What’s to like?
Sweden’s prog-metallers bring their brand of melancholic heaviness to Glasgow and deliver a crowd-pleasing set that does their music credit.
The low down
Sweden’s Katatonia have travelled a similar path to their countrymen Opeth, starting out as a death metal band and gradually evolving over the years to the point where their current music sits just as comfortably in progressive pastures as it does in metal circles.
However, Katatonia’s metamorphosis has been more gradual and nuanced, side-stepping the kind of (over) reaction that greeted Opeth’s controversial Heritage album with its unexpected detour into a more jazz-folk vibe. (For the record, I actually liked Heritage – I still do.)
It took me a wee while to settle into Katatonia’s style of metal, initially trying their Dead End Kings album several times, then its ambient variant Dethroned And Uncrowned. They eventually clicked with me with the Viva Emptiness album, which I then saw them perform in full during a slot supporting Paradise Lost – Katatonia’s shorter performance was way more satisfying than that of the headliners that night.
The most recent album The Fall Of Hearts was one of last year’s highlights for me – and you can read my review here:
The band have been touring steadily to support it, so I reckoned they’d be pretty seasoned with the newer material by the time they reached the UK leg, and I was looking forward to hearing how it sounded alongside older songs in a live setting.
The band got quite a reasonable turnout at the Glasgow show, not completely filling the venue, but still a respectable showing, and quite a vocal one too. And that’s what probably made this gig so enjoyable.
Katatonia aren’t the most dynamic of bands on stage, partly because of the physical restrictions of playing small stages, but also because their front man Jonas Renske comes across as a hesitant performer. When singing he tends to hide behind a curtain of long hair, head down, rarely making eye contact. That’s not to say he’s ignoring the audience though, because in between songs he speaks very graciously to the crowd and you sense the appreciation. Perhaps Renske’s low-key approach is also down to the need to concentrate on keeping in time with the tricky time signatures that shift and change so frequently within each song.
But it does mean that the audience have little to focus on visually, other than the guitarists occasionally headbanging together, and Renske occasionally urging the crowd on with a cry and a wave. Mind you, lead guitarist Anders Nystrom cut a suitably cool figure brandishing a Flying V for several songs.
So it really all comes down to the songs, which can also be a tricky proposition if you’re unfamiliar with them. Although rooted in metal guitar riffs and double bass-kick drumming, the band have become more sophisticated in their song arrangements over the last few albums, and you can quickly find yourself wrong-footed by an abrupt change in tempo.
That growing sophistication has also influenced their sound, with increased use of keyboard layers underneath the guitars. The band appear to use backing tapes to recreate the keyboards which does pose a paradox. They probably feel that there’s insufficient need to take a keyboard player on the road – they play the keyboards themselves while recording – and yet those programmed layers are a critical part of each song’s texture and vibe. And that’s where I had a struggle during the early part of the set.
I’ve rarely experienced good sound in this venue, and this gig was no exception. As a result, the guitars initially sounded a bit low in the mix, muffled by the programmed keyboards and the vocals coming across a tad loud and harsh. Katatonia’s sound is very much defined by Renske’s softly sung vocals, which work well in the studio, but struggle a little onstage, which may be why he’s mixed a little higher to compensate. The guy can sing, but there were a few off-key moments early on and his placing in the sound mix worked against the music.
Happy to say though that the sound eventually settled down into a mix that did each player credit, and while some of the more subtle moments got lost in translation, it was great to hear these songs loud and live. And some of the credit for the show’s success has to go to the Glasgow audience. They got behind every song, roared their approval, galvanising the band and bringing the energy and excitement that you can only experience in a live setting.
Any shortcomings in the sound were mitigated by a well chosen setlist that played to the band’s strengths, with a healthy selection from the new album mixed with songs picked fairly evenly from the preceding five albums, particularly focussing on the tenth anniversary of The Great Cold Distance. I felt Night Is The New Day was a little neglected, only contributing one song but that aside it was a pretty good spread across the band’s most recent releases.
|Setlist (courtesy of Setlist.FM)
Last Song Before The Fade, Criminals, Serein, Dead Letters, Buildings, Old Heart Falls, Teargas, Evidence, Ghost Of The Sun, Soil’s Song, Residual, In The White, Forsaker, Leaders, Passer.
Encores: My Twin, Lethean, July
If they’d added more songs they would have gone further past the curfew than they did, so all credit to them for playing a full set, and for having the confidence in their new album to include almost half of it in their set. Many bands these days only throw in a cursory couple of new tracks and stick with tried and trusted material, so good on Katatonia for not playing it safe, and perhaps selling a few more copies of the album after people heard these tracks live.