Album Title: The Fall Of Hearts
Label: Peaceville Records
Date of Release: 20 May 2016
How does one remain objective and dispassionate when reviewing a band as special as Katatonia? As long-term readers will know all-too well, the Swedish masters of dark metal are one of my all-time favourite bands. Just take a look at the banner photo at the top of the page.
Not only is their music of the highest calibre, it is also one of the strongest links between my late brother and I. You see, he had great music taste and it was he that got me to see the light about Katatonia many years ago. Subsequently, whenever I hear Jonas Renkse’s delectably emotive voice or that unmistakeable guitar tone of Anders ‘Blakkheim’ Nystrom, my little brother’s face looms large in my mind every time, usually accompanied by a smile and the odd tear. For that alone, I owe Katatonia a debt of thanks.
But every new Katatonia album is now a bitter-sweet time for me. On the one hand, I cannot wait to hear what this remarkable band have come up with. On the other, I wish fervently that I could share the experience with my sibling. There have been moments where I’ve briefly forgotten the reality that surrounds me and I have instinctively gone to contact him to share my excitement. The sinking, gut-wrenching feeling that follows is unlike nothing else on Earth but thanks in part to Katatonia’s music, I am provided the strength and courage to plough on.
It is a maudlin and very personal opening to a review, for which I implore you to forgive me. But as difficult as it is to write, I hope that it provides some much-needed context about this band and I and helps to explain why I agonise over reviews like this.
But here we are and, in short, it is almost impossible for me to not laud ‘The Fall Of Hearts’ as one of the very best releases in the band’s 25-year career. I have weighed it up thoroughly as I’ve lain on the sofa late at night, almost every night, soaking up the music on offer here within album number ten.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how Katatonia would sound in 2016. After a tremendously stable line-up for many years, the last couple has seen a surprising number of personnel changes. Not only did the Norrman brothers depart together, but Fredrik Norrman’s six-string replacement, Per ‘Sodomizer’ Eriksson has also left. And let’s not forget drummer Daniel Lijlekvist who also jumped ship recently. All of this means that the current line-up sees vocalist Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström joined by bassist Niklas Sandin and newcomers Daniel Moilanen on drums and guitarist Roger Öjersson (Tiamat). It is still a little odd for the time being looking at the band photos but that pales into insignificance when you take a listen to ‘The Fall Of Hearts’. It is fair to say that the new additions are significant and extremely positive, both fitting into the established dynamic whilst offering their own unique signature sounds and styles.
New members or not, over the years, Katatonia have never been afraid to grow and change, from their blackened death/doom beginnings, through their slightly more nu-metal tinged ‘Viva Emptiness’ to the more overtly progressive output on ‘Dead End Kings’. And yet, whilst Katatonia 2016 is a very different beast to twenty-five years ago, each album has brought change whilst remaining true to the core of the Katatonia sound. ‘The Fall Of Hearts’ is no different in that respect either; it is instantly and unequivocally Katatonia. In many ways it is the natural successor to ‘Dead End Kings’, increasing the progressive leanings, meaning that arguably, it is also their most varied and ambitious recording to date.
First off, it is a huge album. At nearly 70 minutes in length and spread over 12 tracks, you certainly get value for money and any concern that Katatonia may have been lacking inspiration or drive coming into this recording is immediately expunged. Come on, this is Katatonia after all and so, if anything, it’s exactly the opposite, as if the quintet has come out of the blocks with all guns blazing to prove that the recent instability has not impacted on the band in anything other than a positive manner.
To prove this point, the album opens with ‘Takeover’ and immediately, the Jens Bogren (Fascination Street Studios) and Karl Daniel Lidén mix cannot go unmentioned. The clarity with which all of the instruments can be heard has to be witnessed to be believed, providing each and every song with the polish that it so richly deserves.
‘Takeover’ is an exquisitely-crafted piece of music that sums up Katatonia perfectly for me. The bleakness, the serenity and the feelings of darkness, loneliness, despair and anger are all encapsulated here, in an opening track that’s nothing short of magnificent.
It ebbs and flows majestically from a relatively quiet beginning to all-out full throttle attack mode complete with thunderous double-pedal drumming from Moilanen, powerful riffs from Nyström and Öjersson that call to mind those found on ‘The Great Cold Distance’ and a muscular guitar solo, something that’s still slightly unusual for Katatonia, although most welcome.
Jonas Renkse is one of my favourite vocalists in any kind of musical genre and his delivery within the chorus drips with his trademark sincerity and emotion that is entirely believable. He works in tandem with the layers of keys and a mournful, haunting guitar line to utterly devastating effect. Frankly, it floors me every time. What’s more, the song has an epic and distinctly progressive feel to it and, at seven minutes long, it is one of the longest compositions that Katatonia have penned for quite some time.
However, ‘Takeover’ is not the only longer track on ‘The Fall Of Hearts’. The intricately wrought and distinctly progressive ‘Serac’ is even longer, albeit only marginally. Heavy and urgent riffs catch the ear quickly, as does an overall tone that harks back to the very early days in my opinion. ‘Residual’ also pushes the seven-minute barrier very close, creating a sprawling composition that subtly works its way into my affections after a slow start. Ushered in by modern sampled sounds, the track eventually opens up into something more melodic and thoroughly engaging.
By contrast, tracks two and three, ‘Serein’ and ‘Old Heart Falls’ are much punchier and, if there is such a thing, more like typical, classic Katatonia. The former begins with a dark and dense atmosphere that is present throughout, complimented by a great dampened guitar. But it soon explodes with a panache that is captivating and a strong melodic , hard-rocking vibe that hints at Amorphis in tone . I love the way the song drops away at around the midpoint to allow the bass to shine. However, the melody quickly returns, the lead guitar again warms the heart, the head nods and a smile splits my face.
‘Old Heart Falls’ is the lead single, the first song to be released to the waiting public and it is another faultless piece of music. It blends together seamlessly the ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ era with the textures and tones explored on ‘Dead End Kings’. It’s more of a slow-burner as it builds gradually, hinting at a release of the floodgates. When it arrives, it is elegant, monstrous and highly addictive, with a hook to die for. I have been told off by an exasperated partner for singing and humming this track almost incessantly, it’s that addictive. Little bro, you would have lapped this one up, I know you would; I can just sense it.
‘The Fall Of Hearts’ then offers a genuine change of pace, if not tone, with ‘Decima’. It is here that the first real effects of the recent acoustic unplugged ‘Dethrowned and Uncrowned’ album and live shows can be heard. The band suggested that they might take inspiration from this venture as far as future song writing was concerned and here it is in all its glory. Soothing, almost whimsical and with a folk tinge, it is an intimate affair that allows Renkse to come fully to the fore against a backdrop of acoustic guitars, subtle woodwind instrumentation and a demonstrably more laid back tone. As always, the lyrics are very moving and there’s a beguiling fragility that tugs at the heartstrings. Do the tears make an appearance? What do you think?!
On the theme of ‘Dethroned and Uncrowned’, the latter cuts of ‘Shifts’ and ‘Pale Flag’ require a mention. Katatonia have never been afraid to drop the pace and up the sensitivity on previous releases, but on both of these tracks, this ingredient feels just a little more pronounced somehow. ‘Shifts’ floats into being to the eerie sounds of an old air raid siren which returns at times throughout the piece. It’s a spine-tingling addition, accentuating that dark bleakness and sense of pervading melancholy. ‘Pale Flag’ on the other hand, reintroduces the folky influences within a rather minimalist framework that threatens to open into something huge but tantalisingly never does.
As if to underline the ambition of ‘The Fall Of Hearts’, ‘Sanction’ offers an entirely different proposition. There’s no quiet, atmospheric or suspense-filled intro; instead, it blasts from the speakers with a savage aggression that is more in keeping with death and doom metal, again harking back to the old days. The choral vocal effects inject a menacing and epic Gothic sheen and, in spite of an intelligent, more introspective mid-section that plays with the overall dynamics, it is a generally confrontational and venomous affair. And the last note that fades on a wave of distortion is absolutely killer, trust me.
The naked aggression that marks ‘Sanction’ makes another welcome appearance within the awesome ‘The Night Subscriber’. Sandin’s bass is prominent during an intro that also benefits from a ton of lush, majestic orchestration but is quickly disposed of in favour of a heavy-as-hell swirling, churning and hypnotic riff. The juxtaposition between the sensitive, nuanced vocals and the bruising metallic soundscapes is inspired. However, when joined with the beautiful orchestration, the result is a metaphorical unfurling of Katatonia’s musical wings, soaring on the currents of epic splendour and in complete command of their collective craft.
In another clever twist, the amazing ‘The Last Song Before The Fade’ includes a tremendous groove and a bouncy rhythm, almost waltz-like in places. The sense of drama is increased by an almost ubiquitous change of pace as the song develops, morphing into a sumptuous yet moody, atmospheric breakdown, before a bluesy lead guitar break adds further flavour and texture to an already strong piece of music.
The climax of ‘The Fall Of Hearts’ is realised through ‘Passer’, which happens to be one of the most multi-faceted songs on the record. It begins in urgent fashion where fast, aggressive drumming duels with a gorgeous lead guitar before plummeting into an abyss, from all to nothing. It rebuilds via a reticent, almost out-of-tune piano before sparking back into life with blast-beats, riffs that nod towards djent, exuberate and lavish guitars and a vocal melody that can be heard but constantly fights with its imposing surroundings.
And then it’s all over. I feel emotionally drained yet elated as it dawns on me that I have just spent an hour in the presence of greatness. Is it their best release ever? It’s too early to say for sure. However, it has had a huge impact on me, just like every release before it. As far as I’m concerned, music is all about the here and now though – how it makes you feel as you listen, how it makes you think and whether or not it gives you strength or a sense of comfort. Right now, ‘The Fall Of Hearts’ calls to me, it speaks to me on a myriad of different levels and I feel stronger and more enriched by it. And that’s more than enough for me right now.
Majestic and peerless, where there is darkness, Katatonia is your master, so allow your heart to fall to them.
The Score Of Much Metal: 10
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others right here:
Frost* – Falling Satellites
Glorior Belli – Sundown (The Flock That Welcomes)
Habu – Infinite
Grand Magus ‘Sword Songs’
Messenger – Threnodies
Svoid – Storming Voices Of Inner Devotion
Fallujah – Dreamless
In Mourning – Afterglow
Haken – Affinity
Long Distance Calling – Trips
October Tide – Winged Waltz
Odd Logic – Penny For Your Thoughts
Iron Mountain – Unum
Knifeworld – Bottled Out Of Eden
Novembre – Ursa
Beholder – Reflections
Neverworld – Dreamsnatcher
Universal Mind Project – The Jaguar Priest
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again
InnerWish – Innerwish
Mob Rules – Tales From Beyond
Ghost Bath – Moonlover
Spiritual Beggars – Sunrise To Sundown
Oceans Of Slumber – Winter
Rikard Zander – I Can Do Without Love
Redemption – The Art Of Loss
Headspace – All That You Fear Is Gone
Chris Quirarte – Mending Broken Bridges
Sunburst – Fragments Of Creation
Inglorious – Inglorious
Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens
Structural Disorder – Distance
Votum – Ktonik
Fleshgod Apocalypse – King
Rikard Sjoblom – The Unbendable Sleep
Textures – Phenotype
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus
Borknagar – Winter Thrice
The Mute Gods – Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures
Arcade Messiah – II
Phantasma – The Deviant Hearts
Rendezvous Point – Solar Storm
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II
Antimatter – The Judas Table
Bauda – Sporelights
Waken Eyes – Exodus
Earthside – A Dream In Static
Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
Teramaze – Her Halo
Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
Agent Fresco – Destrier
Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction
Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic
Cradle Of Filth – Hammer Of The Witches
Disarmonia Mundi – Cold Inferno
District 97 – In Vaults
Progoctopus – Transcendence
Big Big Train – Wassail
NightMare World – In The Fullness Of Time
Helloween – My God-Given Right
Triaxis – Zero Hour
Isurus – Logocharya
Arcturus – Arcturian
Kamelot – Haven
Native Construct – Quiet World
Sigh – Graveward
Pantommind – Searching For Eternity
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar
Klone – Here Comes The Sun
The Gentle Storm – The Diary
Melechesh – Enki
Enslaved – In Times
Keep Of Kalessin – Epistemology
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Zero Stroke – As The Colours Seep
AudioPlastik – In The Head Of A Maniac
Revolution Saints – Revolution Saints
Mors Principium Est – Dawn of The 5th Era
Arcade Messiah – Arcade Messiah
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter
Neonfly – Strangers In Paradise
Knight Area – Hyperdrive
Haken – Restoration
James LaBrie – Impermanent Resonance
Mercenary – Through Our Darkest Days
A.C.T. – Circus Pandemonium
Xerath – III
Big Big Train – English Electric (Part 1)
Thought Chamber – Psykerion
Marcus Jidell – Pictures From A Time Traveller
H.E.A.T – Tearing Down The Walls
Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld