KATATONIA Albums Ranked from Less Great to Great

KATATONIA Albums Ranked from Less Great to Great

Swedish progressive / alternative metal powerhouse Katatonia have been teasing their return with a new studio album for some time now, and the news about the album #11 broke in a recent interview singer Jonas Renkse did for the latest issue of Metal Hammer.

In the anticipation of the new, still untitled album, Prog Sphere is running through the band’s discography with a difficult task of ranking their ten studio albums.

Hearts will be broken, death threats will be sent, but oh well… Let’s do this!

10. Discouraged Ones (1998)

Sometimes the intended path simply isn’t sustainable. Katatonia barely got off the ground before facing such a reality. Key to this was Jonas Renkse losing his ability to maintain harsh vocals after Dance of December Souls, resulting in the use of Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth) for Brave Murder Day’s harsh leads. However, Akerfeldt was more of a temporary placation for the band so that they could take the time to pull something else together. What followed was an effective nail in the coffin for Katatonia’s death metal elements, from the aggressive instrumental work right down to the growls and lyrical themes. The album in question, Discouraged Ones, thus holds a distinct honor as the first Katatonia album to show audiences a heavy doom rock style that would, over time, become the band’s defining sound.

One doesn’t even need to hear the album to suspect that Discouraged Ones will depart from its predecessors; the more colorful artwork and greater number of tracks are practically giveaways on their own. When “I Break” opens the album, however, that’s when we realize just how far the shift in direction has gone. Bizarre as it initially sounds, the new formula comes across as rather promising. Brave Murder Day’s repetitive nature hasn’t been completely abandoned, the production seems fuller, and Renkse’s clean vocals, though imperfect, do sound mostly sufficient. Rounding out the entire package is an utterly hazy atmosphere, like a sickly fire sprinkling its sparks in the fog of a frigid winter day, constantly suggesting that nightfall is imminent. Likewise, “Cold Ways,” the album’s longest track (around 5 minutes), makes an effective use of dispersing calm, mostly natural lulls amidst a high-driven song.

Being so sickly in nature, one might expect this particular chapter in Katatonia’s discography to embrace and explore its newfound conditions. However, Discouraged Ones is an album that weeps and withers in its own morose state, offering much of what it has at face value. The repetitive guitar playing, though effective on Brave Murder Day, feels vacuous here. It starts out as a minor grievance but steadily turns the album into a tragic tire. Since the guitars are beefed up in volume, they feel that much more integral to the music. Yet when their role comes across as so simple and compressed, it’s difficult to become invested. Providing more (but shorter) tracks undoubtedly plays a part in this struggle, considering any build-up and payoff in any individual song is short-lived, leading to a collection of less-than-memorable moments. Furthermore, when several songs resort to similar, unremarkable patterns, it’s easy to quickly lose interest in the first place.

The final solidification of Discouraged Ones’ faulty nature is Renkse’s singing, both in execution and implementation. His performance is frail and comparable to a whimpering adolescent, if only due to being so undeveloped. On the off chance he raises his voice, the creaks not only show, they dominate. It reaches particularly awkward heights during the chorus on “Relention,” where a muffled effect comes in, as if to distort or otherwise shut out his presence. To that end, Renkse’s vocal performance on Discouraged Ones is, in and of itself, a fitting metaphor for the entire album; you can pick up on the potential, but it has a ways to go.

09. Tonight’s Decision (1999)

Katatonia effectively became a different band after releasing Discouraged Ones in 1998. Their departure into a lighter shade of doom music could be considered a fresh start–a quasi-debut, if you will. To that end, Discouraged Ones was par for the course: ripe with raw, untapped potential. Listeners wouldn’t have to wait long for a follow-up, however, as Tonight’s Decision was released a mere 16 months after its predecessor. Considering what became of both albums, we could view pre-turn-of-the-century Katatonia as a student turning in an initial rough draft, only to immediately hand over a different, edited version for the same assignment.

Unlike Discouraged Ones, which practically barged open with repressed angst, Tonight’s Decision lures and unfolds in a state of collected melancholia. This is a decidedly quieter affair, with backdrops of stillness amidst a surprising abundance of fun hooks and rhythms. Even at its heaviest, Tonight’s Decision hardly reaches the same overt persona; the production feels more refined and in favor of evenly balancing each member. Although guitars still drive home most of the album, they feel more punctual and less overbearing, allowing the other instruments to feel like they have a place. This extends to vocalist Jonas Renkse, who made some notable improvements in such a short span of time. While his overall pitch still borders on awkward levels, his deliveries are carried out with an air of confidence and conviction. Everything combines to create a catchy overall presence, reaching a particular high on the radio-friendly riffs of “In Death, a Song.” Moments like these, taken together, ultimately make Tonight’s Decision the most accessible and (arguably) easygoing Katatonia album. Want further proof? The album’s penultimate track is a cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Nightmares by the Sea,” whose banging chorus borders on being too conspicuous for its own good, which may be due to the songs it’s sandwiched between.

Not to be overtaken by borderline-upbeat moments, however, Katatonia retain their despondency by infusing a more mellow touch into their framework. Part of the band’s overarching appeal has been their duality of bleak themes and alluring music, so the decision to include less of a droning effect from song to song was only inevitable. Similar to how Brave Murder Day’s slow, chilling moments kept things varied and interesting, Tonight’s Decision frequently breaks the pattern for more than a few seconds at a time. “A Darkness Coming” uses its first two minutes to woefully demonstrate this, pulling us in with a delicate grasp before the music picks up, tightening its grip. Thanks to this injection of variety, the more familiar-sounding moments from Tonight’s Decision stand out and leave a stronger impression. Both “Had To (Leave)” and “Black Session” take the band’s established method of repetition to craft a slow build-up, with the former bestowing a chilling climax halfway through before resuming the entrancing pattern. These moments work so well not just because they’re closer to the band’s roots, but also because they’re clearly distinguishable from the surrounding tracks. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

If any expression encapsulates Tonight’s Decision, it would be that it’s a cautious step in the right direction. Katatonia were still trying to find a groove that they could work with and grow from, which helps explain their dabble into gentler waters here. They were still exploring the gamut, but had much more to discover before setting a new stone in their foundation. Tonight’s Decision modestly peeks into certain corners, curious but not quite ready to commit to its shiny findings.

08. Dance of December Souls (1993)

Katatonia albums are often demanding affairs. Even if the music instantly “clicks,” there’s a lingering sense of far more to discover. In a way, picking a Katatonia album is like choosing a drink for the long evening ahead. The initial taste may be harsh, particularly to first-timers, but there’s always a pull at the end of each sip. Some affect you differently than others, but the desire to savor and indulge just one more time is ever-present. To that end, the band’s debut, Dance of December Souls, is effectively a dark spirit with an initially cringe-inducing profile that yields a distinct flavor, enticing you to partake and appreciate the product you previously scowled upon.

What makes Dance of December Souls so distinct is its overall approach to doom metal. The long-standing subgenre was already associated with slow, down-tuned music well before Katatonia’s inception, but the once-small Swedish outfit took the formula and crafted a much darker concoction than their peers. Not only is the overall soundscape full of cold, faint echoes and desolation, but each member feels like they’re carrying an insurmountable weight from track to track. Anders Nystrom dances around the guitar with strained precision, offset by deliberately slouched notes, further matched by fleeting moments of mark from the bass. As the album title implies, each track feels like a dance through multiple sections, each noticeably different from the last; “Tomb of Insomnia” stands out with a seamless melody of contrasting guitar notes, going from relaxed and dream-like to grisly and wounded and back again. And yet, Dance of December Souls also employs an approach of simplicity with regards to each instrument’s role. The amount of overlap is only occasionally present, resulting in a collection of songs that less committed listeners will easily lose interest in. This ambience can easily be confused for emptiness, however, which may have been intentional on the band’s part, what with Jonas Renkse proclaiming “Vast are fields I walk/Where sorrow never dies” and “to the North I rode, on the coldest of winds” throughout the album. However, these lyrics are also ripe with exclamations of death, dying and sorrow, verging so much on self-parody that they can readily disenchant the listener.

While we’re on the topic of lyrics, a particular case must be made for frontman Jonas Renkse, who entered Katatonia as both drummer and singer. Dance of December Souls is dominated by harsh elements, with Renkse’s seemingly untrained vocals being at the forefront. Despite some passages being difficult to look past (the end of “In Silenced Enshrined”), Renkse feels like he’s viciously tearing his throat and mouth open to share with us his ultimate sense of pain and suffering. The crescendo four minutes into “Velvet Thorns (of Drynwhyl)” leaves an especially strong impression, serving blood-pumping guitars up as a proper backdrop for the shivering shrieks at-hand. While cleans later became a defining quality of post-Brave Murder Day albums, here they’re seldom and subdued, lending Dance of December Souls even further claim to its dismal doom metal nature.

Katatonia’s hour of introduction (actually 53 minutes) is quite possibly their most challenging, not just due to how it compares to its successors, but also due to its slow-burning animosity. Catchy moments do reside throughout the album’s handful of lengthy tracks, but they’re hardly up-front and certainly do not represent the entire product. Instead, the entire affair preys upon those seeking the bleakest of experiences, whether to understand or be understood. Is it the best representation of what would become Stockholm’s gloomy poster child? No, but it accomplishes what any worthwhile Katatonia release should do: provide a listening experience that only gets better over time.

07. Viva Emptiness (2003)

Viva Emptiness is a bizarre collection of tracks. In many ways, it feels like two albums strung together through colliding interests. The bulk of the album appears to depict a tale of crime, likely involving the mafia, as indicated by track names such as “Criminals,” “Evidence” and “Omerta.” Other parts, however, break this pattern and rhythm by, ironically enough, being thematically par for the course by Katatonia’s standards. This scattered narrative seems to be born out of a desire to try something different and thereby justify the twisting of an established formula. And while Viva Emptiness tries its damnedest to fully commit, there remains an underlying sense of conflict and uncertainty throughout, one that the band probably hoped to hide or otherwise avoid.

Signs immediately light up on opener “Ghost of the Sun,” tingling the senses with crisp instrumental work, from the aggressive guitar leads to the clear, involved drumming. Not to be outdone, Jonas Renkse unassumingly joins the fray as if he’s always sounded this comfortable with his traditional singing voice. His bursts of passion are smooth and natural enough to look past the chorus’ otherwise distracting lyrics, which reinforce the album’s generally hostile and angst-ridden tone. We often see this driven through the occasional use of swearing, which often feels laughably forced, namely Renkse’s enunciation in the line “he went too far the ***er/It’s not like I owe him money” from “Criminals,” which features an otherwise enjoyable bassline to build a creepy, noir-like atmosphere. The good news is moments like this are few and far between; the bad news is that Viva Emptiness struggles to consistently deliver wholly worthwhile moments. Possibly the greatest stretch of detriment to the album happens after the first two tracks, going from odd and laughable to boring and then, finally, disorienting.

For better or for worse, Viva Emptiness quickly runs the gamut in its first few tracks. We get a full taste of what the entire album technically sounds like, but the impressions they leave are scattered like a shattered mirror. “Will I Arrive” forgoes tangible guitar work for incoherent noise laced with vague glimpses of tension while “A Premonition” is content to casually serve as a lull in the runtime, despite coming fresh off the relatively upbeat heels of “Criminals.” Needless to say, Viva Emptiness is quite a mess in its opening minutes, almost to the point it could lose listeners looking for something grounded and engaging.

Slowly but surely, however, Katatonia begin to find their bearings and, come the album’s final moments, deliver some truly compelling material. Foreboding keyboards lead us into “Complicity,” which gradually transforms into an increasingly suspenseful account, assuring we’re hooked in for the dangerously catchy climax, “Evidence.” By the time we’ve been graced by the album’s instrumental closer, “Inside of the City of Glass,” chills have effectively set in to clench us like a dark, ghastly serpent. It’s a fiendish way to wrap things up, especially since it makes you want to revisit and hopefully gain a newfound appreciation for the whole album. And though this can happen, the first batch of tracks are such a contrast to the following 30 or so minutes, that it can just as easily turn one off from finishing that repeat listen. The track “Omerta” and its role in the album are a perfect way to exemplify this conflict of impression. Where “Evidence” acts as a climax and “Inside the City of Glass” can be likened to a credits song, “Omerta is the actual ending. However, Viva Emptiness isn’t a true concept album, so the fact it jumps in and out of the same narrative makes this ending hit like a punch to the chest instead of the face; you’ll definitely feel some impact, but to say it’s a knockout would be a gross overstatement.

Viva Emptiness feels like a tragedy in disguise. For all the grievances and shortcomings, Katatonia did bring some interesting ideas to the table and even managed to occasionally succeed with this strange mix of doom and alternative metal. One gets the impression that after a host of repressed-sounding records, Viva Emptiness was the inevitable, overdue awakening. And while this awakening was a challenge to face–lacking cohesion and long-term maturity, it would ultimately serve as a moment of catharsis for Katatonia, allowing them to rise to something greater.

06. Dead End Kings (2012)

When a band make their music more approachable, they ironically run the risk of turning previous fans off. In a critically-minded sense, moving towards instant gratification is synonymous with said band becoming shallow–a shadow of their former self. Katatonia had treaded this path ever since Discouraged Ones, the first in a long line of albums which saw them grow further and further out of their death/doom metal roots. Throughout this course, it’d be easy to say that they were struggling to establish a newfound identity. Yet in this search they managed to deliver a collection of works that, if nothing else, showcased a vision of variety through ambition. From the muddled nature of Discouraged Ones to the emphatic atmosphere of Night is the New Day, Katatonia had already demonstrated the versatility with which they could wield their conjugations of pain, darkness and suffering. To that end, Dead End Kings, despite what the accompanying album art suggests, became a potent and strangely colorful entry in a discography better known for its despondency.

Rather than follow in Night is the New Day’s footsteps, Dead End Kings sees Katatonia reformulate their approach once more, this time with a resounding intent to accentuate the entire band. Where prior works were often defined by select members and characteristics, this album feels like the result of a band standing together with confidence. In this we get a toning back of the electronic dials, leading to a more balanced power dynamic. The use of sampling from Night is the New Day has carried over with more consistency, but less outward prominence. Instead, Katatonia reignite their hard-hitting engines and go for an even more chorus-driven collection of tracks. Obviously the dense-yet-punctual guitars are essential to this, but their rhythms are further enhanced by the equally tangible drums and bass guitar. This unity is largely thanks to the slick production, which bolsters the lingering harmony between notes, enhanced by the aforementioned sampling. Even during its emptiest moments, Dead End Kings has something to display, abundantly evidenced on moments such as the limbo-like lulls on the slow-builder, “Ambitions”.

Considering the euphonic stature of the music itself, finding highlights ends up being as easy as it is challenging. As with its predecessors, Dead End Kings is filled to the brim with excellent tracks, and it’s easy to want to say “the entire album” when asked which songs are worth a listen. Heightened moments are both ripe and plentiful, from the boldly sung choruses on “The Parting” and “First Prayer” to the unleashed instrumental play on “Buildings”. Not to be outdone, we receive a fair share of softer, more collected moments, with fan favorite “The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here” featuring a subtle duet between Silje Wergeland (The Gathering, Octavia Sperati) and Jonas Renkse, who turns out the vocal performance of his career throughout Dead End Kings’ eleven tracks. The album even indulges in a few brief but strikingly flavorful moments, including a tasty guitar solo on “Lethean” and some flashy keyboard notes on “Dead Letters”. All of these exemplary moments combine in a package that is nothing if not alluring in its lush simplicity. While Katatonia weren’t necessarily exploring their available terrain as much as before, they were absolutely working out the debatable kinks in their sound, bolstering their sonic capabilities.

Where Dead End Kings will reside depends on what the listener expects or is willing to take from the band. It definitely won’t appeal to those who strictly swear by the band’s earlier albums, but then again, the same could be said for anything post-Discouraged Ones. Newcomers to Sweden’s gloom and doom poster child are likely to enjoy this the most, since it culminates more than a decade’s worth of work in a smooth, invigorating mix. The remaining individuals, those who’ve stuck with and enjoyed the band’s material regardless of era or style, will find Dead End Kings an enjoyably unambitious affair. In many ways, the formula isn’t far from what The Great Cold Distance adhered to, but this time they permitted more of the passionate touches that Night is the New Day showed a growing favor towards. Somewhere between recurring tension and foreboding ambience resides an album that seeks to filter the two ends out and make them equally accessible and memorable. Dead End Kings is that balancing act.

05. The Fall of Hearts (2016)

Katatonia have always been an evocative band. Time and time again their music has encapsulated the thoughts and emotions we all recede into when our minds decide to set their suns, expelling us of warmth and light. If Katatonia’s discography were equated to an individual going through this nocturnal passage, their struggle would be considered chronic, like an eternal burden. Yet these Swedes have taken said burden and made it their life-flow. The fact they’ve managed to keep this formula going for 23 years without becoming worn or decrepit is a testament to their sheer versatility. It’s this consistency, which transcends stylistic transformations, that has made Katatonia such an endearing band. No matter what direction they take, their spiritual essence persists and remains an integral part of their music.

The Fall of Hearts, a considerable departure from Dead End Kings, might just be the band’s most matured release to date (at the time). There’s an air of composure to the whole affair, as if the four years between albums have allowed the band to ruminate as a whole. In this, The Fall of Hearts could be described as marinated; the present influences are not only more varied than previous albums, they also feel more natural, allowing the album to unfold in an organic manner. Doom and alternative combine on “Sanction” to create a reservedly ominous track, while the Opeth-inspired “Serac” swaps alternative with progressive, leading to one of Katatonia’s more ambitious tracks. Meanwhile, ballads “Old Heart Falls” and “Decima” (the Roman goddess of childbirth) act as back-to-back siblings, with the former accounting graves and old, vaporous love before yielding to the latter’s appropriately delicate lines, such as being “born under a troubled sign.” Katatonia may as well be referring to themselves here, especially when considered with this subsequent passage:

Map of nowhere is in my hand
The roads are blurred
Sojourners land
So take however long you want
But don’t forget my love
You’ve pledged yourself to come along

Even outside of the album’s slower moments–which are plentiful, The Fall of Hearts doesn’t come off as dire as its predecessor often did. Lyrics are still written in a cryptic (though personal) sense, but somewhere between the ostensibly passive production and Jonas Renkse’s transparent vocals, The Fall of Hearts resides in a position that’s neither distant nor engaged. At least, not fully. The album does occasion to blast us with blazes of fire, such as the sharp eruptions on “Serein” and “Last Song Before the Fade,” more specifically, but even they are soon quelled by the moments which follow. And yet, despite the many twists and turns found throughout, Katatonia maintain focus and close the gaps between songs with finesse. When “Shifts” announces its presence with the wail of a siren only to fade into the tragic piano notes which lead its surreal melancholia, one can’t help but be strangely comfortable with the transition.

Playing with contrast has long been one of Katatonia’s defining specialties, often through how they construct individual tracks and let them unfold. The Fall of Hearts continues this tradition, right down to the borderline feeble guitar break in “Last Song Before the Fade.” However, the effect of contrast from song to song has seldom felt as smooth as it does here. We could easily look at the in-and-out personalities of “Sanction” and “Serac,” or the slow building on “Residual” and call it a day, but the dynamic goes further than that. Just like the aforementioned example with “Shifts,” the rest of the album plays out in a way that will keep listeners’ ears glued to their headphones (or raised to their speakers) with attention and curiosity. To that end, “Takeover” is the ultimate stage-setter with its unsuspecting intro yielding to a much wilder soundscape, building and retreading in ways that will catch long-time fans off-guard. The track’s bizarre nature serves as an act of preparation for the journey ahead, a journey full of change, variety, substance and an overall, underlying familiarity.

Though The Fall of Hearts doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel for Katatonia, it does more than just fine-tune their music. The sense of exploration is definitely perceptible, and even with a slab of decidedly safe tracks, ambition is handed out with just as much generosity. It’s during these moments that The Fall of Hearts truly shines. If this is Katatonia pitching a new potential direction for their music, then the future may be surprisingly bright for them. Of course, knowing these Swedes, that bright future will be depicted with themes of aversion, reluctance, pain and the most fleeting sense of hope. And truth be told, most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

04. Night is the New Day (2009)

Few bands inspire reflection quite like Katatonia. Through their many blends of darkly crafted music, the Swedish outfit have made it their ongoing mission to explore every expanse of available shade, often through personal accounts. The Great Cold Distance, for example, achieved a sense of balance and confirmation by weaving melancholy and angst together in an utterly taut soundscape. Indulgent tendencies were all but stripped away, creating an album that was less of a raw rendition than it was a collected statement; Katatonia were far from the same band they were in the 90’s, something they’d only continue to verify with each subsequent release. The first of these, aptly titled Night is the New Day, showcased Katatonia in their finest form yet.

Each Katatonia album has its own defining characteristics; Brave Murder Day achieved harmony through repetition; Last Fair Deal Gone Down felt like drowning in a swamp at night; The Great Cold Distance was an exercise in tension; you get the idea. With Night is the New Day, we’re treated to the deadly sounds of an album overflowing with atmosphere. What makes this a distinguishing factor is the album’s unyielding commitment to entrance us, an achievement made possible by the choice to keep things simple. The Great Cold Distance rightfully showed Katatonia in an unassuming light, thanks in no small part to its consistent supply of basic song structures. In many ways, Night is the New Day is even simpler. The entire band feel less intense than before, as if their goal was to play less while saying more with each note. By contrast, Jonas Renkse no longer feels so distant; he croons and sustains his notes several times on any given track, such as the ominous chorus on “Nephilim,” curiously followed by a quiet chant of noir-like la la la’s. Amidst these shifts is the push of a relatively new element: electronics. Keyboards have certainly had a role in other Katatonia albums, but never quite to the extent found here. Moments such as the chiming piano notes on “New Night” and the sampled use of violins on “Inheritance” are among the album’s many defining moments. Another clear example, “The Promise of Deceit,” opens with a distorted wailing, emulating the words Renkse sings to us:

Evening
Coming through the crowd
I hold my head high
Straining
Out here dissonance surrounds
I hold my head high
I see the wings behind your back

From the above lyrics we can plainly see that Katatonia were still depicting somber struggles, which effortlessly translates into the music. As ear-tingling as the above moment is, the album rarely (if ever) descends into a state of extravagance. In reality, heavy-hitters “The Longest Year” and “Day and the Shade” stand out as the more immediately memorable moments, primarily thanks to a strong use of power chords. Yet these tracks act like a catalyst and climax, respectively, with the rest of the album unfolding like waves, rising and receding in response. “Idle Blood” is a perfect example of the latter, serving as one of three included ballads. It features a beautiful and strangely upbeat acoustic melody, which only makes Renkse’s voice feel all the more soothing. The other two ballads (“Inheritance” and “Departer”) are even more piercing due to their tragic natures, with “Departer” taking advantage of Krister Linder as a guest singer.

Linder’s involvement, however brief, is all the more evidence to support Night is the New Day’s electronic influences, but it’s hardly to the album’s detriment. Quite the opposite, actually. Anders Nystrom previously commented that the band’s “withdrawn and shy aura actually does more justice to the concept of our songs than going wild,” which is thankfully reassured with every track. Where The Great Cold Distance found a way to balance fire and ice at their sharpest points, Night is the New Day delicately calms the two and weaves them in seamless harmony. The choice to lean away from sounding heavy works to the band’s favor here, since they were able to more effectively implement the aforementioned atmospheric elements–and then some.

At the risk of sounding hollow and vacuous, Katatonia ventured into transcendent territory with Night is the New Day. It was at this point that they began to fully realize their untapped potential which, unsurprisingly, could be boiled down to a collection of dualities. They could be involved without sounding fervent, emotional without being sentimental, and they could mature while still showing passion. Night is the New Day is, to borrow one of their song titles, a promise in deceit. It sounds simple yet feels profound; it snares your mind and senses without making you feel like a helpless hostage, an arguably dangerous combination. At the end of the day, this is Katatonia’s definitive hour, an hour that makes the impending night something to embrace.

03. Brave Murder Day (1996)

Because, for some people, solitude and isolation can of itself become a problem…Not for me.” -The Shining

Movie quotes have a way of creeping into music. They can be tossed in just for fun (see: Children of Bodom) or meant to communicate something more, usually about the song, band or album. In the case of Katatonia, it’s clearly the latter. Their task in creating a successor to Dance of December Souls must have been a daunting one, given how unorthodox the album was, particularly in its execution. Slow, long-winded and arguably messy music with a cold, desolate atmosphere was the foundation Jonas Renkse and Anders Nystrom had to work with. Rather than take the former part of the formula and push it even further, however, Renkse and Nystrom retracted, attempting something stylistically different, but essentially similar. A complete departure wasn’t quite due, but a means to smooth the transition was. Hence, we have Brave Murder Day.

The album wastes little time kicking into gear as “Brave” chugs away with a rhythm that Dance of December Souls seldom aspired to. Then, as if to stake the claim even further, we’re greeted by a voice that any Opeth fan will instantly recognize. Mikael Akerfeldt delivers a steady stream of pitch-perfect growls throughout while the music unfolds in a wonderfully harmonic manner. Given Katatonia’s relationship with Akerfeldt, it’s not surprising to find that his more prominent role here has resulted in a sort of trickling effect. When Brave Murder Day begins shifting gears, it often creates a contrasting effect, such as when “Endtime” builds an empty, isolated intro only to be followed by high, dread-instilling guitar notes. Meanwhile, Jonas Renkse sits out most of the album as frontman, allegedly due to his previous, improper use of harsh vocals. He does, however, offer some clean singing on “Day,” achieving a sort of melodic, whispering performance eerily reminiscent Akerfeldt’s. The shift from Renkse’s previous, unabashed performance to Akerfeldt’s controlled direction is undoubtedly a sharp contrast, and while there are less moments that pop out and surprise the listener, Akerfeldt is simply more consistent and enjoyable to hear.

As with the vocals, Brave Murder Day’s instrumental qualities are a far cry from those of its predecessor. The overall pace of the album is accelerated without feeling fast. We do see Brave Murder Day and its comprising tracks twist and turn through a few tempos and time signatures, but it’s done with restraint. Beyond the aforementioned “Day,” each song breaks into a different form at least once before returning to whatever pattern set it in motion. “12” stands out as the album’s least moderated track, featuring a somewhat progressive nature in structure and performance; the guitar leads are on the intricate side while the tone is prone to dipping in and out of a quiet climate; it’s easily the album’s most challenging, interesting and (dare I say it) technical moment. Otherwise, Brave Murder Day takes a relatively streamlined approach, utilizing repetitive instrumentals to construct its handful of soundscapes. That may sound like a recipe for disinterest, but the decision to focus on concise songwriting, right down the minimalist lyrics, translates to an experience which instills a sense of impending doom, as demonstrated on “Brave” and the superb “Rainroom.” The addition of a second guitarist (Fredrik Norrman) certainly plays a role in achieving a dynamic and layered sound as well, since the music constantly achieves dark, blissful harmony, even when falling on the same rhythm for minutes at a time.

For an album that brought Katatonia a little closer to the style of other doom metal bands, Brave Murder Day stands tall as a unique piece in their discography. Obviously Akerfeldt played a role in this, but the root of Katatonia’s harsh melancholia from Dance of December Souls remains intact, it’s just achieved differently. Perhaps the biggest surprise with Brave Murder Day is its brevity, clocking in at a little over 40 minutes. This means the album completely avoids dragging out and, if anything, makes it all the more intoxicating. By the time album closer “Endtime” bestows us with its cold intro to accompany the barely-distinguishable quote from The Shining, it feels like the album is making its final statement, a promise that solitude and isolation will become synonymous with whatever follows.

02. Last Fair Deal Gone Done (2001)

Ever since they abandoned their death roots, Katatonia have had a lingering sense of melodic progression from album to album. We first saw this with Brave Murder Day’s simplistic refinement after Dance of December Souls, while Tonight’s Decision was an effective attempt at breaking Discouraged Ones’ overarching monotony. Of course, this is without accounting for the negative nature of their music. To simply call a Katatonia album sad and depressing is, at this point, about as refreshing as a half-empty bottle of flat soda. Pitching the band to outsiders isn’t always a simple feat; after all, just how appealing can a band be when they build their identity around abject themes? This is a question that feels especially appropriate for Katatonia’s fifth studio album, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, which derives its name from a song by late blues artist Robert Johnson. The reference, though small, is appropriate, since many trace the etymology of “the blues” back to the notion of “blue devils,” a 17th century expression for low spirits and, at times, “delirium tremens,” or the symptoms one encounters during alcohol withdrawal. Likewise, the song “Clean Today,” as the title suggests, offers us a glimpse into the struggles of sobriety. This struggle is but one of many that Last Fair Deal Gone Down elects to put on display, but unlike the accessible heights of its predecessor, it does so with a grimy, muddled atmosphere.

Last Fair Deal Gone Down feels unique in both its objective presence and relative role. The alluring qualities that Katatonia are often known for, though still present, aren’t quite on full blast here. Where hooks and distinct choruses dominated Tonight’s Decision, thick and vague rhythms take their place here. If one word could encapsulate the sheer sound of Last Fair Deal Gone Down, it would be “numb.” Everything from the seeming lack of instrumental direction to themes of betrayal, heartbreak, conformity and lost innocence combine to create an album that, without listening, would seem angry were it not so poignant. Any aggression that does exist is kept at bay due to the album’s overall repressed nature. Even heavier moments such as the lead guitars on “Clean Today” and “Don’t Tell a Soul” exude a sense of despair, effectively desensitizing their borderline-grunge traces. That numb quality isn’t just for stylistic purposes, it also feels like a filter of sorts for those that may not identify with the album. Katatonia do hit the listener with beats throughout, but again, they’re often indistinct, similar to how a powerful pain med can dizzy your body to the sharp spikes of pain after surgery.

Instead, Last Fair Deal Gone Down doles its complete strength out when the listener dives beneath its murky surface. Key to this submerging is the relevance of lyrics and, more importantly, how they impact their respective songs. The aforementioned themes, though offering an idea of what to expect, don’t do any of the songs justice. Even with some awkwardly written lines, Katatonia managed to convey a permeating level of helplessness that was only hinted at on previous albums. One of the many striking passages comes from “Tonight’s Music,” where Jonas Renkse laments:

how could this go so very wrong
that I must depend on darkness
would anyone follow me further down
how could this go so very far
that I need someone to say
what is wrong
not with the world, but me

Reading the lyrics as the album goes on turns a mere listening session into a suffocating exercise; once you dive in you’re trapped, left to descend deeper and deeper until you finish or stop midway through the album. Either way, the coming darkness that Katatonia alluded to on Tonight’s Decision is fully realized for those who choose to brave the waters.

Transitioning from Tonight’s Decision to Last Fair Deal Gone Down is definitely a bizarre experience. Where the 1999 release bordered on being an attention-grabber with its catchy nature, this feels uninviting, like a young, troubled individual who wants to be heard, understood and accepted, but struggles to make and keep connections. It also seems to be looking for a sense of direction or guidance, hoping to develop in a world that seems so odd and, at times, cruel. There may be lights ahead, but they’re falling, and if there’s anything to share with anyone, it will be in the strengthening darkness.

01. The Great Cold Distance (2006)

The Great Cold Distance has something of a reputation in Katatonia’s discography. Not only is it a top recommendation for prospecting fans, but its songs frequently bathe the band’s setlists like drops of blood in an expanding pool of water. So much so, that guitarist Anders Nystrom mentioned “that there’s been no other album from which we’ve played more songs than The Great Cold Distance,” when announcing the album’s 10th anniversary edition. This then begs the question: what is it that makes The Great Cold Distance resonate as much as it does, both for Katatonia and their still-growing fanbase? Previous albums had already sparked hearts and minds aplenty, albeit in a bleak, disheartening manner, so what does The Great Cold Distance achieve that its predecessors apparently did not? Glancing listeners may contentedly argue that it simply refines select qualities from Viva Emptiness, ties them together with the band’s core elements, and repressively delivers the results in a tidy-to-a-fault package. But as with any Katatonia album (even the weaker ones), there’s more going on than the lampglow initially reveals.

One of the first items of note is the album’s striking art style, adorning a strict red-on-black color scheme with grim, messily drawn images. The use of black is self-explanatory, considering it’s mainly used as a background and suits Katatonia’s desolate nature. Red, however, draws a distinct level of attention to the album and its overarching themes. Out of the many subjects that red symbolizes amidst various cultures, sacrifice, aggression, heat and danger are among the more consistent with what The Great Cold Distance explores. The shade of hot red and the “cold distance” of black is reflected in the album’s positively anxiety-ridden soundscape. This particular anxiety can be likened to a proper horror film, the kind that breathes with a pulsating heartbeat during its overtly scary moments, only to still the air with a looming tension when things momentarily settle down. We’re constantly subjected to this treatment throughout the album, often within any given track; be it the nervous vocal passages that break the otherwise blaring “Consternation,” or the brief, violent uprising three minutes into “Follower.” Even with the shifting tones from section to section, The Great Cold Distance sticks to a mid-tempo pace, barely breaking rhythm for more than a few seconds at a time. Thus, every moment, be it a lull or escalation, feels grounded, as if to repress the music from getting out of hand. It’s a classic case of building atmosphere through contrast, and while Katatonia had certainly toyed with this approach in previous albums, The Great Cold Distance wields it with a newfound comfort and confidence.

Album titles are another tell-tale sign of things to come, and The Great Cold Distance is no different, particularly with regards to the recurring theme of distance. While this isn’t a concept album, there’s a definite pull and consistent momentum from track to track. Instrumentally speaking, The Great Cold Distance rests on the simple end of the spectrum, alternating soft guitar melodies with aggressive (though still palpable) power chords to drive the aforementioned moments of escalation. Though some songs indulge in being heavy (“Increase”) while others lean towards a disquieting tranquility (“Follower”), the album rarely lets one dominate for more than a couple minutes at a time. Another consistency is the abstract nature of the lyrics, which Jonas Renkse often sings with either detachment or despair. His more passionate croons are in notably short supply here–one exception being the chorus to “In the White”, further reinforcing an overall sense of impartiality. The specifics of each song aren’t always apparent, which can make some of them feel rather cryptic. And considering the album isn’t fond of throwing musical curveballs, turning to its repressed sound for clues can ultimately lead to no avail. “Consternation” is among the more interesting songs to decipher, and an ideal example of the minimalist lyrics on display:

Wave back at me
Back is turned
If I fail once
Circuit burn

Saw you in the lampglow
You fade
Nothingness incarnate

Until I get there
Hidden
I will be

Some of the more instantly tangible tracks, by comparison, are those involving heartbreak, such as the relatively catchy “My Twin,” along with “In the White,” which seems to end on a surprisingly hopeful note. Since this is a Katatonia album, however, the closing track, “Journey Through Pressure,” is more appropriately depressing with its implications of suicide:

Pushing the will
Being alive
Well I have been
I came far
The process of trying
To act unharmed
It will fade out

The idea of a band sounding comfortable is often likened to sounding safe or lazy, but it can also suggest that said band is in their natural element. Katatonia, for better or for worse, had long felt like travelers navigating a weathered map to reach a destination where they could fully prosper from. The Great Cold Distance is that destination. By toning the dials back on Viva Emptiness’ lingering aspects and taking charge with a more defined direction, Katatonia delivered arguably the most consistent album of their career. It’s not a particularly venturous affair, but even the greatest adventurers need time to collect themselves before greeting the new, coming day. Or night.

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