Review Summary: Clenching desperation
Katatonia albums are often demanding affairs. Even if the music instantly “clicks,” there’s a lingering sense of far more to discover. In a way, picking a Katatonia album is like choosing a drink for the long evening ahead. The initial taste may be harsh, particularly to first-timers, but there’s always a pull at the end of each sip. Some affect you differently than others, but the desire to savor and indulge just one more time is ever-present. To that end, the band’s debut, Dance of December Souls
, is effectively a dark spirit with an initially cringe-inducing profile that yields a distinct flavor, enticing you to partake and appreciate the product you previously scowled upon.
What makes Dance of December Souls
so distinct is its overall approach to doom metal. The long-standing subgenre was already associated with slow, down-tuned music well before Katatonia’s inception, but the once-small Swedish outfit took the formula and crafted a much darker concoction than their peers. Not only is the overall soundscape full of cold, faint echoes and desolation, but each member feels like they’re carrying an insurmountable weight from track to track. Anders Nystrom dances around the guitar with strained precision, offset by deliberately slouched notes, further matched by fleeting moments of mark from the bass. As the album title implies, each track feels like a dance through multiple sections, each noticeably different from the last; “Tomb of Insomnia” stands out with a seamless melody of contrasting guitar notes, going from relaxed and dream-like to grisly and wounded and back again. And yet, Dance of December Souls
also employs an approach of simplicity with regards to each instrument’s role. The amount of overlap is only occasionally present, resulting in a collection of songs that less committed listeners will easily lose interest in. This ambience can easily be confused for emptiness, however, which may have been intentional on the band’s part, what with Jonas Renkse proclaiming “Vast are fields I walk/Where sorrow never dies” and “to the North I rode, on the coldest of winds” throughout the album. However, these lyrics are also ripe with exclamations of death, dying and sorrow, verging so much on self-parody that they can readily disenchant the listener.
While we’re on the topic of lyrics, a particular case must be made for frontman Jonas Renkse, who entered Katatonia as both drummer and singer. Dance of December Souls
is dominated by harsh elements, with Renkse’s seemingly untrained vocals being at the forefront. Despite some passages being difficult to look past (the end of “In Silenced Enshrined”), Renkse feels like he’s viciously tearing his throat and mouth open to share with us his ultimate sense of pain and suffering. The crescendo four minutes into “Velvet Thorns (of Drynwhyl)” leaves an especially strong impression, serving blood-pumping guitars up as a proper backdrop for the shivering shrieks at-hand. While cleans later became a defining quality of post-Brave Murder Day
albums, here they’re seldom and subdued, lending Dance of December Souls
even further claim to its dismal doom metal nature.
Katatonia’s hour of introduction (actually 53 minutes) is quite possibly their most challenging, not just due to how it compares to its successors, but also due to its slow-burning animosity. Catchy moments do reside throughout the album’s handful of lengthy tracks, but they’re hardly up-front and certainly do not represent the entire product. Instead, the entire affair preys upon those seeking the bleakest of experiences, whether to understand or be understood. Is it the best representation of what would become Stockholm’s gloomy poster child" No, but it accomplishes what any worthwhile Katatonia release should do: provide a listening experience that only gets better over time.