Anathema / Alcest Opera House, Toronto ON, September 18

Anathema / Alcest Opera House, Toronto ON, September 18
Photo: Adam Wills
A tour featuring Anathema and Alcest as co-headliners would seem to be among the mellowest of (not entirely) metal tours. Openers Mammiffer tend to enhance rather than dispel this impression with their low-key duo-crafted soundscapes. The music of Alcest, despite some blackened vocals and associations, evokes more fairies than demons. And Anathema left their death-doom origins behind them many albums and even more years ago. None of these bands scream brutal aggression, but in live performance the sum effect is tremendously powerful; not "heavy metal," but definitely heavy.

Mammiffer performed early and kept their set unsurprisingly short, but both Alcest and Anathema held the stage for more than an hour. Each band had its own style of dramatic build-up: Alcest's dripped with ethereal atmospheres (especially on "Autre Temps"), while Anathema's drama lies more in the contrast of smooth textures and a driving rhythmic energy, as on opening track "Untouchable Part 1." And both bands knew how to end things on the ideal note, bringing the audience to a near climax and not quite resolving that emotional and visceral tension in a well-chosen denouement.

Alcest's set list drew mostly from last year's Les Voyages de l'Âme, filled out by a few other selections, including a taste of what's yet to come from the band. The new selections all featured soothing vocal melodies and softly strummed guitar chords. A spectral backing track provided additional textures (primarily keyboards and vocals), but the energy and emotion provided by the band on stage helped keep the audience focused squarely on them. Visually, Alcest are one of the most waifish of metal-esque bands, and their physical presence is suited well to their songs. They kept between-song dialogue to a polite and delicately smiling minimum, and focused on letting the music speak mostly for itself.

Anathema similarly leaned primarily on their most recent material, performing the first four songs from last year's Weather Systems before introducing anything older. The earliest track they mined was "Deep" from Judgement until closing with "Fragile Dreams" from 1998's Alternative 4. They seemed genuinely delighted to be playing Toronto (and touring North America) for the first time, and to receive such a warm and welcoming response.

Guitarist Danny Cavanagh often turned his mic around to pick up the responding voices of the fans, and both he and brother Vincent frequently urged the audience to clap or sing along. The loss of their normal rhythm section to immigration bureaucracy had no obviously detrimental effects, as the performances were impeccably tight all around and fill-in bassist and drummer played like they belonged.

Most striking about both headlining sets was the way a kind of heaviness and power seeped up to suffuse them, despite the relative lack of heaviness in each band's (recent) oeuvre. With Alcest, that power emerged from the spaces in between: the interstitial moments between two verses, the intros or outros, where bass and drums, especially, would drive an urgent and emphatic rhythm to the foreground. With Anathema, that power is less easy to pin down. There's something special resonating from pitch-perfect harmonies (especially when led by vocalist Lee Douglas), from front person Vincent Cavanagh's unrestrained expertise at sheer rocking out, from Danny's effortless command of his guitar (and piano as well). Whatever the component parts, the end result was a positive musical and emotional force, a collective performance of unusual and affirmative magnitude.