Anyone paying even a bit of attention knows that Katatonia has long settled into a veteran groove, content to deliver quality additions to their voluminous catalog of doomy, gloomy, depressive rock/metal with only minor tweaks made over the past decade-plus. Viva Emptiness was catchy and blatantly commercial in all the right ways; The Great Cold Distance was like a darker, somehow even more depressive reflection of its predecessor; and Night is the New Day spread out the dynamics and added the occasional prog rock flourish. None of these were drastic changes in the least, and even with 2012’s Dead End Kings feeling a tad stagnant, if pleasantly so, the band’s legacy had long been cast in marble. Why chip further?
Well, because even financially comfortable career musicians still get a creative bug up their arses from time to time. Anders Nyström and Jonas Renkse must have felt that a shakeup was necessary within their life’s work, both in terms of the personnel and approach, and while The Fall of Hearts doesn’t exactly rebuild Katatonia from the foundation, it sees them sounding as fresh as they have in years. That is not necessarily to say it is the best in ages — that is up to Father Time to determine — but the freshness is palpable throughout.
Part of this may be due to the contributions of two new members. New drummer Daniel Moilanen plays with both subtlety and impact where necessary, pummelling during the most metal of moments and showing extreme restraint during the quietest. However, it may be new lead guitarist Roger Öjersson that provides the biggest jolt. He isn’t shredding all over the place, but at different times his leads may provide a sensible counterpoint to the vocal or offer a melancholic hook (“Old Heart Falls”), and he does sometimes get a tad busier than Katatonia fans may be used to (album finale “Passer”), all for the betterment of the tunes.
Of course, it all starts with the songs, and that is where The Fall of Hearts differs in ways both miniscule and quite notable from recent Katatonia albums. To start, this is handily the most dynamic album our mopey Swedes have ever delivered, containing both their heaviest material since their early doom/death days and some of their softest. Album centerpiece “Serac” is the heftiest of the bunch, and at times feels more like Ghost Reveries-era Opeth than Katatonia. Not that there is a complaint to be filed; it’s a beast of a track (the main riff just kills) and fits in perfectly where it is on the album. On the flipside is “Decima,” a soft acoustic- and keyboard- driven track that allows Jonas Renkse full space to show off his quality as a vocalist, and is nothing short of sublime as a result.
Speaking of Renkse, he deserves extra props for his performance. It’s hard to think of a time when he showed as much range as he does here. From his typically moroseness to the the occasionally soaring passage, he adds to the dynamic breadth throughout, even sounding downright soulful during “Sanction.”
Underneath the dynamic performances, Katatonia has implemented their most progressively-minded set of tools since Brave Murder Day. This is not to say that they have suddenly turned into a dreary Rush, just that there is some decently active instrumental work, and the song structures are typically freed up to flow naturally, not always strictly adhering to a verse-chorus-verse format. “The Night Subscriber” twists traditional Katatonia-isms through this more calculated framework; opener “Takeover” is nuanced in its rhythmic approach; and “Residual” builds to a punctuated guitar/drum tandem just when it seems as if the song is going to stay in ballad territory. As stated, Katatonia isn’t really going full prog freakout, but one can easily hear parallels between these songs and music such as very recent Opeth or mid-period Anathema.
As such, The Fall of Hearts is also one of the least direct Katatonia albums. There is no “July,” “The Longest Year,” or “Sweet Nurse” to provide an instant earworm. Neither is this as open-wristed as albums in the past. Before you think that Katatonia has gone all smiles on us, fear not, it’s just that nothing here is quite as head-between-your-knees depressing as say “Teargas.” Like Night is the New Day, the obviously downtrodden mood of The Fall of Hearts is sometimes interspersed with a veiled sense of optimism.
All of this is a long way of saying that The Fall of Hearts is the biggest jump in style that Katatonia has made since the switch from Brave Murder Day to Discouraged Ones (but let’s not get nuts, it’s not nearly that big of a jump). It also pushes 70 minutes, making it the longest Katatonia album to date by a decent margin. Some may bristle at the notion of a generally song-oriented band going over the hour mark, but The Fall of Hearts is more than up to the task. To start, there is a staggering variety in instrumental tones used throughout (guitar sounds of all sorts, keys, piano, etc.), and the album’s dynamics are only further enhanced by the smart track order. But really it’s the album’s utter lack of filler that allows that rather hefty run time to never become an issue.
Like most Katatonia albums, The Fall of Hearts has a sneaky depth. Even the most direct and catchy of the band’s works have treats and details hiding in plain sight, and this is no different. If anything it is even more brimming with detail and nuance than other albums. It is also as beautiful, haunting, professionally crafted, and oh-so-sweet to the ears as we have come to expect from the band, with what feels like one of the best sets of songs of their career. But more than the details or expected professionalism or where it fits into their history is that aforementioned freshness. There once again seems to be a fire burning in the old Katatonia forge, and that’s a truth that might even get ol’ Mope Master Renkse to crack a smile.