there was a palpable sense of excitement in the minutes leading up to Anathema‘s arrival on stage. For many, it was finally the long-awaited opportunity to see them deliver a full-band performance in Toronto. They did not disappoint.
Before the main event, however, there was Mamiffer‘s performance. Mamiffer is a project featuring Aaron Turner (ex-Isis) and Faith Coloccia. My pre-show research (i.e. checking out samples on Bandcamp) had me excited for the band. Their minimalist lighting, which bathed the stage and everyone on it in a ghostly red glow, was paired with loud, droning organ chords which reverberated through the Opera House. However, it quickly became clear that the context in which they were performing was working against them. Though there was a small, dedicated group of concert-goers settled in by the stage, the venue was by that point mostly full of people still coming in, getting beers, buying merchandise, and greeting friends. Thus, standing anywhere in the Opera House with the exception of right down in the front, the band’s ambient music was undermined by the white noise operations of a concert venue. Coloccia’s ethereal vocals, amplified as they were, were barely able to compete with the chatty crowd who were clearly not there to indulge the opening act.
Wandering from one section of the crowd to the next, there were clearly some for whom Mamifer’s performance was a captivating experience. Those who have seen drone/ambient music in a live setting know that, when the crowd and the space is in sync, it can be a profoundly atmospheric experience. Given only about half an hour in which to play meant that I was only able to get the most basic sense of Mamifer’s music. Inevitable as it was given their place on the bill, I could not help but feel that the band wasn’t able to express themselves in a manner that fit their music. What I did hear was enough to make me interested in checking them out in more detail, however, and I noticed that both Turner and Coloccia made themselves available to chat about their music and merch well into the evening.
After Mamiffer were finished, however, there was a notable buzz in the air as people prepared for the first of the two headliners, France’s Alcest. It was my second time seeing the band, the first time being back in the fall of 2011 when they opened for Enslaved. The crowd response was immediately kicked up a notch when Neige and his bandmates took to the stage and opened their set with the first two songs from 2012’s Les voyages de l’âme: “Autre temps” and “Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles.” They then treated the audience to a new song (“Opale”?) before playing a cut (“Souvenirs d’un autre monde”) from their first full-length. By this point a sizeable crowd had formed at the front of the stage, their cheers drowning out Neige’s quiet voice the few times he spoke between songs. The latter half of the set saw the band playing “Percées de lumière,” (dedicated to Mamifer), “Beings of Light,” “Summer’s Glory,” and, finally, another new song (currently known online as “Deliverance”).
Personally, seeing Alcest live is both a wonderful but also somewhat frustrating experience. The structural and logistical realities of most concert venues and their sound systems means that the band’s music always feels slightly hampered, unable to completely revel in the ambient soundscapes that characterize Alcest’s music. Given that, it is impressive that Alcest sound as good live as they do in venues as large as the Opera House. The rising intro of “Beings of Light” and the rousing second half of “Summer’s Glory” were made even more forceful by the band members’ letting their distorted power chords hang in the air longer than they do on the studio recordings. The most impressive live moment in Alcest’s set was the final (and new) song, purported to be on Alcest’s upcoming LP Shelter. As the song itself ended, and the band departed the stage, the song’s synth-soaked outro was left to reverberate throughout the Opera House. It was an excellent, if not bittersweet, closure, a preview of what is to come from the band in the near future.
Then it was time to settle in for Anathema. Even though due to visa issues, only the two Cavanagh brothers and vocalist Lee Douglas were on hand as long-time members of the band, it was still thrilling to see them come out onto the stage. Despite the somewhat predictable nature of their setlist, their performance was a blast. They opened the set with the first four tracks from their most recent album, Weather Systems. The band seemed to be in good spirits, with lead guitarist Danny Cavanagh doing much of the talking (offering a heartfelt “We can’t thank you enough for coming!”). The band also offered a shout-out to all the Iranian fans who had made the long journey to the show. After playing through a sizeable chunk of Weather Systems, the band moved on to “Thin Air” and “Dreaming Light” from We’re Here Because We’re Here (the former being a song that is made even better by the crunch of amplified live guitars). Though the Cavanagh brothers and Douglas were literally the band’s front line, the rhythm section did their part from further back on the stage to keep the band moving.
Anathema did dig deeper into the back catalogue with “Deep” (from 1999’s Judgement) before talking a softer (and more haunting turn) with “A Natural Disaster.” Here was the chance for Douglas to reveal the full-extent of her vocal range, their sincerity all the more impressive after she performed something akin to a chicken dance for the enthusiastic crowd. After completing their main set and thanking the crowd once again for their enthusiastic welcome, Anathema closed their set with the one-two punch of live staples “Closer” and “Fragile Dreams.” If the show felt too short, it was only because it could not help but feel like a tantalizing preview of the band’s future visits to North America. While obviously unwilling to promise anything, Danny Cavanagh did leave the crowd with a request: “Go home and tell your friends what it was like here tonight!”. A self-serving request perhaps, but given the enthusiastic and warm vibes of their show, not an unreasonable one.