Reviewed: [May 2020]
Released [2020 Peaceville Records]
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
To pilfer from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times for veteran Swedish mopes Katatonia to return from their brief hiatus – which the band used to recharge the batteries and recover from touring burn out. But now that they’ve come back with fresh material, they won’t be able to hit the road – no matter how eager they may be to so – for who knows how long given the social distancing mandates that have descended on us all thanks to COVID-19.
While Sweden’s restrictions during the pandemic have been fairly liberal, most of the rest of us have been largely “alone together” – stuck inside for months, venturing out only to forage for toilet paper or whatever might be left at the grocery store and avoiding as much contact with our fellow shut-ins as we possibly can. And there is perhaps no better band to capture the melancholia and sense of isolation or desperation most of us are feeling right now than Katatonia, who bring the somber like nobody’s business.
That is especially true with City Burials, the band’s 11th full-length, an evocative and especially poignant effort with frontman Jonas Renske singing of longing and loss in sometimes unflinchingly personal terms. “The road to the grave is straight as an arrow, I’m just staying around to sing your song, Baby,” he offers on the haunting “Lacquer” with its sparse, largely electronic accompaniment, whereas the more brash “Behind The Blood” notes “You’re a torch to the temple of depression, Saturnalian curse, these are my heaving words, I will do it all over again to be with you.”
Give that, dunno if I’d necessarily describe the one-time death/doom band as re-energized after the break, since City Burials is perhaps Katatonia’s mellowest work overall – if you discount 2015’s live acoustic set Sanctitude – and most mournful as a result. “Wake up to the sound of sorrow,” Renske harmonizes in a duet with guest vocalist Anni Bernard (Full Of Keys) on the eerily wispy “Vanishers.” I think we can all relate.
The performances here are certainly more direct and even-handed than they were on 2016’s progressive-minded The Fall Of Hearts. With drummer Daniel Moilanen and guitarist Roger Öjersson settling in for their second album with the band – and after taking some time to pause and reflect, perhaps Renske and co-founding guitarist Andres Nyström felt more at ease and less like they had something to prove when it came to the compositions – though Renske shouldered much of the burden this time around.
But by the same token, it’s not like the Katatonia are half-assing it here. The songs may be shorter, simpler and less turbulent, but they are by no means lacking in depth or impact. The band take an anthemic, hard rock-like approach that is inviting, soothing and at times surprisingly exuberant, here in spite of the material’s often grim, introspective sensibilities.
The grand swells of “Flicker,” “The Winter of Our Passing” or the somewhat Western-sounding “Neon Epitaph” and “City Glaciers,” with their muscular guitars and emphatic washes of keyboards, provide the perfect contrast to the laid-back melodies and bring color to what might otherwise be a rather gray landscape. The fits of metallic thunder that punctuate “Heart Set To Divide” or “Rein” may be more the exception than the rule, but pack more of a punch as a result.
Somber though it may be in spirit, in the execution City Burials is a resonant, captivating work. And it makes a fitting soundtrack for these days of despair, sad to say.