After taking most of 2018 off, Swedish melancholic metal stars Katatonia returned to work last year, and the results of those efforts are here in the band’s eleventh offering, City Burials. True to form, the quintet delivers a set of emotional, glistening dark prog, but this time around with a few classic heavy metal embellishments.
As we have come to expect, the subject matter of City Burials is somewhat gloomy. Songs of course deal primarily with sadness, emotional fragility, and the idea that memories are actually losses, or buried moments of the past. Co-founder and singer Jonas Renske delivers these lyrics with the emotional heft that is his trademark, his deep voice reverberating with a mix of yearning and wistfulness.
Despite the songs on City Burials being written almost completely by Renske, Katatonia sound like a vital and invigorated band. The two newest members – Daniel Moilanen on drums and Roger Ojersson on guitar – bring an energy that belies the band’s introspective nature. Moilanen played on 2016’s The Fall of Hearts, and Ojersson contributed some solos on it, but they’ve each had a few years to develop additional chemistry. Moilanen is capable of a subtlety not often found in drummers, and Ojersson brings energetic chops to the table that are welcome additions to the songs.
“Heart Set to Divide” is a majestic opener, pure Katatonia, larger than life and apocalyptic in nature. It sets the tone for the album, awash in keyboards and airy vocals for nearly two minutes, until the band enters with progressive metal riffing. The song subtly drifts in and out, with plenty of soft and heavy dynamics, and we are immediately drawn into the album.
It is quickly followed by “Behind the Blood,” a surprisingly up-tempo rocker featuring classic riffs and lead breaks. It may not immediately have that Katatonia vibe, but it works, and effectively showcases the band’s love of the metal music they all grew up with. Elsewhere, “Rein” and “Flicker” feature moments of more traditional metal mixed in among the gloom.
With eleven songs clocking in around 50 minutes, no song overstays its welcome, which makes City Burials even more impactful. In less talented hands, a song like “Lacquer” could lose its audience, but Katatonia keep it under five minutes, and the somber, melancholic dirge is enthralling rather than boring.
When many bands see a slump in the middle of their albums, not so here. The middle trio of “The Winter of Our Passing,” “Vanishers,” and “City Glaciers” is an enthralling set. The first is a hypnotic and airy rhythmic number that gains momentum as it progresses. “Vanishers” is exquisite, a duet with Anni Bernard (Full of Keys) that grabs the heart and doesn’t let go, while “City Glaciers” is a layered and textured exercise in ringing guitars, cascading toms, a classic Katatonia example of the ebb and flow of mood and emotion.
City Burials is one of the best-sounding self-produced albums in recent memory, practically glistening with lush keys and vocals, guitars that move from wistful to metallic, drums that can either crush or augment depending on the moment, and through it all a deep, reverberating bass presence that adds ominous undertones.
A year off did Katatonia a world of good. While both Dead End Kings and The Fall of Hearts were strong albums, they had weak moments. Not so on City Burials. This is an album of beautifully dark progressive rock that will keep listeners glued to their speakers start to finish, and certainly one of the best albums of the month.
(released April 24, 2020 on Peaceville Records)
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Watch Katatonia – “Behind The Blood” Video