[11 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Katatonia has been slowly working toward this moment for the past 11 years. After delivering one of death/doom metal’s most enduring classics in 1996’s Brave Murder Day, the Swedish band underwent a major stylistic makeover. Long unable to perform the harshly growled vocals that the sound demanded (Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt provided lead vocals on Brave Murder Day as a favor), founding member Jonas Renske decided to incorporate a cleanly sung style that flew directly in the face of extreme metal convention, bucking the usual rule of having a metal frontman sounding larger than life, instead drawing heavily from Robert Smith of the Cure. Renske’s fragile, melancholic crooning, coupled with the band’s much more streamlined sound (influenced by Fields of the Nephilim and especially the Cure’s Disintegration) made for a sound that boldly stood apart from the rest of a metal pack that was sounding more and more extreme with each year.
However, it wasn’t a sudden, glorious transformation. Despite plenty of striking moments, Katatonia Version 2.0 was a work in progress, each new studio album a marginal improvement over previous one. With 2003’s Viva Emptiness, though, something started to click. The rest of the band, led by guitarist Anders Nyström, sounded like its identity was truly taking shape, the songs consistent and replete with enough downcast melodies to rival any of their gothic heroes from two decades prior, but it was in Renske’s singing where the real improvements were most notable. For the first time it sounded like he was singing with authority, the shyness giving way to a subtly commanding presence at the mic. 2006’s superb The Great Cold Distance was an even bigger improvement on all fronts, and the subsequent live album/DVD Live Consternation showed just how far Katatonia had come, performances of such earlier tracks as “Cold Ways” and “Right Into the Bliss” obliterating the originals, evidence that Renske had found his voice at long last.
As gratifying as Katatonia’s graceful metamorphosis has been to witness, we’ve been forced to learn to be patient with the band as of late. Instead of churning out the albums and EPs like they did between 1995 and 2001, the last three albums have been especially fussed over, with long three-year gaps between releases. But as they’ve proved before, the wait is always worth it, and that’s most certainly the case with their eighth full-length Night is the New Day, a masterful, mournful opus that, while not as seminal as Brave Muder Day, will go down as their finest hour.
The characteristics of Viva Emptiness and The Great Cold Distance are all there on the new one, with sublimely crafted songs in the four- to five-minute range that meld monolithic riffs and textured mellow passages, creating a sumptuous backdrop for Renske’s often gorgeous vocalizing, but the flow of Night Is the New Day is especially remarkable, its sequencing inspired, the ebb and flow between loud and quiet entrancing. The musical partnership of Renske and Nyström has always been this band’s greatest asset, but this time around, the glue that holds the whole record together is provided by one Frank Default, whose keyboards, effects, and electronic touches lend the album a slight hint of Massive Attack’s darkness, which, coupled with the already stately, brooding compositions by the two leaders, is a perfect fit.
And those 11 songs all deliver, resoundingly so. “Forsaker” opens the album on an aggressive note, but those churning, down-tuned metal chords quickly give way to chiming darkwave strains, Renske’s singing during the verses exhibiting impressive depth and restraint. Other instances like the cold march of “Inheritance” and the languorous “Onward Into Battle” also focus on Katatonia’s heavier side, but it’s on the more adventurous, more atmospheric fare where the real strengths lie. “The Longest Year” is augmented beautifully by Default’s arrangement, slowly building to a careening climax during the two choruses. “The Promise of Deceit” boasts dissonant lead guitar fills by Nyström that sound more indebted to Aphex Twin than anything in the metal realm. “Idle Blood” is a rare acoustic departure whose layered vocal harmonies make Opeth’s similarly understated Damnation seem pedestrian by comparison.
Katatonia saves the best for last as the somber, Ulver-esque “Departer” caps off the album in stunning fashion, Renske and guest vocalist Krister Linder engaging in a beautiful display of vocal interplay atop an arrangement of ambient synths, the pair complementing each other impeccably. It’s a phenomenal showcase for Renske, the best track on an album that sees him grow fully into his role as a lead singer, while the rest of the band exhibits the most discipline that they ever have, opting for the slow burn instead of the big payoff. Katatonia has completely transcended the genre they helped create with an album that defies categorization, its appeal going far beyond metal, goth, or what have you, the sound of a veteran band finally having all the pieces fall into place at the perfect time. This is their Disintegration.