Review Summary: A persuasive evolution in Katatonia's storied discography without sacrificing their emblematic melancholy.
My colleagues recently had an intriguing conversation when it comes to reviewing metal: can a writer critically analyze an album without referencing specific decades, name-dropping similar artists and subgenres, or comparing-and-contrasting records in the band's discography?
For Katatonia, whose lifespan is closing in on thirty years, the answer isn't so unambiguous.
While some compartmentalize the Swedes' discography into different eras, there's greater nuance between album-to-album rather than epoch-to-epoch. The common denominator throughout their records is authenticity: no album sounds precisely like a previous one, with logical, calculated components flawlessly integrated into Katatonia's consistent penchant for melodies and melancholy. City Burials
-- the band's eleventh LP -- is indisputably a reaction to 2016's The Fall of Hearts
, whose multi-layered and ethereal soundscapes were a brilliant evolution that expanded upon 2012's progressive-leaning Dead End Kings
. Continue this reverse-chronological rewind even further, and it's astonishing how Katatonia's metamorphosed since their early death/doom beginnings without ever sacrificing their cardinal ethos and musical vision.
is introspective and mournful; founding members Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström masterfully cultivate scenes of loss and ruin as they pertain to memories. While Stockholm is their primary setting throughout the record, their wistful nostalgia of growing up in Sweden can easily be extrapolated to our lives regardless of geography. The corner market, the independent bookstore, and the Mom-and-Pop shops' owners have retired or their buildings have been absorbed by the highest bidder, and Renkse elaborated on this sentimentality: "[I've] had so many memories from certain streets or even specific houses in this particular part of [Stockholm], and I thought that everything that's a memory now feels somehow buried. Every memory is a loss, in a way, because it's something you can't grab anymore." While much can be made about the capriciousness of memory, I can visualize some of my favorite childhood haunts and how they've been laid to waste by faceless office buildings; in short, Katatonia excel in vividly crafting this 'vulnerability of memory' motif into tangible sensations throughout City Burials
There's an appreciable gamut of stylistic splashes and spell-binding splendor in the album's first half. Second single "Behind the Blood" is an unequivocal rocker reminiscent of Judas Priest, with a soaring opening solo complemented by a thick, distorted main riff and Niklas Sandin's robust bass lines. After debuting on The Fall of Hearts
for a mere three solos, guitarist Roger Öjersson's influence is increasingly evident, seamlessly working in tandem with Nyström throughout the record with pinch harmonics, sweep-picking, and reverb-heavy, shredding leads that bolster, rather than detract from, the quintet's hallmark sound (closer "Untrodden"'s second half is a pristine example). Despite its electric passion and urgency, though, "Behind the Blood" is the album's red herring -- especially when bookended by the slow-burning opener "Heart Set to Divide" and the brooding, string-laden "Lacquer". What's particularly impressive about this opening set of songs is how the electronic flourishes (courtesy of longtime collaborator Frank Default) are effortlessly embedded into the orchestration, immediately bringing to mind Ulver's recent efforts and especially Renkse's collaborations with The Pineapple Thief's Bruce Soord (the opening minutes to "Heart Set to Divide", with his sublime vocal resonating as the instrumentation builds to a crescendo, is one definitive highlight). Renkse's lyricism continuously reinforces City Burials
' pensive framework: "The house we lived in / Riddled with disease / Scrape the lacquer / Can't you see it's all tarnished?" he laments during the lead single's zenith, before matter-of-factly remarking, "The road to the grave is straight as an arrow." It's a sobering jolt back to reality when temporarily lost in plaintive daydreaming.
Öjersson's heightened presence is not the only welcome addition to Katatonia's dynamic; drummer Daniel Moilanen (who also debuted on The Fall of Hearts
, albeit in a more omnipresent capacity) showcases shrewd savvy and technical skill in his sophomore effort. Moilanen shines brightest with emphatic grooves in second-half highlights "City Glaciers", "Flicker", and "Neon Epitaph", yet his dexterity on "Rein" and restraint on "The Winter of Our Passing" unveil impeccable control behind the kit. As aforementioned, multi-instrumentalist Frank Default is no stranger to Katatonia, and as spotlighted in the palate-cleansing "Lachesis", his keyboards, synths, and other electronic infusions amplify the emotional magnitude that permeates throughout City Burials
. The record, originally slated to be a Renkse solo album during the band's short hiatus before he changed his mind, is imbued with warm, inviting textures that serve as profound contrast to the somber, funereal settings Renkse invokes in his lyrics. There's still plenty of aplomb, though; his climbing vocal in "City Glaciers" ("Read my lips, love / Fill your lungs with words / Lest we forget to explore") is a resplendent counterpunch to the crestfallen songs. For instance, the harrowing "Vanishers", which features Anni Bernhard (Full of Keys, also of Stockholm) in a duet with Renkse, establishes how Katatonia juxtapose these seemingly-contrasting feelings in cogent, coherent fashion, and the vocalists' forlorn inquiry ("Who will remain and wake up to the sound of sorrow? / We're dead now / Affinity has been found below the ground") remains steadfastly congruent with City Burials
' heartrending imagery.
As Katatonia's existence approaches three decades' worth of music, their proclivity to evolve their sound across the sonic spectrum and stave off stagnation from record to record is peerless. While the death/doom days of yore are far removed from the Swedes' current palette, City Burials
is filled to the brim with vibrant textures and an expansive array of emotive sounds and stories. For straightforward numbers that are nevertheless unabashedly Katatonia, "Behind the Blood" and "The Winter of Our Passing" will whet the appetite; those who savor Katatonia's progressive grandeur will marvel at "Heart Set to Divide" and cinematic "Lacquer" found on the record's Side A and the "City Glaciers"-"Flicker" pairing in the latter half. Each track, whether it's elegiac or frenetic in pace, is intensified by Jonas Renkse's strongest vocal performance in the band's storied and perpetually-evolving discography. Steeped in striking colors but never losing sight of the gloom and grey continuum Katatonia have mastered throughout their discography, City Burials
is emotionally arresting, ceaselessly atmospheric, and a milestone release that serenely ebbs and flows across a myriad of intricate, stratified soundscapes.