Since their formative years as a blackened doom metal act, Swedish melancholics Katatonia have undergone a long, gradual evolution. The black metal element of their initial template was the first to be entirely jettisoned, vocalist Jonas Renkse foregoing roars and shrieks in favour of a mournful, plaintive clean singing style. The more ‘extreme’ metal elements were next to be shed, with the band adopting more rock-oriented song structures and utilising more direct, pared-down riffs from Discouraged Ones onwards. Over the last nine years, the band’s continued journey has seen them further embrace progressive flourishes and moodier atmospheres, melding smokily ambient soundscapes and occasional folk accoutrements to more expansive, less direct, more ethereally evocative soundscapes. Dead End Kings charts the latest stage in Katatonia‘s ongoing transformation, showing them refining their ‘metal’ underpinnings with more overt technicality and a closer alignment to progressive tendencies, whilst suffusing that metallic framework with lush orchestration and rolling mists of warmly suffocating ambience.
Dead End Kings opens with ‘The Parting’, a song which sees a typically strident, unfussy-yet-ballsy riff emerge suddenly from a cloud of groaning cellos and far-off snare tattoos before dropping almost immediately to a hushed verse in which gossamer strings are draped over gentle pianos and purring bass. This, of course, is a dynamic that Katatonia have utilised many times to great effect in the past, and will continue to use throughout the album – however, ‘The Parting’ stands out on Dead End Kings as the most ‘typical’ Katatonia song. See, for instance, ‘The Racing Heart’, a track whose softly chiming electronics and minimalistic arrangements in the verses bring to mind 80s electro as much as the mid-tempo pacing and low-gain chorus recalls earnest, indie uplift a la Snow Patrol. Just as that song lulls the listener, however, along comes ‘Buildings’, whose massive opening riff, flurries of double-kicks and feverish drum rolls place it as the heaviest thing Katatonia have unleashed in some time. Further showcasing other influences that Katatonia may well have been absorbing are ‘Hypnone’, which marries billowing strings and a see-sawing guitar line to an off-kilter polyrhythmic drumbeat that adds compositional complexity to an otherwise straightforward track, and closing track ‘Dead Letters’, which makes liberal use of Tool-esque tribal drumming and fluttering, palm-muted ascending riffs.
The thing is, all I’ve written above may lead you to believe that Katatonia sound significantly different on this release, and that’s not quite true. The Katatonia that released Night is the New Day is fully present and correct on Dead End Kings – they’ve just expanded their scope a little further once more. The resultant album is less immediate than Night is the New Day, with only ‘Dead Letters’, ‘Buildings’ and the gorgeous ‘Lethean’ qualifying as ‘stand-out’ tracks, per se – and in all honesty, I’m probably letting the hardened rivet-head in me select the most traditionally ‘heavy’ tracks for that particular honour. The rest of the album, while providing less in the way of obvious hooks, permeates the consciousness in a far more gradual, indirect manner by way of its immaculately-realised atmosphere and the evident care that has gone into orchestrating it. Largely freed from the rigid constraints of writing a ‘metal’ album, Katatonia have instead conjured a record that dances like smoke – it might be near impossible to firmly grasp, but it’s beautiful to admire.