Music teaches us many lessons but the lesson which possibly resounds the hardest is that nothing good can last. We watch celebrated careers wither away into money-grabbing husks on a yearly basis. The music lives on but the people who made it, mortals all, die and fade away. Entire genres which once enjoyed immense support around the globe collapse in a matter of months. And yet, as befits something so complex as music, it also teaches us the inverse, that, in spite of all those things, the music itself lives on. More than that, there are bands and artists out there that can stand the test of time. While they’ll surely die on some tragic day, their careers will hardly fade before then, like a flower which stays vibrant until the day it suddenly wilts.
One such flower is the illustrious career of Katatonia. In operation for almost three decades, and spanning at least as many genres, the influence which Katatonia and its members have had on the metal scene is immeasurable. From production, through performance, to composition, Katatonia have had a hand in countless bands, scenes, and genres. And yet, somehow, their career stays as brisk as it always has, if in different ways. Dead End Kings (has it really been eight years since it was released?) announced yet another phase in their career, moving away from the heavier and moodier sounds of the preceding trio. The Fall of Hearts capitalized on that change by further digging into the progressive elements in the band’s core but also moved away from the bleak perspective that dominated Dead End Kings, injecting the music with much needed energy.
And now we have City Burials. It is an album that draws on elements from both of the aforementioned album but also, crucially, from the last album of the previous iteration of Katatonia’s career, namely Night is the New Day. This influence is mostly heard on tracks like the more grandiose “Behind the Blood”. Its chunky, bass-infused riffs and soaring solo (that opens the track) have the more flamboyant, and heavier, sounds of Night is the New Day all over them. However, this is far from a retread or a step in place; “Behind the Blood” has much of the energies which made The Fall of Hearts so good. This is mainly evident in the obvious dexterity of the track, which was absent from Night is the New Day, a progressive sort of agility in the structure that makes it much more interesting and unexpected.
But “Behind the Blood”, and other tracks like it (like the fast-following “Rein”, for example), are just one part of the equation that makes up City Burials. The other part is more in-line with their latest output, although it draws more from Dead End Kings than it does from The Fall of Hearts. This is of course the dark, depressing, and intensely emotional mode for which Katatonia are famous. It is most in evidence on the frankly chilling “Vanishers”, featuring an excellent guest spot from Anni Bernhard. But at the center of that track, as it has been for the last few releases, is the unmistakable timbre of one Jonas Renkse. It is really hard to overstate how good Renkse is; it’s frankly amazing to see how much his voice has developed and maintained its excellence over the years. Like the flower we opened with, it seems to go from strength to strength and it is used in its full, brutal, heart-wrenching capacity on “Vanishers”.
The last piece in the equation is a typification of what The Fall of Hearts was all about, namely marrying the darker tones of Katatonia’s career with a more free-spirited and far-ranging tone, fierce if not exactly optimistic. This can be heard on the opening “Heart Set to Divide” or the later “City Glaciers”. This is one of the best tracks on the album, possessed of a groove that’s hard to resist, and a soaring chorus that is catharsis distilled. The strings, the backing vocals, Renkse’s voice (filled here with a demand for a better future), all combine to make one of the most satisfying and subtly fulfilling tracks of Katatonia’s career.
And herein lies the rub: Katatonia are still, almost thirty years into their career, eleven albums in, making some of the best music they have ever made. Their career is pristine, crystal clear in its excellence, but they keep building on it, doing new things with the basic, melancholic, gothic sound that first garnered them the attention of the metal community. In all honesty, they’re a band which makes me remember why I even listen to music, so I can touch the sublime even for a brief instance and remember that music shall prevail. City Burials has plenty of those brief instances on it, Katatonia’s skill and experience shining through to make a varied, engaging, and touching album.
City Burials is available now via Peaceville Records.