What’s to like?
Nordic metal band continues to break new ground, pushing its prog credentials with an album that raises their game musically, challenging the listener but in a way that’s accessible and natural, and ultimately rewarding. This album could well turn out to be one of the highlights of 2016.
The low down
The albums kicks off in typical Katatonia style with Takeover, a mix of twisty heavy guitar riffage, set against a measured tempo and Jonas Renske’s soft but clear singing. It’s a good choice to open the album, because it does so in a vibe familiar to fans, but as the song progresses, the arrangement becomes more sophisticated and you realise that the song is the band’s way of saying that this album is going to push the listener out of the comfort zone, albeit slowly and gently.
Renske has been a longtime pal of Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt, so it was only a matter of time before Opeth’s expansive sound influenced the writing in Katatonia, and this becomes more apparent as the album unfolds over the next twelve songs.
In some ways this shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans, because they’ve been heading in this direction with the last couple of albums. You can experience this transition quite effectively by listening to their Dead End Kings and Dethroned and Uncrowned albums back to back. Two albums with exactly the same songs but mixed to produce two radically different approaches, one downtuned and heavy, the other more reflective and atmospheric.
The Fall of Hearts takes those albums and combines the best of them into something both familiar and yet also breaking ground. It’s an interesting mixture of streamlined metal on tracks like Serein and Last Song Before The Fade played at a headbanging tempo with choppy guitar riffs and double-bass drum kicks, and more overtly progressive numbers that show the band keen to stretch and develop.
Tracks like Old Heart Falls and Decima tread more familiar territory, with the band’s trademark ballad approach, thoughtful and brimming with emotive lyrics but never maudlin or mawkish. Every drum beat, and down-tuned bass chord has clearly been mapped out beforehand, allowing Renske free reign to fit his lyrics and singing around the song to best effect. This is a particular characteristic of the band’s unique style, but to avoid it becoming stale, on this album they’ve introduced the mellotron to add colour to the melancholic vibe.
And it’s not all heaviness either. Tracks like Pale Flag and album closer Vakaren offer fleeting moments of true beauty in the midst of darkness, as only Nordic musicians can.
But the most rewarding songs are those where the band push the envelope more overtly, such as Sanction, Serac and The Night Subscriber with their bigger sound, and shifting time signatures. The guys are clearly ambitious to grow as musicians and while older fans may bemoan the widening gap from their death metal roots, just like Opeth, Katatonia need to feed this creative impulse to justify continuing to make music.
Unlike Opeth, however, Katatonia manage to skilfully wrap each of these epics into six or seven minutes and as a result these songs are just as tight as their shorter counterparts, inventive and imaginative in composition but never to the point of boredom setting in.
The lyrics have a poetic quality to them, and Renske has evidently put a lot of thought into the words and phrasing so that they blend seamlessly with the instruments and the arrangements. And that’s perhaps what makes Katatonia’s music a cut above other Swedish metal-progressive bands; they have a singer who can sing, and who’s softly uttered vocals are a welcome contrast to the trademark growling that holds their contemporaries back.
Katatonia’s music isn’t any less metal or dark, but their signature sound has endured because the singer hasn’t blown his vocal chords, and his partnership with guitarist Anders Nystrom has grown and matured over eighteen years, so that they are perfectly in tune with each other’s creative processes. They’ve also survived numerous line-up changes, and now have a new rhythm section who seem completely at home with the material here and have given the band a solid footing on which to continue developing their sound.
This is a band in transition, continually evolving, and I’m hoping that The Fall of Hearts will help them reach the wider audience their music deserves.