Originally written by Jordan Campbell
Katatonia has made a career out of defying the odds. They are one of the only bands in metal history that stripped most of the metallic elements from their sound without facing a legitimate backlash. In fact, they excelled in their new direction, creatively as well as commercially. As accessible as their late-nineties turn may have been, they narrowly (and deftly) avoided cliché by tossing subtle wrenches into conventional songwriting formulas. As a result, Katatonia was never reviled as traitorous, but instead became the ear-cleansing chill band for discerning metalheads.
While their earliest, doomiest work is regarded as both challenging and influential, the mid-period triptych of Tonight’s Decision, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and Viva Emptiness set a brilliant standard to which this band will forever be held. These albums, despite their lack of conventional “heaviness,” transcended categorization, mainly due to frontman Jonas Renkse’s daring vulnerability. While their post-Emptiness records — The Great Cold Distance and Night is the New Day — weren’t nearly as revolutionary, they left fans satiated.
But just barely. Recently, Katatonia has fallen into a nasty habit of bookending their albums with crucial cuts, but jamming the gelatinous midsections with black velvet filling. This kind of thing is be expected, though; Katatonia’s been chugging along for ages, and during that time, they’ve penned more should-be hits than any metal-related band on the planet. The well was bound to run dry eventually. Filler from a band at this stage of their career is not only inevitable, it’s borderline acceptable. (When the highlights include stuff like “My Twin,” “In The White,” and “Departer,” complaining about the periphery is a bit dickish.)
The band’s ninth album, Dead End Kings, is where those complaints become legitimate. The peripheral muck has bled its way into the focal point. Dead End Kings is even less of a profound work than Night was following Distance, and comes off as a place-holding exhibition that exists merely to re-examine and reassess the definition of Katatonian quality.
This status, of course, is speculative bullshit. Renkse and Anders Nystrom probably didn’t say, “Hey, let’s see if the people that bought our last three albums still give a shit,” before sitting down to reassemble a half-decade’s worth of leftover ideas in the hopes that no one would notice and / or care about the finished product’s uncomfortable familiarity. But Dead End Kingssure makes it sound like they did.
After the departure of the Norrman brothers (and the release of back-to-back albums that sounded almost exactly the same), this could’ve been an opportunity to challenge themselves, to turn a corner into the next phase of their career. Again, one of Katatonia’s main draws was their willingness to challenge the norms — not only compositionally, but lyrically. Jonas Renkse, at his best, is equal parts frail and confrontational. His pain is readily bared, but he’s quick to turn that shoegazing mopeyness into a sharp jab in the mouth. These dynamics need to be fully charged for a for a band as vocally-driven as Katatonia to excel. Sadly, the reluctantly iconic vocalist slinks into the background on Dead End Kings, albeit unintentionally — his hooks have been blunted, his words empty.
Perhaps sensing this lack of emotional heft, Nystrom attempts to bring simplistic riffing to the forefront to propel the songs. The result is underwhelming, as most “heavy” Katatonia tends to be. (It’s no coincidence that their greatest achievement to date, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, is completely devoid of metallic tropes.) “Buildings” co-opts some tepid Gojirisms for minimal gain, coming off as hackneyed and plastic-clad. Worse still is the sub-Ozzfest stomp of “First Prayer,” which effectively castrates one of the album’s most serviceable choruses.
Of Dead End Kings’ eleven tracks, only “Ambitions” can hang with the aforementioned highlights of their last few albums. It’s sadly telling when the lead single, “Dead Letters,” sounds like a multi-trodden b-side. Katatonia’s streak has come to an end; they’ve finally released an album that, by most metrics, doesn’t need to exist. Dead End Kings is little more than a reanimation of comfortable themes.
Comfortable for the band and their static interests, that is. It’s tough to imagine someone with intimate knowledge of “Tonight’s Music” cuddling up with an “Undo You.” Katatonia has reduced themselves to recycling, a very risky move for a band with a prime back catalog to be mined. In 2012, this isn’t the type of risk they should be taking.
Katatonia is certainly the king of their personal dead end, but there’s little point in following a leader on their journey to nowhere.