Even though this may be a controversial statement, Alternative 4 is in many ways still the best Anathema album. It might be controversial because the album was mostly written by former member Duncan Patterson, who also picked the album title, found the cover concept for the artwork, and wrote all the music and lyrics for seven of the 10 songs. Actually, the first track, at only a minute and a half, "Shroud of False," is arguably the greatest intro written on a 90s album (perhaps only rivalled by the opening track on Freak of Nature's Gathering of Freaks). Comprised of a simple piano theme, where Patterson's sense of space and time between the notes triumphs, it sets the tone of the album, and you feel like the end of the world has arrived when Cavanagh sings "We're just a moment in time..." and concludes the verse with "I hope you don't understand..." By now, the mood is established by the band and it tethers on the brink of despair.
From here, the classic "Fragile Dreams" kicks in, complemented by the most poignant cello motif ever, and a powerful, intensely gripping guitar theme soars above the arrangement, ensuring the listener is fully hypnotized. Vincent Cavanaugh's delivery and expression has improved tenfold since their breakthrough album, Eternity, where they dropped all of their doom-death influences and adopted a more atmospheric sound, embracing keyboards, pianos, and exploring the depths of their compositional core. Whatever, they initiated on the previous disc is perfected here. Songs are stripped to their very core; vocals are delivered with little studio trickery, Vincent Cavanagh's voice has probably never again sounded so profound and haunting, with the exception of their semi-acoustic release Hindsight, where they reinterpreted their classic songs a decade later. "Lost Control" is not only the centrepiece of Alternative 4; it is possibly the greatest Anathema song ever written. Extremely depressing, it mirrors what state of mind Duncan Patterson was in at the time: built around minimal piano chords, each note unfolds slowly, bringing the focus to the lyrics. This is a song that juxtaposes glacially paced acoustic guitars, burning layers of melody, dynamic shifts of mood and tempo, and emotionally charged vocals. As the listener may feel the ending of the song may not receive the climax it deserves, the piece is once again picked up and carefully developed, adding a forlorn, heart-breaking violin accompaniment, which drives it to a powerful finale. It embodies the sounds burned into the members' collective psyche and has sadly never been recaptured, largely due to the band's shift in direction and, of course, the departure of Patterson.
The title track features some of the band's darkest lyrics intentionally delivered with a heavy accent as reams of acoustic guitars and echoic keyboard swells are brought into the mix, much like the next song "Regret." This may sound strange, but Patterson's grasp of melody is a bit like Kevin Moore's. Moore, too, brought a unique darkness to Dream Theater, be it with his amazing lyrics, depth of melodies, or ear for song arrangement. When he left the band, Dream Theater's sound changed drastically, and while they, just like Anathema, went on to become a much greater band achieving both commercial and artistic success, they never quite wrote songs on par with Awake or Images & Words. Duncan Patterson also approaches the songs and melodies very differently: to him simplicity prevails over complexity. That's not to say he wanted to strip the band from their psychedelic roots, which they went on to thoroughly explore on albums like A Fine Day to Exit and A Natural Disaster. Actually, even Danny Cavanagh has admitted that it was Patterson who encouraged them to explore Pink Floyd and other psychedelic bands when the rest of the band was heavily into writing and playing songs of single-minded aggresion and fury.
Alternative 4 presents a perfect balance between their heavier past and more experimental future. The guitar work on "Feel" is heavier than just about anything else they've composed before or after, while the band's awareness in rhythmic complexity is abundant in songs like "Re-Connect." They've never utilized the bass in this manner again, and the drums have always been the backbone around which they built their guitar and piano parts rather than allowing them to truly shine and *define* the songs. What really makes this album such an accomplishment, however, is not the instrumentation or vocal performance alone. It is the album's evocative flow, which has been echoed and imitated across the metal genre many times, but never as impressively or compulsively. Rather than technical ability, the songs' power lies in the way the melodies are crafted and interwoven into the arrangement. Every member contributes minimal but integral elements to lend the compositions more depth and enable the movements to flow more organically. Also, whenever a theme or musical idea is introduced, no matter how powerful, it is never exploited. Rather, the theme is slowly developed over the course of the entire piece giving it a sense of completeness and emotional clarity.
It is difficult to review this album with any degree of objectivity, as I've had the chance to follow the growth and change of Anathema starting from their doom-death metal days. While a great majority of their fan base approached Alternative 4 with caution, the album impacted me instantly and only got better over the years. I've continued to listen to the band and have enjoyed each and every release they put out but never to this extent. I personally attribute this to the departure of Duncan Patterson, who is responsible for writing and arranging most of the album, but I also give credit to the other members, as I feel Patterson's solo projects have never quite matched the emotional charge and intensity of this disc either.
Alternative 4 is a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. It remains as unique as it was when it came out because the tension, beauty, chaos, and melodic sensibility it encapsulates sets it apart from any other album in the Anathema catalog, if not the entire metal genre.