Released: 2006, Peaceville Records
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
It is a fact that dramatically changing styles rarely works in a band’s favor. Hypocrisy fumbled with CATCH 22, (MUSIC FROM) THE ELDER saw KISS become a punchline and the glossy sheen of Megadeth’s RISK still produces groans in metal circles, so why did a radical shift in sound work so well for Katatonia? The Swedes began in 1993 as a doom-y death metal band and were quite successful and respected in the underground as a result. However, the 1998 release of DISCOURAGED ONES saw clean vocals appear for the first time and while the band remained dark and brooding, a new trajectory of their sound began to emerge. 2001’s LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN and 2003’s VIVA EMPTINESS saw Katatonia virtually abandon their roots in favor of a more atmospheric, but no less powerful sound, that included the extensive use of keyboards, samples and programming. Rather than having fans cry afoul, Katatonia built upon its fanbase and evolved into a new realm of metal that brought even more people to embrace their soothing brand of emotionally-charged sorrow and despair. Comparisons to Opeth (a band with close ties to Katatonia) are inevitable as lush soundscapes are peppered with moments of heaviness and the sweet clean vocals draw the listener in with soaring melodies but Katatonia still has its own sound that no one else can touch. THE GREAT COLD DISTANCE sees the band continue down this path but rather than settle for complacency, Katatonia has added yet another level to their already brilliant catalogue, one that could easily gain them wider acceptance but still appeal to its core fanbase. No one does a hushed maelstrom of pummeling lamentation better than Katatonia and THE GREAT COLD DISTANCE succeeds in being harsh, melancholic, breathtaking and catchy all at once.
The crunching guitars of Anders Nystrom and Fredrik Norrman immediately grab the listener on “Leaders,” as they twist and turn, soar and pound through the verses behind Jonas Renske’s stark clean vocal. In one of the album’s few jaunts away from clean vocals, Renske (or is that Nystrom?) unleashes a death metal roar that shows, despite moving away from this style, Katatonia is still capable of reaching back to the brutalizing sounds of their early works. “Deliberation” calms with a muted vocal from Renske and the pre-chorus nears Pink Floyd territory before exploding into a wave of controlled chaos in the wonderfully melodic chorus. “Soil’s Song” bounces along with a choppy, syncopated rhythm and the subtle keyboards intermingle with the stunning guitarwork to create a sweeping landscape of atmospheric bliss. “My Twin” follows a similar pattern but a chunky bass line from Mattias Norrman is added to the mix evoking an ominously dark, yet infectious sound. Along with “My Twin,” the instantly memorable chorus of “Follower” shows that despite their mournful ways, Katatonia can write amazing hooks, as well. Renske’s vocals on “Rusted” caress the air with a lilting magnificence that must be heard to be believed. Daniel Lijekvist’s drums are never more punishing than on “July,” where careful use of double bass adds just the right of punch and on “The Itch,” where he and Norrman establish a rhythm section that is faultless. That track embodies all the styles of Katatonia perfectly—heavy, dark, hushed and ambient—all in the course of four minutes. “In The White” is perhaps the album’s strongest track. The progressive, almost Tool-influenced drums and bass noodling set a cold, desolate tone and Renske’s somber croon is chilling. As a band, “In The White” is songwriting perfection with each piece of the puzzle forming a cohesive whole and a real maturity even at this stage of Katatonia’s career shines through.
THE GREAT COLD DISTANCE is an early contender for my pick for 2006’s album of the year. It is that good. Jens Bogren’s immense production perfectly captures the essence of Katatonia’s sound circa 2006, as the music just envelopes the listener from every direction. Jonas Renske’s powerfully muted vocals are the closest thing to ear candy I have ever heard and reeling them in from overpowering everything else—a problem on VIVA EMPTINESS—is a major coup on the part of the production team. Even the guitars, teetering between power-chord godliness and muted acoustic whisper, are captivating. The injustice of mainstream success has eluded Katatonia but THE GREAT COLD DISTANCE could—and should—put the band on the map alongside like-minded peers Opeth and Tool. Put simply, THE GREAT COLD DISTANCE is as close to flawless as I have heard since the release of Opeth’s GHOST REVERIES last year. This is a masterwork of metal that is a must for anyone’s collection.
KILLER KUTS: All