Album Title: City Burials
Label: Peaceville Records
Date of Release: 24 April 2020
When news reached me that Katatonia were to go on a hiatus, it was like being stabbed in the heart with a rusty blade. It hurt. Here is a band that means more to me than just music. I have a connection with the Swedes that I only have with a handful of bands. They also provide me with a vital link to my late brother, the guy that sat for hours and hours trying to convince me that this was the greatest band on the planet. Katatonia have released three or four albums in the decade since his passing but every time, my first thought on hearing new material is ‘I bet Nick would’ve loved this’. So, the thought of having no new music from this band meant that I’d be deprived of a vital link to a loved one no longer with us. I’ll admit, I shed a tear, but resolutely hoped that the hiatus would not be permanent and that, with patience, I’d hear new music one day.
It turns out that today is that day. I’ll admit that I shed another tear on finding out that Katatonia had returned and another when the first notes emanated through my headphones for the first time. Up until this point, I had resisted the urge to listen to the lead single, ‘Lacquer’. I’d heard rumblings of disquiet on social media from certain quarters but rather than weigh in, I instead waited for the full experience before making any judgement.
I have now listened, and listened to ‘City Burials’, digesting everything as much as possible along the way. And the simple fact of the matter is that Katatonia are incapable of creating bad music. Further, they are incapable of writing anything that could even be considered as ‘sub-par’. When you listen to a Katatonia record, there is very rarely an occasion where the word ‘filler’ springs to mind. Even if the songs take a little more time to make their mark, they will eventually hit you and you understand what it is that they are trying to achieve. That’s very true here.
The other simple fact is that Katatonia will never be a band that sits still. They are always evolving, be it gently or more markedly, from album to album. There will be new ideas that emerge, new textures, new vistas, new directions. But ultimately and inescapably, the music remains instantly that of no other. Katatonia’s music, be it the black/death of ‘Brave. Murder. Day’, the darker metal trappings of ‘Tonight’s Decision’, or the more progressive, urban soundscapes of ‘Dead End Kings’ is laced with their own unique and unquantifiable magic. ‘City Burials’ is no different.
What is immediately striking about ‘City Burials’ is the amount of variety on offer, as we are treated to quieter, more introspective songs, right through to some impressively heavy material, arguably the most overtly aggressive since the almost peerless ‘The Great Cold Distance’. The various press releases that I’ve read fail to mention the name Frank Default, the guy who has been responsible for the electronic sounds that have adorned much of Katatonia’s more recent output. I can only surmise that he is not involved this time around. But those now-familiar textures and sounds remain evident throughout ‘City Burials’, much to my personal delight as I find them to be intriguing, beguiling and a welcome addition to the Katatonia palette.
In terms of the ‘softer’ material, the two songs that spring to mind are the aforementioned ‘Lacquer’ and ‘Vanishers’. Beginning with the former, I can understand why, in isolation, some fans were concerned. It isn’t so much a radical departure from previous material, but rather a further exploration of tones, textures and atmospheres that are led by some bold electronic samples and synth work. In the context of the album, it makes perfect sense and it is one of the tracks that most entertains me, because it feels so emotional, dark and full of that melancholy for which Katatonia have always been known and loved. The melodies are subtle but they soon tug at the heartstrings, whilst the vocal performance from Jonas Renkse is sensational, especially at the 3:55 mark where he lets his voice soar, sending shivers up and down my spine. The beautifully delicate ‘Vanishers’ then features a guest vocal appearance from Full Of Keys’ Anni Bernhard, whose breathy and soft tones duet with Renkse to devastating effect. It is a soothing song on the one hand but it builds in intensity almost imperceptibly, whilst carrying within it an aching solemnity that’s difficult to articulate. It’s just a beautiful song and another interesting addition in the Katatonia library.
I also mentioned that ‘City Burials’ features some genuinely heavier material and that’s equally true. New guitarist Roger Öjersson wasn’t in place to really influence the material on ‘The Fall Of Hearts’ other than by providing some solo embellishments. Here though, I get the distinct impression that he was a more integral part of the team, influencing the way that some of these songs came together and now finally sound. For one, I cannot remember a Katatonia record with as many lead guitar solos, especially such flamboyant and vibrant ones as heard here.
Take ‘Behind The Blood’ as the obvious example. The song flies out of the blocks led by a fabulously bold lead break, whilst the remainder of the band beat seven bells out of their instruments. The song then settles to deliver a cheeky, groovy verse riff where guitarists Öjersson and Nyström seem to work together in perfect harmony with each other. The chorus takes a while but it works its magic to the point where I find myself singing it when least expected; the final recital of it features yet more stunning vocals from Renkse who seems to be a man reborn of this disc. Naturally, there are a few darker twists and turns within the song that allow the synths to take centre stage alongside the sophisticated Earth-rumbling bass playing of Niklas Sandin. It all comes together to create a near-flawless, heavy Katatonia composition.
Opening song, ‘Heart Set To Divide’ is another of those heavier tracks, although it starts in a typically dark, bleak and atmospheric manner, with only the synths and vocals for company at the outset. There’s a wonderful sense of anticipation that builds before the floodgates open to reveal a cracking and heavy riff, topped off by the occasional but sublime pinched harmonics. The monochrome world painted by the music looms large and claustrophobic, pulling the listener immediately into the unforgiving world inhabited by Katatonia. The melodies are strong and engaging, but the best aspect of the song is the way the intense heaviness is blended effortlessly with quieter parts, creating real drama in the process.
I can’t possibly dissect every one of the eleven songs in such detail, so instead allow me to signpost a few of the many highlights. Firstly, there’s the pulsating, dark beast that’s ‘The Winter Of Our Passing’, which unleashes one of the most devastating and powerfully melodic, hook-laden choruses from the band in many years. And speaking of strong choruses, it would be impossible to ignore the scintillating ‘City Glaciers’. Sandin’s bass and Daniel Moilanen’s drums lead the song deftly and stylishly from the off, before I’m absolutely floored by the majestic and sprawling chorus that emerges from an otherwise typically bleak soundscape. For me, it has to be these moments of warmth and hope within the otherwise cold and impenetrable misery that catapault Katatonia onto another level of brilliance; these guys are so skilled at what they do, they can play with our emotions seemingly at will.
As with any Katatonia album, it is way too early to start thinking about it’s position within the back catalogue and whether or not it is amongst their best. What I can say however, is that I am emotionally invested and moved by ‘City Burials’ and the more I listen to it, the more in love I become. I will fully admit to the fact that I am a fanboy of Katatonia, but you don’t become one for any old reason. You become a fanboy because the music speaks to you, it moves you, it scratches an itch that cannot be touched by any other band. And ‘City Burials’, despite its forays into ‘softer’ territory, or its subtly different textures and ideas, scratches that itch for me. But more than that, the music has burrowed itself deep into my heart and I already cannot imagine a world in which this music does not exist. I know that I will listen to this album for the rest of my days and it will maintain a special place in my heart; we may be prisoners to an unprecedented pandemic, but ‘City Burials’ sets my heart free and it brings me closer to departed loved ones once again.
The Score of Much Metal: 98%
Check out my reviews from 2020 right here:
Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia
Asenblut – Die Wilde Jagd
Nicumo – Inertia
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous
Omega Infinity – Solar Spectre
Symbolik – Emergence
Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea
Irist – Order Of The Mind
Testament – Titans Of Creation
Ilium – Carcinogeist
Dawn Of Ouroboros – The Art Of Morphology
Torchia – The Coven
Novena – Eleventh Hour
Ashes Of Life – Seasons Within
Dynazty – The Dark Delight
Sutrah – Aletheia EP
Welicoruss – Siberian Heathen Horde
Myth Of I – Myth Of I
My Dying Bride – The Ghost Of Orion
Infirmum – Walls Of Sorrow
Inno – The Rain Under
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre
Mindtech – Omnipresence
Dark Fortress – Spectres From The Old World
The Oneira – Injection
Night Crowned – Impius Viam
Dead Serenity – Beginnings EP
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic
Deadrisen – Deadrisen
Blaze Of Perdition – The Harrowing Of Hearts
Godsticks – Inescapable
Isle Of The Cross – Excelsis
Demons & Wizards – III
Vredehammer – Viperous
H.E.A.T – H.E.A.T II
Psychotic Waltz – The God-Shaped Void
Into The Open – Destination Eternity
Lunarsea – Earthling/Terrestre
Pure Wrath – The Forlorn Soldier EP
Sylosis – Cycle of Suffering
Sepultura – Quadra
Dyscordia – Delete / Rewrite
Godthrymm – Reflections
On Thorns I Lay – Threnos
God Dethroned – Illuminati
Fragment Soul – A Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies
Mariana Semkina – Sleepwalking
Mini Album Reviews: Moloken, The Driftwood Sign & Midnight
Serenity – The Last Knight
Ihsahn – Telemark EP
Temperance – Viridian
Blasphemer – The Sixth Hour
Deathwhite – Grave Image
Marko Hietala – Pyre Of The Black Heart
SWMM – Trail Of The Fallen
Into Pandemonium – Darkest Rise EP
Bonded – Rest In Violence
Serious Black – Suite 226
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga
A Life Divided – Echoes
Thoughts Factory – Elements
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: