REVIEWED: Katatonia - 'Sky Void of Stars'
From the ghoulish, raggedly visceral throes of 1996 classic ‘Brave Murder Day’ and the crushingly expansive grooves of ‘The Great Cold Distance’ (2006) through to the dizzying, sleekly muscled riffery of 2020’s critically-applauded ‘City Burials’, few bands are half as adept at delivering such consistently stellar studio output as our very own beloved masters of melancholy, Katatonia. Whether spitting forth vocal cord-liquefying screams, weaving sumptuous, distortion-drenched melodies or conjuring the most exquisitely delicate ambient details, the Swedes’ prestigious, 32-year career to date has richly illustrated two indisputable truths where the making of delectably dark and affecting art is concerned. The first of which being that creativity frequently thrives off human feeling and self-expression in its most raw and unflinchingly exposing form. Secondly, that such game-changing artistic feats easily defy the simplistic parameters of style and genre, occupying a space quite unique to its creators.
True to form, newly-unleashed album ‘Sky Void of Stars’ is characteristically awash with all the genre-twisting ingenuity and stirringly evocative feeling we’ve come to expect from Katatonia as these ambitious players continue to forge boldly ahead into fresh and fearlessly uncharted creative territories. Witnessing a significant amplification of both the progressive and melodic rock trappings showcased on 2020 predecessor ‘City Burials’, this anticipated follow-up also features by far the most broadly accessible material we’ve yet to hear from the iconic Swedish collective. So for those whose tastes tend toward the decidedly darker, doom-laden end of the genre, the record’s more mellow and, in places, downright catchy moments may prove something of a stylistic adjustment. Take, for instance, the airily flourishing, Depeche Mode-flavoured synths and feverishly pulsating electronica that figures prominently in the sleekly sculpted motions of ‘Opaline’. Or the endlessly spiralling, proggy intricacies and rousing anthemic choruses with which ‘Impermanence’ is generously furnished.
But despite this marked accentuation of the lighter and more listenable traits comprising Katatonia’s continually evolving craft, this deftly handled sonic shift never once feels jarring or incongruous within the record's impeccably assembled mix. Indeed, any listener familiar with the band’s increasingly progressive output post-2003’s genre-smashing ‘Viva Emptiness’ will no doubt attest that their darkly evocative magic resides as much in quietly restrained subtlety and nuance as it does in its doom-laden accents of tombstone-weighted gloom and despair.
But although the more progressively inclined likes of ‘Drab Moon’ and ‘Sclera’ make for inventively varied additions to the mix, there are, nevertheless, certain features of ‘Sky Void…’ that beguile more instantaneously and absolutely than others. Specifically, the majestic, expansively whirling guitar leads and weightily turbulent, ‘Night Is The New Day’-era bass grooves of ‘Austerity’ coalesce here to create thoroughly intoxicating listening. Following the sultry, mid-paced progressive intricacies of ‘Opaline’, transporting standout ‘Birds’ explodes out of the gate in a pitch-black profusion of pulverising bass and searing, stratospheric riffage, its frenetic pacing and densely muscled metallic power leaving us instantly giddy with adrenaline. Borne up and away into the great beyond on soaring, sleekly elongated lines of riffage that strike a masterful balance between blistering aggression and wistfully evocative feeling, this transcendental slab finds the accomplished doomsters at the towering peak of their compositional powers.
While ‘Sky Void’s…’ more leisurely paced progressive elements might border on the overly sedate and mild-mannered for those with a proclivity for the more violently energised facets of the genre, this is a nonetheless seamlessly arranged, inventive and, on numerous occasions, breathtaking body of work. A complex and richly layered long-player that, with repeated listens and re-visitations, takes considerable time to fully unravel and reveal its myriad, dark-hearted charms and genre-crossing idiosyncrasies.
'Sky Void of Stars' is out now via Napalm Records