Artist: The Anchoret
Album Title: It All Began With Loneliness
Label: Willowtip Records
Date of Release: 23 June 2023
We all like different things, it’s part of being human. There are some people that enjoy eating mushrooms or lamb, others that like football but don’t support Tottenham, and even some that think that crocs are the height of fashion. What’s all that about?! Me, I simply don’t enjoy the saxophone. At first, I thought it was because I didn’t like the fact that it got in the way of the guitars, depriving the world of a perfectly good opportunity for a face-melting six-string solo. But, as it turns out, my dislike is less superficial than that. I have realised that it’s just the sound of a saxophone that I don’t like. For me, it’s akin to the sound of nails down a blackboard, or a knife scraping across a dinner plate, or my kids saying ‘Daddy?’ for the hundredth time that day. I can’t help it; I wish I could. But I am trying hard to overcome this issue. And that’s where this album comes in.
‘It All Began With Loneliness’ is the debut album from a band called The Anchoret, although some of the protagonists will not be unknown to many of you. The keyboards and synths are handled by Andy Tillison of The Tangent fame, the vocals are the work of Heaven’s Cry’s Sylvain Auclair, and the drums are played by James Christopher Knoerl (Aviations, Gargoyl). Alongside this trio are guitarist Leo Estalles and bassist Eduard Levitsky. However, the quintet is then assisted on this debut studio release by a plethora of other guest musicians, namely flautists Carina Bruwer and Paulo Oliveira, Artem Koryapin (clarinet), percussionist Reinaldo Ocando, gospel vocals courtesy of Nimiwari, and finally, Juan Ignacio Varela Espinoza. Sorry, Juan, but unless I can overcome my personal issues, your alto saxophone playing is the central cause of my discomfort.
The thing is, this album is really rather good. It has received critical acclaim from various sources, with some calling it one of the best progressive albums of the year. And it is difficult for me not to understand this sentiment and agree with it to a certain extent. There is plenty of absolutely top-drawer music to be heard throughout ‘It All Began With Loneliness’, and it is this that I want to focus on, because to dismiss it simply because of the saxophone would, frankly, be a travesty of epic proportions.
The opening track, ‘An Office For…’ is something of a mood setter for the rest of the album that follows. The opening ten seconds are surprisingly heavy, much heavier than I expected. But after that, we have a soulful, bluesy lead guitar solo that sings mournfully alongside gentle synth tones, and I’m immediately very interested. It’s a sedate beginning, but it makes all the right moves, including an introduction to Auclair’s voice for those unfamiliar. And then, in comes the sax, and it’s a challenge for me to initially stick with it.
I’m glad I do, though, because the following one-two of ‘A Dead Man’ and ‘Until The Sun Illuminates’ are insanely good compositions. ‘A Dead Man’ starts off heavy and within the first thirty seconds, we’re treated to a double-pedal blast on the drums, accompanied by black metal-like fast riffs. Oh the joy, this is nectar. Naturally, the song quietens to reveal much more subtle sounds, the bass, synths, and clean guitars sounding effortlessly in synch. The melodic intent within the chorus is a bit of a slow-burn gem, whilst the flute section is pure jazz/prog brilliance, giving way to some properly heavy instrumentalism and bold synth work. A full-on guitar solo puts paid to my fear that the sax might rob us of such things, and then we get the female, soulful vocals to complete a high energy, dramatic, and thoroughly engaging song.
For my personal tastes, however, ‘Until The Sun Illuminates’ is even better, thanks mainly to the immediacy and catchiness of the melodies that feature within it, especially the glorious chorus. Mind you, the thunderous intro to the composition, complete with slightly more ominous, gritty vocals helps. Occasionally veering towards the softer end of gruff, Auclair adds further gravitas to what can only be described as an extreme prog metal song, not dissimilar to early Opeth in terms of musical intensity. Less familiar than I should be with James Christopher Knoerl’s drumming abilities, the guy is a beast, aided by a really great production that packs a punch when turned up on my speakers. I’m less keen on the song’s outro that descends into deliberately semi-cacophonous territory, with the sax at the heart of the unravelling discord. But I don’t hate it. Growth?!
What I find myself gravitating towards is the darkness and sense of melancholy that flows out of the music. It’s not a sob-fest, but there is certainly a genuine undertone of sadness throughout, with much musical and lyrical lamentation. It continues within other stand-out tracks like ‘Someone Listening?’, which carries with it a sombre feel across its eight-minute length that includes an extended sax solo, but also some really nice lead guitar playing, as well as fantastic dynamics that shift effortlessly, from quiet and minimalist, to all-out blood and thunder, the drums again thumping into my chest with real power.
As the album continues, so does the quality, meaning that I’m hard-pressed to pick out any of the nine songs for sustained criticism. I may not like the odd tangent, or avenue down which the band travel, but these misgivings in the grand scheme of things, are extremely minor in comparison to my enjoyment. And what’s more amazing, is the fact that a song like ‘Forsaken’, after several spins, actually starts to catch my ear in a very positive way when the sax plays an integral, leading role in some of the most pivotal melodies within the song. Major growth?!
Actually, no, it isn’t. I’m not giving myself any kind of credit here, because the credit all belongs to The Anchoret. They are the musicians that have come together to create some hugely impressive progressive heavy metal, and they have managed to win me over genuinely. I’m unsure if there will ever be a day when I declare ‘hurrah, it’s a saxophone’, because I still have a hard time enjoying the sounds that this instrument makes. However, when a band creates music of this quality, the personal misgivings recede to the point that they become less and less important, bordering on the irrelevant. Simply put, ‘It All Began With Loneliness’ is an hour-long ride into the realms of high quality, hugely enjoyable, and deeply satisfying progressive metal, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s prepared to listen.
The Score of Much Metal: 90%