Two decades ago, Swedish band Katatonia helped usher in a more somber, melancholy melodic style to the genres of death and doom metal, finally achieving the perfect balance of elegant gloom and heavy aggression with their breakthrough 2003 album Viva Emptiness. They picked up major props again on both sides of the Atlantic with 2009's epic release Night is the New Day, their most successful record to date. Their ninth full-length album Dead End Kings dropped worldwide this week, and as a long-time fan I was extra stoked to pick this one up, give it a spin or two and find out if it makes it over the bar set so damn high by its amazing predecessor.
There's a distinctive signature to any Katatonia song from the past decade, from the extra-wide sweep of the deep and doomy guitar chords to frontman Jonas Renske's clean, dreamy mid-range vocals (often multi-tracked and harmonized with those of guitarist Anders Nyström and several guest vocalists), and all of their strengths come into play on this record – including the kind of progressive metal experimentation that has been steadily rising throughout their past few records, bringing them even closer in line with their Swedish compatriots Opeth. While there's always been a thread of melancholy and despair through most of their songwriting (not to mention a recurring visual theme of dead or dying birds in their album art), the overall mood on Dead End Kings is not as somber as you might expect; the sheer size of their sound elevates the mood from the personal to the surreal, like a heartbreaking ghost story told on an epic scale.
The lush strings which accompany “The Parting” are the first hint of this epic storytelling, and the payoff comes as a virtual avalanche of guitars in the chorus, balanced by a soft piano-backed bridge. Eerie female backing vocals and delicate percussion give a sensual undertone to “The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here,” one of the more subdued tracks on the record. “Hypone” is carried by a simple and tense rolling guitar line, tied closely with dark piano chords, and segues seamlessly into “The Racing Heart,” which begins with a light, almost funky synth/piano pattern and explodes it into a wall of guitars, then reels it back in again, revealing some amazing vocal harmonies.
Just when I was starting to think the band was slipping a bit too far into quiet gloom, the opening of “Buildings” tore through my speakers, revealing itself as one of the heaviest, darkest and most experimental tracks on the album, shifting tone and tempo multiple times. The jazz touches in “Leech” give it a vintage vibe, showcasing drummer Daniel Liljekvist's tight, no-bullshit style and some excellent keyboard work from Frank Default. Smoothly blended vocals drive the opening of “Ambitions,” but step back to make room for a hard, dirty guitar, including a supremely cool mini-solo. The unusual chord patterns of “Undo You” combine with slightly uneasy vocal harmonies to create a sense of high tension, despite the fairly mellow overall sound. “Lethean” opens on a slight folk-metal groove, similar to the style of Finnish band Amorphis, but escalates into a monolithic guitar-and-symphony combo that makes it one of the album's strongest cuts. “First Prayer” features some of Renske's most dramatic vocals, and the densest, hardest stacks of rhythm guitar...and the addition of rich strings and backing choirs makes it incredibly epic.
The album wraps on a suitably cinematic note with “Dead Letters,” one of the band's most powerful and ominous songs ever – maybe even their best piece of work – hammering home the idea that there's still a helluva lot of room left to explore within the Katatonia sound. Listen for yourself:
So, did they clear the bar with this one? Oh hell yeah. While Dead End Kings does contain some of Katatonia's mellowest moments, it's also home to their all-time heaviest. Yet through it all, the combination is perfectly balanced, creating hills and valleys of intensity. It's not summertime top-down road trip listening; this is the sound of gray, storm-ridden days and misty, moonless nights, and I wouldn't have it any other way. If I may quote Wednesday Addams: “It's so nice and gloomy...”
Katatonia is about to set out on a North American “Epic Kings and Idols” tour beginning next week, along with the colossal Devin Townsend Project (if you haven't heard Devin's music, check this video out and be amazed). This should prove to be one massive show, so check out the poster below, or drop by the band's official site, to see if they're coming to your neck of the woods.