Catharsis comes in many forms, and with that, the release and expression of emotions. This is what fuels and conceives most art, and within the many mediums of artistic expression, music is often the purest and most potent. Even so, it takes a special kind of artist, musical or otherwise, to truly capture a certain emotion or feeling and express that viscerally through a work of art without it being diluted by the creative process. As many have said throughout history, great art comes from pain. If this is true, then the musicians that comprise Katatonia have particularly keen insight into the depths of human suffering.
Of course, this was clear from the very first notes of their legendary 1993 debut Dance of December Souls. Back then, Katatonia leaned heavily into the more direct darkness that death and doom metal had to offer. Over time, however, Katatonia morphed into more of a gothic and even alternative metal band, pulling influence from fellow gothic metal contemporaries Paradise Lost and other progressive and hard rock acts such as Porcupine Tree and Tool. Still, they’ve always had a certain essence about them, one that’s melancholic and depressive, yet still inexplicably uplifting, and on their 11th studio album City Burials, Katatonia diverges their output of the last 10 years into a concise, experimental and singularly focused album of music.
“Heart Set to Divide” opens the album with a somber tone, as Jonas Renkse’s soft-spoken voice chants the words: “In times of surrender/ I am shedding my scars/ I was sick, but I was set for the stars." His voice cascades against waves of ambient strings and guitars before the band kicks into full gear with driving rhythms and an unconventional hook. Katatonia has ventured into more experimental territory on their past few albums, but especially so on 2016’s The Fall of Hearts, and it feels as though they’ve stricken a masterful balance between that experimentation and the framework of the pseudo-traditional rock song structures they adhere to. “Behind the Blood” showcases guitarist Anders Nyström’s impressive lead playing over a chugging riff that highlights the band’s love for classic Judas Priest.
Upon first listen, City Burials feels a lot more upbeat and straighforward than its predecessor, and the songs are noticeably shorter. However, Katatonia is a band whose power is found in the subtle nuances of their compositions, and that quality is still here in spades. Lead single “Lacquer” likely threw longtime Katatonia fans for a loop when they first heard it, simply because it’s unlike anything the band has ever done before. Electronics have played a role in Katatonia’s music in the past, but rarely has the band utilized them to the degree they do on “Lacquer.” Even so, the song is done in a way only Katatonia could do, and within the context of the full album, it works well.
For those worried that Katatonia has strayed too far from the path they’re known and revered for, there’s nothing to fear. The mid-tempo swing and haunting melodies of “City Glaciers” hit all of the signature touchstones they’ve established as part of their sonic repertoire since The Great Cold Distance days, but they (unsurprisingly) manage to avoid the pitfall of it being a mere rehash. This is still a Katatonia album, through and through, and it’s one that very much deserves to be recognized alongside the band’s extensive discography.
The beauty of Katatonia and each of their albums is that the lasting power and impact of their music is revealed with time. Their music is so expertly crafted and nuanced that it’s unlikely listeners will fully grasp the breadth of what Katatonia has managed to achieve upon the first playthrough. The case remains the same for City Burials. It could be a lyric here or a melody there that’ll creep into your psyche at the most unexpected time, and you’ll not be able to resist the urge to go back and listen to the album again. In a word, what Katatonia has provided in City Burials is catharsis, and let’s be honest: we could all use a little bit of that right now.