If there’s two things we can always be comfortably assured of in these increasingly bleak and uncertain times, it’s that: a. Katatonia will always produce unerringly brilliant and darkly absorbing audio and b. that, for at least the past decade or more, music critics will seemingly never tire of reminding us that the aforementioned legendary collective “really isn’t a metal band any more”. Presumably just on the off-chance that the many genre-obliterating stylistic shifts and incarnations underpinning the Swedes’ illustrious, 29 year career may have somehow miraculously escaped our attention. Worse still is the likely assumption that, in this apparent “mellowing” of sound, something of their former ‘edge’ or artistic credibility may have somehow been irrevocably compromised in transition. But despite having all but transformed beyond recognition since first emerging from legendary murk and mire of Stockholm’s burgeoning death metal scene back in 1991, this now-sleekly practised collective have since proven - record after record - that aggression is but one yarn in an altogether more expansive tapestry of blackly entrancing sonic elements and atmospheres. And with its seamless interlacing of airily spectral atmospherics, blackly turbulent bouts of bass-driven aggression and gilded, intricately woven progressive details, awaited new opus ‘City Burials’ pushes and progresses the Swedes’ iconic sound into the stuff of groundbreaking musical alchemy.
Rest assured, however, that the resulting mix is, for all its compositionally ingenious merits, unmistakably and assuredly Katatonia in flavour, being richly possessed of all the long-treasured trappings and idiosyncrasies of design we’ve come to associate with these inimitable kings of melancholia. Take, for instance, the intangibly delicate atmospherics that adorn the achingly bittersweet orchestrations of ‘Rein’, or the violently propulsive blasts that erupt forth from ‘Heart Set to Divide’ like some long-dormant beast rudely awakened from many centuries of blissfully uninterrupted slumber. Yet, alongside the studious preservation of all these richly iconic characteristics is an audible, keenly insatiable hunger for compositional progression, as was first fearlessly illustrated to the world with the unleashing of second single ‘Behind the Blood’ earlier this year. Released hot on the heels of the mournful, quietly affecting magic of mesmerising debut ‘Lacquer’, this gargantuan anthem of a follow-up displays no such delicate, understated subtlety of design. Indeed, from every inch of its pounding, feverishly urgent rhythmic core to its lacerating, stratospheric crescendos of Judas Priest-tinged fretwork, this is the unmistakable sound of a band audibly revelling in their own astounding compositional prowess.
Handling the record’s varied multitude of elegantly orchestrated tonal shifts and complex, darkly turbulent transitions with effortlessly practised, limber ease and agility, frontman Jonas Renkse is, as always, an endlessly compelling vocal presence. Through such violently energised episodes as ‘Rein’s’ relentlessly hammering blasts and ‘Behind the Blood’s’ grandly expansive layerings of lacerating fretwork, the vocalist retains impressively unwavering levels of full-throated stamina and sumptuous evocative depth. However, it’s in such sombre, compositionally restrained standouts as ‘Vanishers’ and the hauntingly melancholic ‘Lacquer’ that Renkse is finally at liberty to reveal the full, stunningly expressive scale of his truly inimitable vocal talents. Note, in particular, the glacial, fast-dissolving delicacy of the former’s exquisitely intermingled vocal harmonies, together with the latter’s stirringly evocative crescendos of deeply affecting anguish and yearning.
Put simply, ‘City Burials’ is, without question, Katatonia’s most compositionally varied and ambitious record yet, with each meticulously crafted track possessed of its own fiercely distinctive flavour and identity. However, the question of whether it is, in all other conceivable respects, an indisputably superior record to the various other notable cornerstones of the band’s illustrious back catalogue is one largely subject to the listener’s own highly subjective individual preferences and predilections. It does not, for instance, plunge us headlong into the harrowing, wintry depths of ink-black melancholia first glimpsed on 2006’s ‘The Great Cold Distance’. Nor does it abound so richly with the haunting, ethereal magic of 2012 masterwork ‘Dead End Kings’. And this is for the simple reason that Katatonia is an act characterised not by tired stagnation or the lazy rehashing of bygone glories, but on the constant forward motion and progression of their craft as this fearlessly intrepid collective forge boldly ahead into the brand new century.
'City Burials' is out now on Peaceville