I will make no secret of my love for Katatonia. For a few years, I diligently collected splinters as I sat on the fence, wondering whether the Swedish purveyors of gritty misery were entirely for me. However, a combination of time and the persistent badgering of my late younger brother eventually convinced me that here was a special band, very special indeed.
Part of the issue initially I suspect, was the constant musical evolution that Anders ‘Blakkheim’ Nordstrom, Jonas Renske and co. underwent and to date, steadfastly continue to undergo. Beginning life as a blackened death metal band with doom influences, their early albums are a far cry from the dark rock that sits at the core of their more recent output. As a result, you were never entirely sure about what you would get next.
Looking back on their career now, I can honestly say that this evolution has kept things fresh and interesting, in turn greatly improving their longevity. That said, if you listen carefully enough, each incarnation of the band and with it, each recording, has maintained the essence of Katatonia; a consistent thread to guide us safely and reassuringly through each new chapter in the journey. For me, that ‘essence’ is hard to express but to a certain extent is maintained through a tangible fragility, be it via something as minuscule as a subtle melody, chord progression or simply the tone of a particular instrument. Then there are the vocals of Jonas Renske himself who is capable of conveying a truly rare depth of emotion through his utterly distinct approach.
Since the release of their last album, 2009’s magnum opus “Night Is The New Day”, Katatonia have gone through a rare line-up change, with the Normann brothers departing to be replaced by Per ‘Sodomizer’ Erikson and Niklas Sandin on guitar and bass respectively. Add this to some rather cryptic comments on their website and press releases and I don’t think that I was alone in wondering with some consternation where exactly album number nine, “Dead End Kings” would take Katatonia and their ever-loyal fan-base. Well, worry not because we have another winner on our hands here. As with the vast majority of previous releases, “Dead End Kings” is not an immediately digestible beast. It takes time for the compositions to seep their way into your heart but once there, they’ll remain forever. Give the album the time and attention it requires and the rewards are massive.
The aforementioned core to the band’s sound remains intact once again, but with this release, Katatonia display a much greater diversity both across the album as a whole and within discrete compositions. The dense and suffocating riffs are in keeping with the last couple of albums but they are juxtaposed more markedly this time around by increased elements of post-rock, shoegaze and progressive rock. The result is a collection of songs that contain a greater intensity and diversity than ever before, as well as a genuinely ‘progressive’ feel. That said, the blend of so many seemingly disparate elements never sounds forced or contrived, which only serves to highlight the quality of the song writing on display here.
Nevertheless, the biggest difference with this album can be heard in the keyboard/synth department. There were apparently one or two grumblings of disquiet on the Internet over the increased involvement of Frank Default on “Night Is The New Day” and these dissenters are unlikely to be sated on “Dead End Kings”. For the rest of us, it’s positive news as, if anything, Default’s involvement is more pronounced here, albeit favouring a rich classical orchestration approach this time around. The modern, bleak sounds are still in evidence, but are used more sparingly as embellishments rather than the norm. The result is a more grandiose and warm sheen to help counteract the oppressive gloom.
The greater diversity in the musical approach also helps to provide a greater emphasis to many of the lyrical themes and subsequent feelings expressed on this album. With subject matters unsurprisingly never straying very far from the morose, the frequent tempo changes and shifts in direction add further tension and drama to proceedings throughout.
For me, the entire album is noteworthy but stand-out tracks include the instantly memorable “The Racing Heart” with its beautifully spine-tingling chorus, the extremely powerful “Hypnone” and closer “Dead Letters” with its opening riff reminiscent of “Schism”-era Tool.
The big question at the conclusion of this even bigger review is simple: is “Dead End Kings” better than its direct predecessor, “Night Is The New Day”? On balance and after more spins than I care to admit, I would have to say, reluctantly, “nearly”. However, given that in my eyes, “Night Is The New Day” represents musical near-perfection, for this album to push it so close should tell you all you need to know about it. “Dead End Kings” is undeniably magnificent and only serves to further enhance the name of one of the most special bands in heavy metal today.