For those who don’t usually delve into the heavier, more extreme side of rock music, the make-or-break factor when it comes to today’s metal bands is often the vocals, and with the more popular bands (Mastodon, Lamb of God, The Red Chord) utilizing robust, albeit monotone howls, screams, and roars, the common refrain among curious new listeners is always, “I liked it until the guy started screaming.” Admittedly, it’s becoming more and more infrequent to hear metal bands, especially all-male acts, take melodic vocals in new directions. Such is the nature of heavy metal: it’s always been huge, loud, theatrical, and generally over the top. The singing/screaming style has always been just as bombastic, whether it’s the “cookie monster” grunts of Chris Barnes or the flamboyance of DragonForce’s ZP Theart. And if a singer does manage to sound accessible enough (Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, for instance), it comes with a heavy dose of ’80s rock star goofiness that many of today’s more mainstream-oriented listeners find off-putting. Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt possesses an incredible singing voice that has very broad appeal, but when he makes with those harsh growls of his, skeptical newbies abandon hope. More often than not, if someone wants to hear some subtlety in the metal vocal department, he or she has to go to the female-fronted acts, such as The Gathering and Lacuna Coil.
This is where Sweden’s Katatonia come in, who, thanks to singer Jonas Renske’s inability to emit a redundant death metal roar due to medical reasons, have been forced to approach their vocals from a completely different direction, and on their seventh full-length album, the shift in style has achieved near perfection. As strong as 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down and 2003’s Viva Emptiness were, The Great Cold Distance has Renske honing his vocal delivery to the point where he rarely rises above a soft-voiced, brooding croon, and with the languid, at times dreamy doom arrangements behind him, it makes for an absolutely sumptuous, hypnotic combination that dares to match the artistry of The Cure’s Disintegration, and very nearly pulls it off.
Like their past work, the new album cruises in the same mid-tempo gear, but as simple and repetitive as the prospect may seem, the band provides ample — yet subtle — variations throughout the 50-minute running time. So focused is The Great Cold Distance, though, that Katatonia creates that pensive atmosphere better than they’ve ever done before. Ripples of tremolo guitar underscore the maelstrom of dark chords on “Leaders”, as Renske sings in his measured voice enigmatic lyrics that appear to seethe with rage (“I split my heart in two/But you don’t have it in you/Do you?”), while similar contrasts punctuate the forlorn “Soil’s Song”, as E-bowed guitar adds a hint of foreboding to the forceful chorus. The sudden rise of tension in “Consternation” is counterbalanced by a beautiful guitar solo interlude, and the intro of “Rusted” comes closest to a truly mellow moment, before those clouds of doom return. Drummer Daniel Liljekqvist puts in a stellar performance on “Increase”, the closest thing to a complex song on the record, as his assured beats, reminiscent of Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake, anchor the song’s slyly rigorous riffs, without which, the entire song would implode.
The album’s first single, “My Twin” fully deserves attention from mainstream audiences, a flat-out gorgeous Goth ballad carried entirely by Renske’s impassioned performance as he shifts from haunting imagery (“The neck and then the chain/The head is hung in shame”) to a devastating, deeply personal chorus (“Was it all for nothing?/Are you strong when you’re with him?”). Opeth’s Akerfeldt might be today’s master of modern metal poeticism, but it’s been a while since we’ve heard a song this genuinely emotional, especially from a male singer. Very nearly as powerful is “In the White”, whose instrumentation is highly reminiscent of Opeth, from Renske’s vocal melodies, to Mattias Norrman’s undulating bass line, but this song is more focused on melody, and less on structure (as opposed to their peers), and works brilliantly.
The Great Cold Distance is a sly little record, one that sounds rather simple upon first listen, but which slowly reveals itself as being quite the Pandora’s Box the more it’s explored. The feel good album of the year this is not, but with Renske’s unique singing, which, given the chance, would win over anyone who loves those “dark night of the soul” albums, feeling forlorn rarely is this exhilarating. If there’s a 2006 metal release that merits a wider audience than it probably will get, it’s this one.