Written by: Lord Hsrah
Swedish metal outfit Katatonia's first full-length release, Dance of December Souls, is a monumental record that helped shape the then-evolving doom metal scene, particularly as the influence of death metal started creeping into Europe and consequently into their music as well. Dance of December Souls is a wild ride of sorts through various emotions, all on the negative side of the human nature. And though this monolith of an album provided the blueprint of music for a myriad of other such doom and death fusing bands, this craft was still left wanting on certain fronts. In contrast though, on a few other fronts, it explored domains that would go on to become the band's path to further evolution down the long road of their career.
As a proof of their workmanship, Katatonia's fusion of the increasingly popular death metal with doom metal that culminated in their own brand of death/black/doom metal, the result of which was this album. Blending some aspects of black metal music, Dance of December Souls is an extravagant record that's grief stricken, rife of misery and of bleak atmospheres. The production is crude, the guitars even more raw, and, quite frankly, it still feels like a prototype or a demo.
Vocalist and then drummer Jonas Renkse's gnarly screeches and screamed vocals that most certainly draw on black metal styled vocals suit the misery that this album carries. Sounding in pain and in heart-wrenching agony, Renkse did well on the vocal front (but sadly ended up ruining his voice in the process). Guitarist and composer Anders Nystrom lets the axe speak for itself as raw guitar work outlines, defines, and amplifies the lo-fi production of the album. Guillaume Le Huche takes on bass duties as he features for the first and the last time on a Katatonia full-length album.
While the rawness can be praised, at times it tends to just suffocate the music and instead draws the spotlight on Renkse's harsh vocals, even at the expense of Nystrom's guitar work that unwantingly gets pushed to the background. Engineer Dan Swano's hauntingly beautiful keyboard compositions handsomely contribute to the grim atmosphere of the album, but sadly, like the guitars, this too gets pushed further out back in areas where an emphasis on them would've highlighted the song. Instead, the keys basically just come and go out of nowhere, often unnoticed at the time when present. Often you're left wanting for more, and in the silent parts they're pretty good and loud, but the rawness and the edge kills quite a bit of it.
Nystrom's layered and well harmonized guitar parts are well structured, drawing on black metal but essentially laying down the guidelines for writing this kind of music. The guitar work is exquisite - full of tasty riffs, multiple passages and changes structures several times throughout every track. However, as haunting and bleak as they might be, they are neither gritty for death metal nor heavy for doom metal - as a matter of fact, neither is the album any of those things. It's more like a stew where every individual element comes together, is amalgamated into creating something of much higher value than the composite ingredients individually possess.
The album as a whole, for a fan of death/doom metal music, picks up quite slow as well. Tracks from "Elohim Meth" onward is where the real gold is at. However, that is not to say that there's no quality prior to that. "In Silence Enshrined" is a great example of a sick doom riff driven song that just builds on every passage and section of the song. But as mentioned earlier, the second half of the album is where the true sadness resides. "Velvet Thorns" and "Tomb of Insania" are most certainly the white flowers on this moss leaden, dark black grave like album where the lyrics on the songs are basically one big eulogy engraved on the tombstone. The album unmistakably captures the grief, the misery, and the pain felt through various times, a subject for lyrics primary lyricist Renkse would continue for the band's subsequent releases.
It is safe to say that Dance of December Souls is an influential and a monolithic masterpiece of the finest, most bleak grandeur. Though it has some shortcomings, its influence is undoubtedly massive.
Katatonia - Dance of December Souls was released in 1993
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We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!