With apologies to the poet Wallace Stevens, one might think about Katatonia’s career as something like thirteen ways of looking at melancholy. Few bands have been more single-minded in their pursuit of gloom and creeping disillusionment, and yet an underappreciated part of the craft of these Swedes lies in how they have been able to make incredibly dynamic music within an intentionally restricted dynamic range.
Although Dance of December Souls remains a singular item in their discography, with its eerily funereal gothic doom at times sounding more Peaceville 3 than anything from the actual Peaceville 3, their signature style didn’t take long to get solidified, as from the very first moments of their second album Brave Murder Day the simple 4/4 of the drums and the driving yet weary eighth notes in the guitars announced Katatonia’s plan to cover the world in sorrow.
With the three-album run of Discouraged Ones, Tonight’s Decision, and Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Katatonia carved out a unique and immediately recognizable identity, even as each album presented slight modifications to what had come before. The fascinating thing about the band, however, is that those stylistic changes are so incremental and intuitive that by the time you get to the thoroughly modern crunch and Tool-like low-end polyrhythms of Viva Emptiness (and beyond), it seems both natural and almost unthinkable that this is the same band responsible for “Velvet Thorns (Of Drynwhyl)” and “Deadhouse.”
Although Katatonia gravitated towards more complex (and sometimes almost progressive) songwriting, the most notable element of their change is Jonas Renkse’s vocals. Renkse’s tone and phrasing have always worked keenly with whatever style the band was writing in at the time, but if you trace the band from inception to present, you can almost tell a story with his voice alone – youthful anger giving way to the onset of weariness and occasional protest upon entrance into adulthood; tentative steps made to assert and claim a new identity; quavering reports of failure and disappointment, but through it all, increasing confidence and assertiveness.
While The Great Cold Distance and Night is the New Day presented further refinements to the template, their primary move was to consciously make Katatonia heavier. That’s not to say that previous albums weren’t heavy, but if they were, it seemed almost a side effect of whatever other choices they had prioritized. With these two albums, the band seemed to craft the songs (and the albums’ production) to play up the contrast between sections of dark and light, gravity and air.
Dead End Kings, while far from abysmal, is easily the worst album in Katatonia’s career because it is static. The album is pure holding pattern, and has witheringly few standout songs or moments. Perhaps because of that low point, or perhaps because one rarely expects it out of a band at this stage in their career, the overwhelming brilliance of The Fall of Hearts was frankly shocking. It feels, in a way, like the culmination (and frequent surpassing) of all the disparate threads of Katatonia’s discography, and though it sprawls in a hundred different directions, it does so with a grace and focus that makes it utterly riveting.
You know that feeling in the air when it’s not entirely clear whether you’re walking through a thick fog or the slightest misting rain? That’s the music Katatonia makes. That’s where they want to take you. Let’s go there, together.
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FORSAKER[Night Is The New Day, 2009]
More often than not, fellow fans of Katatonia look at me like I have a kangaroo growing out of my head when I tell them Night is the New Day is my favorite record from the band. It took a while to get there, believe me. And even now, the race remains fairly close between this and Discouraged Ones when the mood strikes. But there’s just something about the entire presentation of NitND that just works like an awkward charm, and “Forsaker” is the (ostensibly uncomfortable) launching point.
The modernization is off-putting at first; jump-da-fuck-up riffing and gentle electro-rhythmic Matrix bee-booping might remind someone less familiar with the band of a goth boutique with flared PVC pants on a clearance rack. But nestled within all that state-of-the-artsy-fartsying is the single element that Night is the New Day does better than any other Katatonia record: smoothly banging the hell out of your ears with inescapably infectious vocal hooks. “Forsaker” is a little less overt with the vocal grab, but Jonas Renkse’s knockout voice still sounds like private eyes watching you from a purposefully tilted rear-view mirror. What the hell am I talking about? Who the hell knows. It all makes about as much sense as the lyrics. “Hand of a leader, bleached by snowfall.” Suuuure.
The song is also “tough” in a sort of “standing on the roof of a building at midnight and casually looking over your shoulder at your foe while your trench coat wags in the wind” kind of way, and it’s doubled-down by a completely scrumptious lead right around the two-minute mark. In essence, “Forsaker” is the perfect opener for a record that puts the Goth in Gotham, and it does so with a very distinct Katatonia panache.
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WITHOUT GOD[Dance of December Souls, 1993]
“Without God” is the kind of song that feels like a rite of passage for nearly all European metal bands of an even vaguely similar style that formed in the late 80s or early 90s: the early demo song polished up for the debut album. In that way, the song is something of a charming anachronism in this age of immediate access, constant streaming, sensory overload. Of course, that’s not to say that current bands aren’t always in the process of improving, rethinking, and revising, but they don’t do it like this: here’s an early thing we wrote because it was the best we could do at the time; we scrounged some money for studio time and salivated as we saw our very own names on that demo tape; and when we got a deal to make a full album, we looked around and said, ‘Hey, don’t you think we could do this better?’ Of course, the way in which “Without God” flashes youthful blasphemy from a band that would very quickly travel far past such topics makes it equally representative of those scrappy old days. But listen to it again – and to Dance of December Souls as a whole – if it’s been a while, and you might be surprised by the swiftness with which this supposedly miserable, doomed grandeur moves. In fact, give this a try: put it on, close your eyes, imagine it played two or three times faster, and what would you have? Friends, believe it or not, I think you’d have something not terribly far removed from early Iron Maiden or Satan. What could be better than finding a new way to listen to something old?
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TONIGHT’S MUSIC[Last Fair Deal Gone Down, 2001]
Ten years after Katatonia was formed, the Swedish giants released Last Fair Deal Gone Down, widely considered one of their musical highlights. “Tonight’s Music,” sitting at the center of the album, is marked with deep, intimate melancholy, and as such marks one of the sadder tunes on an album that in itself isn’t exactly the embodiment of joy. With a Cure-like intro, accompanied with Jonas Renkse’s soft, restrained singing, it slowly builds towards the faster-paced refrain, which then turns into another slow, atmospheric passage. The entire composition is meant to aim straight for the gut as Jonas sings of woeful questions such as the song’s leitmotif “What is wrong, not with the world, but me?” The production is sharp, and the guitars are keenly attuned to the lyrics, accompanying Jonas’ vocals, who on this album truly grew as a singer. “Tonight’s Music” provides the listener with the carefully crafted, beautiful and painful pleasure of hearing someone’s intimate, deep sense of hurt.
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EVIDENCE[Viva Emptiness, 2003]
Like much of Viva Emptiness, “Evidence” is basically a very catchy rock track. The verse is straightforward, carried by quiet instruments and Jonas Renkse’s phrasing talents; the chorus is heavy, driving, and catchy, centered around nu riffage and a radio-friendly vocal line; and the repeated coda is almost annoyingly infectious… …However, this is Katatonia, which means that in their hands, even these tools don’t result in some massive buzz hit, but a masterful bit of melancholy. Sure, that chorus is damn catchy, but the narrator is asking his loved one to be still, not to join in the energy presented by the music, while Renkse’s vocal line expresses both sorrow and struggle; Anders Nyström’s raw, heavy guitar tones similarly betray their accessible presentation; and that wondrous coda is catchy, sure, but its true, deeper quality is that it is a perfectly painful moment to which Katatonia absolutely refuses to let go. They are perhaps the only band with both the balls and the talents to attempt such dichotomy, and they do it constantly.
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JULY[The Great Cold Distance, 2006]
Despite maintaining much of the catchy riffage and construction of Viva Emptiness, follow-up The Great Cold Distance feels far bleaker and even menacing. As a whole, it is one of the darkest albums in Katatonia’s already quite dark catalog, which is how a song as lyrically disturbing as “July” can wind up feeling like an uplifting moment. The track begins with an ease, an almost relaxed feel, as Jonas Renkse’s verse harmonies aren’t just pretty, they’re downright comforting. A subsequent section adds in the creepiness, but then the massive wash of the chorus seems to erase any unsafe feelings… at least until one pays attention to the lyrics. Is Renkse’s narrator the victim? The perpetrator? Both? The truly unsettling nature of the track is its ambiguity, and yet, I still find it uplifting due to melodies. We often find ourselves singing unsettling words but not necessarily feeling their meaning. More often, we feel their meaning and sing them anyway.
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[The Fall Of Hearts, 2016]
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Fall of Hearts is the complex percussion that Katatonia chose to employ. The band maintained the general outline of Last Fair Deal Gone Down (the album that forever changed their careers) but the addition of Daniel Moilanen on drums along with JP Asplund on percussion created a polyrhythmic sensation that further deepened the caverns of emotion that Katatonia are wont to display. “Serac,” its intro and underlying percussion on the cleaner verses, are a terrific example of that depth. The track is emotional, serene and driving. Although, it’s not merely the percussion that makes “Serac,” and all of The Fall of Hearts, brilliant. It is also some of Katatonia’s best guitar work blending bluesy slides and jazzy runs in the mix alongside plenty of compositional twists, turns tags, false endings and codas across it’s nearly seven-and-a-half-minute run time. This song will drain you.
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CLEAN TODAY[Last Fair Deal Gone Down, 2001]
Taken literally, “Clean Today” is simply about the comfort found in self-medication, but the deeper metaphor reveals the song’s true worth. Beginning a bit dirty, the song builds brilliantly to the release of the chorus, in which Jonas Renkse asks the listener (the world, the heavens, the universe) if he is indeed transparent when he is clean. It speaks not only of palpable subjects such as drugs and alcohol, but of risk and loss and anger and fear and everything else that makes the human condition as exciting as it is terrifying. That Renkse’s vocals are reluctant to join the heightened intensity of the instruments during the chorus speaks to this complexity; he is singing his own fear, and his own trepidation towards such things. After all, he knows that truly presenting yourself to the world presents great risk. Each day, night, week, month, year has promise, and most promises fail. But hope prevails: “When I pause for one breath, I see millions like me.” We are all unclean together, and we are all clean together.
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IDLE BLOOD[Night Is The New Day, 2009]
You think some Sörskogen, Stockholm progressive death metal/progressive rock band whose lyrical themes include nature, death, heartbreak, sorrow, seasons and occultism has a monopoly on the proggy, maudlin folk game? Opeth, please. ‘Twould be Katatonia’s distinct pleasure to drape the court in acres (Åkers) of soft, velvety felt (Feldt) so that we may properly mope (mopeth) in ultimate comfort ‘neath a mewling willow tree and enjoy the Still Life (CAN’T STOP). “Idle Blood” is total lightness and gently plucked ’n’ strummed acoustics and weepy keyboard strings and tea breaks where the saucer never travels far from the cup and every angle of general sentimentality that a person would ever require of Katatonia, and it’s all wrapped in the warm and ludicrously inviting vocal hook that is Renkse’s mossy lilt. Basically, “Idle Blood” is Night is the New Day’s Snuggie. The Snuggie to Opeth’s Slanket. Room enough for both in this teary-eyed expanse I like to call…Katatopethia.
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OLD HEART FALLS[The Fall Of Hearts, 2016]
Katatonia are probably best known for making sappy, drawn-out music that tears the listener’s emotional heart out, yet plenty of tough guys are fine blasting Katatonia and singing along. Their most recent effort is no different and, if you’re in need of an emotional punch in the face, “Old Heart Falls” will certainly provide that. The track begins ominously with a beautiful, reverb-laden riff, after which Renkse’s soft, frankly beautiful voice soars over the top. The percussion drives the point home as the band picks it up before the song takes off. It’s a brilliant, near constant, crescendo that truly reveals the essence of what Katatonia is about: the unabashed release of emotions by men who look as if they have never cried.
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BLACK SESSION[Tonight’s Decision, 1999]
When Katatonia shifted from their early doom/death to the depressive goth of Discouraged Ones, they largely abandoned their more proggy traits. “Black Session,” from the ensuing Tonight’s Decision, revealed that this side of the band was always just beneath the surface. Beginning nakedly with an eerie, dissonant, tick-tocking guitar line, the track is an exercise in layering: First that motif, then the heavy pulse of the rhythm guitars, then a lead, then the vocals. The lead returns before the (brilliant, perfect, unforgettable) chorus, during which it descends under a particularly delicate Renkse vocal. The song employs a deliberate pace mostly abandoned during this era, using seven minutes for a fairly standard verse-chorus-verse structure. This “exhausted prog” mentality would show its face from time to time over the years, most notably (and more instrumentally actively) on this year’s The Fall of Hearts. But it was “Black Session” that showed how magical the fusion of prog and downtrodden rock could be for the band.
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DEADHOUSE[Discouraged Ones, 1998]
While “Deadhouse” might sound more like a Catherine Wheel B-Side than the sound for which Katatonia would eventually come to be known, make no mistake, they were laying their foundation in this unique track. Flat and more monotonous, tonally, “Deadhouse” provides a very 90s take on the Katatonia sound drawing influence from more Seattle grunge than metal. The clean, popping bass paired with the mellow guitar sound provide a blank canvas for Renkse to ply his effortless vocals (and eventually some sounds and songs of the humpback whale). But the rhythms, particularly the contrast between verse and chorus are all there in classic Katatonia fashion. “Deadhouse” is therefore a look at another path that could have been in the Katatonia tree of life. It may not exactly represent the sound that the band chose to follow in their ongoing years, but it is certainly a work worth delving back into as it weathered the passage of time incredibly well.
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RAINROOM[Brave Murder Day, 1996]
The masterpiece that is Brave Murder Day is meant to be listened to and experienced as a whole, with a flow that is so liquid that quantum chemists want to put it in a lab. So, it’s a challenge to present just one song out of this unity, but if you cut out “Rainroom,” you’ll find that it can function both as a stand-alone composition and as a representation of the full album. Slower passages work as introductions to a guitar/drums crescendo that then rhythmically repeats, surrounding the reverbed vocals and, basically, making you want to hug your stereo. With gorgeous flowing guitar melodies and harmonized hooks, ambient slow parts and faster death/doom sections, Akerfeldt growling and Ulver-like singing, “Rainroom” is complex, but also just simply beautiful. There is no one song that is better than the others on Brave Murder Day, but “Rainroom” serves as the bridge between the opening trilogy and the end of this epic, gloomy journey, after which you naturally hit play again.
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SAW YOU DROWN[Discouraged Ones, 1998]
Of course the easiest thing to latch onto with “Saw You Drown” is its indelible chorus. But the thing that always gets me – and this is not unique to this particular Katatonia song – is just how exhausted it sounds. Not that the band was uninspired or failed to do what they set out to for lack of energy, but that everyone involved summoned up their deepest feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and exhaustion, and then channeled it into emotionally pitch-perfect performances. Stick a metronome to the song and I’m sure you’ll find a uniform tempo, but doesn’t it just FEEL like the drum downbeats are struggling through quicksand to hit on time? Doesn’t it just FEEL like Renkse remembers the words, but then a half-second before he’s supposed to come in, he starts questioning whether any of this even matters at all? That delicious, relatable, depressed exhaustion is why Discouraged Ones is probably the purest Katatonia album.
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