Review Summary: Katatonia, as has been and will be said, begin to hone their sound and craft an album which delivers on their long-standing promise.
I won't pretend like I'm a hardcore Katatonia fan. My dabblings in their discography have been mostly motivated by their proximity to Opeth, a link that by now is tenuous at best. Sure, Mikael Akerfeldt showed up on 1996's Brave Murder Day to lend his inimitable bellow, but that was almost fifteen years ago (wow). Katatonia have since moved away from their blackened roots and become a reliable, consistent metal band, putting out records with a definite formula, but one that generally works well. What's been holding them back has been the vocals of Jonas Renkse, who used to sound a lot like a sleepy Robert Smith. With 2006's The Great Cold Distance he seemed to get close to, if not find, his niche, one equally sleepy but much more distinct - unfortunately, there was still something holding them back. The melodies, maybe, or the structures, or even his style wearing thin.
Katatonia's newest record, Night is the New Day, finally delivers on the band's promise. The production leaps out with a hitherto-unheard clarity and force. Instruments are mixed well, and the vocals are clearly upfront. Renske's vocals are far better than in the past, deep and emotive; it also helps that there are a bunch of processing tricks used to keep his admittedly limited range sounding fresh. He abandoned the death grunt a long time ago, leaving the burden on his steadily-improving clean vocals. He's not a brilliant singer, but here he's honed the transitions from aggression to serenity, and he seems to step out a bit more on the higher lines. The melodies on Day are what really make the album, and they're stronger than ever. There's a moment in "The Longest Year" where Renske sings a vaguely Eastern line; it's only a few seconds, but it's soulful enough to stick with you. Album opener "Forsaken" blasts out with a bottom-heavy, pseudo-Gojira riff before clearing up. And on that point, I feel like Katatonia's instrumentation has always been secondary to the overall song. They're not spectacular writers, so the burden usually falls on the vocal melody to stand out. There are definitely moments where a guitar line or a drumbeat catches the ear, but the verse-chorus structure necessitates the prominence of the vocals. However as musicians, Katatonia are great, and their playing is catchy, at least, and always contributes rather than dominates. On Day, the vocals and the vocal melodies are the strongest yet. The songs are varied enough, and the riffs usually warrant close attention, as if you aren't listening closely it can indeed sound like one big doomy mash. But it's not, haters!
And comparisons to Opeth are perhaps inevitable, but for the most part they don't converge, sonically. Katatonia are keeping things under five minutes these days, while Opeth continue to write slabs of eight, nine, eleven minute craziness. I don't like Katatonia as much as I do Opeth, but that's like the boneheaded AC/DC versus Metallica comparison. There's nothing to be gained by pitting the two against one another except a spiraling hell of argument.
The album's never thrashy or overly aggressive; if you're looking for siqq breakdowns and clinically precise blast beats, you may have to move on. It relies mostly on contrasting guitar lines; low and high, along with clever drumming and...reliable bass work. I should listen better for that. Also, the use of keyboards is effective and smart; it's not fanfare synths and it's not Rick Wakeman fuges, opting rather for a subtle electric piano that hovers somewhere within the mix. The music's depressive and doomy but not straight-out metallic. But Katatonia have proven to be adept at what they do, and Night is the New Day points to a bright future for these...not-so-young Swedes. It's definitely one of my favorites of the year, if that means anything. I guess whatever I like ends up in my favorites, so it's not a very exclusive list. Regardless, it's a solid, even great, album that rewards close listening and certainly the strongest effort from Katatonia thus yet.