Album: City Burials
Last year, the Swedish juggernaut of atmospheric gloom, Katatonia, celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2009 album, Night Is the New Day, with a special tour and a re-issue of the album adorned with a deluxe treatment. Maybe this sort of self-reflection was just what the band needed to come out of the hiatus, announced in 2018. This short breather, a moment of introspection, might explain why their eleventh studio album, City Burials, released on April 24th, 2020, via Peaceville, evokes pretty strong flashbacks of this particular album in the band’s back-catalog.
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In a way, the band’s “new” sound went full circle, from 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down to The Fall of Hearts, released in 2016. Over the past 20 years, the band’s signature sound evolved from raw and doomy metal to progressive metal conduct layered with haunting, atmospheric textures. The “growth” curve was climbing steadily, until it reached its peak with The Fall of Hearts. In terms of a haunting atmosphere, The Fall of Hearts, was the absolute pinnacle album for the band, hard to top without going completely zen – like David Sylvian’s exploration of the space within on the album, Approaching Silence.
The next logical step was either to go full idiot with that specific “Opethian” vintage prog and the syncopated Tool riffs or confront the band’s dark past in search of an even darker future. The title of the 2009 studio album should be a tell-tale sign. What is this band all about?
One thing is for sure: it is not about throwing horn signs in the circle pit – usually the band’s frontman, Jonas Renkse, has a withdrawn aura on stage when chanting his dark incantations. Katatonia is most adept at conjuring up unique, dark atmospheres. On this new album, the band revisits its own canon of darkness with heavy overtones. These dark new elegies are charged with such a burn of rejection and the pain of letting go that it could almost make the heart skip a beat – and certainly not in the Olly Murs kind of way. At first, the album does not seem to have such instant earworms as “My Twin” or “Lethean,” but it sneaks up on you like a stealth bomber, slowly, biding its time. The beauty of most Katatonia albums is the long life cycle – the nuances are usually so subtle that they reveal themselves over time, and when they do, the impact is massive.
New ingredients are rationed in moderation on City Burials. On the second track, “Behind the Blood,” Renkse seasons his signature vocal delivery with almost hard-rockish nuances and “Vanisher” features guest vocals by Anni Bernhard of Stockholm-based Full of Keys. This new Katatonia album also sees the return of Anders Eriksson; his tasteful keyboard chops also adorned Night is the New Day and Dead End Kings. Here and there, the ambient synth textures and sequenced motifs dissolve the boundaries between metal and trip hop. You either love it or hate it. With the guitar distortions by-passed, “Untrodden” could almost be a lost Never, Never, Land-era Unkle track, swinging in a 6/8-breakbeat. Upon first listening, “Lacquer” stands out due to the prominent use of sequenced elements. It’s certainly not the first time Katatonia have used synths and programmed loops in their music, but the scale is unlike anything the band has ever done before, Eriksson’s fine remixes notwithstanding. The arrangement would fit fluently on Sohn’s magnificent 2014 full-length, Tremors, which bursts with an extraordinary amount of emotion for an electronica album.
In all honesty, it has to be stated that the first impression of the album was, “Huh? Where are the hooks?!” After the first few laps, however, the hidden gems start to crawl forth and, “Oh, THERE YOU ARE!” It is a dangerous path to blend ambient textures and chill-out elements with metal, yet Katatonia keenly avoid the clichéd trappings of cheesy lounge music. Of course, it helps that the band have cultivated a magic touch for almost three decades. The band has a certain level of prominence when it comes to capturing the darker nuances of human emotions. Some wise men in Gotham say that pain carves depth in one’s character. I wonder what pain this gloomy bunch has battled to come up with yet another haunting album that speaks on the subject with such credibility. Though, I’m glad they have – City Burials is a brilliant album! It does not punch you in the face like a ton of bricks; it creeps upon you and sticks like gum.
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
1. Hearts Set to Divide
2. Behind the Blood
5. The Winter of Our Passing
7. City Glaciers
10. Neo Epitaph