Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Katatonia gets in touch with their softer side for Dead End Kings

To observe Katatonia is to view the portrait of a band in transition. They were once doom metal purveyors, crafting a sound that simple yet effective while packing in the level of emotion you'd expect from a doom band. But somewhere around 2006's The Great Cold Distance, a shift starting taking place.

There was a greater emphasis being placed on creating a sense of atmosphere behind the music; it was an attempt to expand their sound beyond the typical trappings of heavy metal. 2009's Night is the New Day was a much softer and even more atmospheric followup, which would set the stage for Dead End Kings.

For those familiar with Opeth's discography, Dead End Kings could be viewed as Katatonia's Heritage. They follow Opeth in stripping away the vast majority their metal elements in an effort to build a sound that is lush, dense and atmospheric. But unlike Opeth, they aren't glued to their influences. Heritage was benefited and sabotaged by its massive hard on for all things 70s prog that spent too much time looking backward and didn't do enough to further the band's sound.

Conversely, on Dead End Kings, Katatonia barely sounds like a doom metal band anymore. But they still sound like Katatonia. By slowly shifting their sound over the past few albums, they've helped ease the transition into focusing on atmosphere and subtle dynamics. But not wanting to remain stagnant, they've also introduced several new elements that pushes their sound across new boundaries.

Opener "The Parting" introduces strings and piano, decidedly softer touches that should instantly catch the listener's ear. It demonstrates that piano can work very well with Jonas Renske's voice, while the gliding guitar lead near the end of the track fits in well with their new sound.

"The Racing Heart" features one of Renske's best vocal performances. Its big chorus is a common Katatonia feature, but the real gripper is the almost acapella section that closes the song. "Hypnone" demonstrates the band's focus on atmospherics with its background instrumentals that twist and turn like a rainstorm, while "The One You Are Looking For is Not Here" sees Katatonia's take on female vocals. Guest vocalist Silje Wergeland never takes the spotlight for herself; rather she merely provides background coloring, true to Katatonia's style.

"Buildings" is perhaps the only truly punishing song on the disc. Renske perfectly captures a sense of unease and desperation, while the guitars provide something rarely heard on a Katatonia song - a minor sense of groove.

And don't think that just because they softened up that their technical ability has declined. "Lethean" proves they're still rock solid as ever with a flowing guitar solo. The beat during that section is heavy, but it's because of Daniel Liljekvist's drums and the rhythm section as opposed to the guitars.

Dead End Kings succeeds because they prove they're much more than a metal band. They mix heavy riffs in when it seems appropriate, but are no longer bound to being metal for metal's sake. Because so much of what they do is predicated on atmosphere and subtle background effects that sometimes their songs tend to float around in too much ambiance, and they get boring. They remedy this by expanding on the dense airy sound of Night is the New Day. They vastly improve the direction established there by producing a record that is much more varied and melodic. It results in one of Katatonia's most engaging and musically stimulating albums in recent memory.

Score: 84/100

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