Written by: Loveloth
How does a band evoke the feelings of melancholy? The approach varies from genre to genre, but using the minor scale is a definite foundation. After that anything is game, and as a result, any sadboi--like yours truly--has a plethora of options to choose from. The most extreme examples are the DSBM and adjacent black metal genres. There, melancholy manifests through anguish and despair. Tremolo picking, shrieks and blast beats reign as lords, whereas on the opposite side of the spectrum, such as on the notorious pop ballads, we've got clean vocals covered by electronic-based instrumentation with slower paced beats.
I personally don't have any emotional responses when I hear most of that type of stuff due to how they're manufactured and how much they rely on cheap motifs. I realized this when I was a wee lad and as time went on, I searched far and wide for music to comfort, help me contemplate, and of course cope with any hardships I came across. At one point in time, I found myself listening to “Lethean” by Katatonia via a great YouTube recommendation, remember those? I was stunned with its energy and heaviness, and by the time Jonas Renkse's vocals kicked in, I was hooked. To this very day, Dead End Kings remains my favorite album by them and I would honestly put Katatonia right next to Opeth and that dude Devon Townsent as my go-to sadboi band.
In 2016 Katatonia released the superb The Fall Of Hearts, which marked yet another stylistic shift, the second biggest after ditching their death-doom sound of olde. Here, they explored more folky territories and with the metal elements taking a step back in place of lengthier compositions, The Fall Of Hearts ended up being their most experimental record yet. I loved it. The following year, out of nowhere, the band announced they would be taking a short-term hiatus in order to recuperate. The wait was over this January when they released “Lacquer” and announced City Burials, their eleventh record and the one I shall be taking a look at today.
It's important to note the band went through another line-up change. This time, it was the inclusion of Roger Öjersson, who contributed with a few guitar solos in their previous release. More importantly, every song here was written by Renkse and because of this, he focused on his vocals like never before and the results are wonderful. I never minded him inhabiting his usual range, due to unique and amazing tone and how he is able to convey the darkness Katatonia are renowned for. So: imagine my surprise to see him exit his comfort zone and play with layering as well as going for those highs.
First single “Lacquer” is a superb example of this. Here we see the band exploring electronic and minimalistic elements like never before. Honestly, this song has more in common with Ólafur Arnalds than anything, and I am all over that. Wouldn't mind a full record in that style. The opener “Hearts Set To Divide” is a whole 'nother story. While initially calm, Katatonia do the classic Katatonia thing and lull us in a false sense of security with a long build up, but before you know it we're met with a metallic attack akin to Night Is The New Day or even Dead End Kings. Yet here the guitars flow more freely and play off one another in such an engaging way. The guitar work by Nyström and Öjersson in general is definitely worthy of praise, and with tracks like the ominous “Rein,” unpredictable and proggy “City Glaciers,” or blunt and “Behind The Blood,” this duo are a big reason why the band sounds so reinvigorated. Of course, the other members are far from slackers--quite the opposite, as both bassist Sandin and drummer Moilanen add their flair and are generally a really good rhythm section. They show restraint and force when needed and I was especially fond of the more proggier moments like that mid section in “Flicker.”
With all this said, I do have a few issues with the record. It mostly comes down to its uneven nature and how certain tracks flow into one another and end up being forgettable, and you inevitably notice this upon revisits. Both the aforementioned “City Glaciers” and “Neon Epitaph” start the same way with highly-percussive intros and similar vocal lines. The former is much more adventurous yet I still can't shake the Tool-like feeling both so clearly share. “Winter Of Our Passing” is simply not as memorable and I didn't find “Vanishers” that impressive despite leaning into the more minimalist territory I praised “Lacquer” for. Plus, the clumsy flow of the track list evoked a feeling the record was longer than it actually was and it's a shame considering how strongly the album starts and ends.
Still, City Burials has, in the words of the shill-institution known as IGN, a little something for everyone. While it doesn't top Fall Of Hearts, I am still more than happy to have my sadboi legends back and continuing to try new things out. I can only speculate how their next record will sound but this is a pretty good indicator of times to come. Katatonia are back baby!
Katatonia - City Burials was released April 24th, 2020 from Peaceville Records
We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!