Sweden's acclaimed masters of dark, moody, melodic metal scored a major career milestone last year with the release of their ninth album Dead End Kings (be sure to check out our review). That record's dreamy, gothic atmosphere brought a taste of dark winter nights to the height of summer, and solidified the band's niche in a subgenre they've nicknamed “sorrowful metal.” While that handle might imply their music is something of a downer, it's really all a matter of perspective. While the term “Gothic” gets thrown around free and loose when it comes to metal, I consider Katatonia's recent work to be Gothic in the purest sense, calling to mind the pitch-black romanticism saturating the verse of Edgar Allan Poe. A perfect example is this video for the track “Lethean,” one of the best cuts from that album, and one which for me captures the same beautifully grim sensibility as Poe's tragic poems like “Annabel Lee.”
In my review, I pointed out how the magical, otherworldly atmosphere of Dead End Kings comes from a balance of pensive, layered atmospheres and massive, majestic riffs. But with the heavier elements removed for the companion album Dethroned & Uncrowned, I now realize how much of that magic came from the simple, dark beauty of the songwriting, now revealed without the stacked heavy guitars and thunderous rhythms that gave such epic weight to the original. Katatonia founder & guitarist Anders Nyström instead chose to “place the emphasis on the many layers of ambiance, with the melodies staying central and the vocal harmonies representing the heart of the album.”
Much of the richness of the earlier songs remains intact, however, with the strings, synths and layered vocal elements of opening tracks "The Parting" given more room to explore, and a soulful piano becomes the backbone of "Hypnone." Where once were full orchestra and the rolling thunder of low, monolithic metal riffs, instead we hear a single plaintive cello behind frontman Jonas Renkse in "The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here," with the female vocals of Silje Wergeland (of The Gathering) joining in an intense and passionate chorus. Similarly, the power of tracks like "Buildings,” which earlier came mostly from an explosion of stacked riffage, now comes through as a tight merging of piano and strummed acoustic guitar.
The jazz inflections of "Leech" are still recognizable, though now carried by piano, and the odd but infectious chord progression of "Undo You" keeps its emotional weight thanks to some goosebump-raising vocal harmonies, which also give poetic potency to the gorgeous "First Prayer." Even when not multi-tracked, Renkse's clean and pure vocals carry tracks like "The Racing Heart" to almost ecstatic levels, even in the midst of a doomy symphonic landscape. Like its predecessor, Dethroned ends with one of the band's strongest songs, "Dead Letters," here offering some of the album's few treated vocals along with some moody backing on jazz organ, flute, and hypnotic synth strings.
As a long-time Katatonia fan, I'll admit to some bias in this review... but frankly I'm still reeling a year later from amazement at Dead End Kings, and while that may seem a nearly impossible act to follow, this more progressive, intimate examination of the same material allows those moody, masterful melodies to return like the welcome colors of Fall.
Speaking of which: Katatonia is kicking off a brief but intense North American Fall tour today (co-headlining with Cult of Luna), which Renkse says will feature “some of our hidden gems, songs that we haven't yet picked up or rarely have played live before.” You can get the most current list of dates and venues at their official site. But before you go, take a listen to the haunting track "The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here"...