Hello, and thank you for joining me. Allow me to make a confession of sorts: I love Katatonia. From their early days as a doomy death metal outfit (either the lovingly weird Dance of December Souls or the superbly brilliant Brave Murder Day, with Åkerfeldt on vocals) to the grungy doom of Discouraged Ones to the dark, gothic rock of Last Fair Deal Gone Down to the goth-tinged melodic death metal of Night is the New Day and into the progressive era of their absolutely brilliant The Fall of Hearts. And now, in the midst of one of the worst periods of earth’s recent history, they are here to blend many of those elements for City Burials.
But we must pause to ask a question: What is it that makes Katatonia so wonderful? Music aside, the band has undergone myriad personnel changes over their nearly thirty-year career. Each period of their musical development has been marked by the introduction of a new member. Most notably of late is the loss of Peter Eriksson, replaced by Roger Öjersson. Roger’s work on The Fall of Hearts was nothing short of stellar and he follows up that performance with a simply mind-altering display of prowess to go along with his backing vocals.
Another inclusion that has been a large part of their recent, modern progressive era is the addition of J. P. Asplund as percussionist for The Fall of Hearts. The dual rhythms have allowed Katatonia to lend a certain tribal feel to their more ambient passages. While Asplund wasn’t made a full-fledged band member (with all privileges and benefits therein) like Öjersson was, his mark on Katatonia remains across City Burials (albeit probably played by Renkse). The polyrhythmic touches are nothing short of captivating despite being almost unnoticeable at first blush, when compared to their prior album. This level of subtle complexity has imbued their work with an air of sophistication and a certain credulity to their morose message. “The road to the grave is straight as an arrow.”
So Katatonia has certainly undergone a plethora of personal changes in their very long, celebrated career as versatile metal darlings of melodic doom/death, but perhaps the most shocking change for City Burials is that of their iconic lead vocalist Jonas Renkse. For this recording, he has emerged as something of a completely different singer, stretching his voice into never before heard (from him) upper ranges with strength, conviction and emotive melody, and the result of this evolution is nothing less than magical. (Has someone been listening to Leprous lately?)
It’s not enough to simply say that Renkse has leveled up: His performance on City Burials reveals maturity as well as an uncorking of potential. As the album has more than a few possible “hits” — “Behind the Blood” or “Vanishers,” for example — Renkse gets several opportunities to croon hooks and counter-melodies, as well as to harmonize with himself in radio-friendly, heart-wrenching ways. Simply put, this is Katatonia as you have never heard them before. The raw, emotional displays that were always laid bare on earlier albums now reach deep into the roots of their production, revealing not only a genius of composition, but a brilliance of album layout, artwork, personnel, and subtle brush strokes to create a masterpiece.
Now perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of City Burials is Katatonia’s effortless ability to combine their compositional prowess across different eras of their career. There are more than a few odes to Night is the New Day here, as the instrumentation is heavier than it has been in years. There’s also a nod back to the days of Discouraged Ones, as you’ll hear some alternative sounding guitar riffs supporting clean leads and raspy vocals. Finally, Katatonia has taken The Fall of Hearts and added in highlight from their earlier days to make it feel like the most complete Katatonia record to date. While facing the impossible task of following up their 2016 LP, Katatonia chose to make simple, effective choices to put together an album that holds its own not against merely their contemporaries, but also against themselves — a metric that can only be used when a band has reached true greatness.
So, enough effusive gushing: Let’s talk about some tracks on this album.
Just a note, or plea, before we truly begin: Subtlety is a word you’ve read before, one you are reading now, and one you will read many times over later in this review. The devil is in the details, and with Katatonia, that devil is absolute brilliance. So please do me, and yourself, and Katatonia a favor and listen to this (and their earlier works) through a decent (or better than decent) set of headphones. You don’t want to miss the soft polyrhythms, breathy keyboards, or the delicate touches of guitar layered so perfectly throughout. Give this album your full attention. Please. While City Burials is fun, great, awesome, rad, etc. through your car speakers, blasting out of your stereo, or pumping from your Bluetooth speaker as you ride your bike in traffic, the true genius is revealed in the more subtle listening environment.
Juxtaposing the poppiness of “Behind the Blood” is the fourth track, “Rein.” Drawing heavily on Night is the New Day-era Katatonia composition, a maudlin tune descends into a staccato chorus thickened with distorted guitar chords and tensely delivered monotone vocals. As the heaviness of the song rages on, it puts itself in stark contrast to the lighter tracks that surround it, highlighting the sheer breadth of Katatonia’s melodic reach here in 2020. Tracks like “Lacquer” and “Vanisher” sit in stark contrast to the heaviness of “Rein” yet they are still inextricably linked by the heart-wrenching, morose guitar work of Öjersson and Nystrom. In that way the whole of City Burials is thematically consistent yet vastly different — much like Katatonia’s long and celebrated career.
The aforementioned “Vanishers” puts fans in the airiest of Katatonia works to date. Heavy on the keyboards, “Vanishers” sees Renske float and soar with help from the lovely voice of Anni Bernhard (Full of Keys). Niklas Sandin’s bass pops around the electric piano sounds, anchoring the lusciously sparse backdrop of the rhythm section and allowing Renske and Bernhard to shine in their harmonious, ethereal delivery of melody and lyric. It’s also the most electric-piano-heavy, nearly jazzy styling for Katatonia, and it absolutely works. The cohesion of the musicians — their musical souls inextricably linked throughout composition and recording — simply shines when the band lets loose their most minimal composition.
“City Glaciers” is the most logical extension of The Fall of Hearts. Tribal drumming dominates the opening as Renkse harmonizes with himself and guitars pluck loose, agitated melodies. The work on the bass drum is again perfection — kicked on the downbeats and creating anticipatory anxiety when the track is ready to explode in a wave of foamy ocean. Here the guitars are heavily layered and underscored by orchestration of the keyboard type. The track is lusciously full of invigorating contrasts and complimentary musical potions. So easily does this song build and progress that it leaves the listener wanting for a sense of time; the song simply exists as a seemingly infinite experience.
The closing track, “Untrodden,” is one that simply cannot be ignored. Slow keyboards contrast the more alarm-like guitars; the dulcet tones of the electric keyboard crop up, and the band falls into a groove full of soul, rhythm and more than a drop of sadness. Moving into its second phase, the guitars go heavy on the reverb and use cyclical riffing to create anticipation of the fuller chorus sure to come. Like waves, the track crashes again and again upon the sympathetic area of your brain. Then, in an explosion, Öjersson takes off into what is simply a masterful and monumental guitar solo. Sparing no affectation, he bends, whines, and screams his way up the fretboard, slipping blues-notes and speedy chromatics into his voracious melody. The term “power ballad” doesn’t connote enough emotion — this track is more than that. It’s an absolute beast of a closer, leaving you wanting more and more and more… which we will hopefully receive.
If it’s not clear: Katatonia has delivered us a wonderful gift in 2020. As the band builds in complexity and finds even more confidence in their subtleties, they become a band worthy of more deep-diving adventures. The comparison between City Burials and their earlier work reveals stark differences, and more importantly, some beautiful similarities, allowing the heart of Katatonia to continue beating long after humanity has destroyed this beautiful earth. Remember: “The road to the grave is straight as an arrow.”