There are bands that always leave you wanting more; from album to album, you sit back and count the days, months, and years. Sweden's Katatonia, for all of their successes, make the time between albums seem like an eternity. Three years removed from "Night Is The New Day," the leaders of the melancholic, melodic metal movement are ready to end the waiting game, and unveil a new album. With "Dead End Kings," frontman Jonas Renkse hopes to take you to the darkest corridors of the human mind, despite a noticeable light change in the album artwork, choosing to steer away from black and red for the first time in nearly a decade. Eleven tracks of modern doom with a common theme: "carry your burden with pride."
Part of the beauty of the way Katatonia writes is that their sound evolves, while still showing pieces of every previous work. Such is the case in the early moments of "The Parting." Renkse's voice has changed over the years, but only in small increments. You can still hear shades of "The Great Cold Distance" in his vocals. His lyrics, improved in leaps and bounds over the last few efforts, are on point, while the band maintains the sense of perfect order. The rhythm section, strong as ever, has become a leader here, whether it be through a booming fill, or just a smoothly played bass line. The explosion of guitars moving from verse to bridge to chorus shakes you, as only Katatonia can. The balance of melody and emotion on "The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here" is impressive, including a sullen female vocal provided by Silje Wergeland. This is the more subdued band at work, staying reserved without giving in to the pressures of ballads and folk songs. And while "Hypnone" boasts some of that same downtempo beat, it expands on the sound. The bass line comes rumbling through, along with a light synthesizer, adding a different dimension. The ability to have a depressing arc to the music, while still keeping things fresh and bright is astonishing.
Standing out from the rest of the album, "The Racing Heart" might be one of the most accessible songs in the Katatonia catalog. A light beat and sparing electronics make up the verse, before heavier guitars take over in the chorus. The subtleties that Renkse has in his voice are what makes tracks like this possible, with fluttering melodic passages lifting you in the air. It gives a complexity to the mix that few bands have been able to match. But with an absence of many crushing moments thus far, "Buildings" is a necessity to even the score. A blasting opening is interrupted for a short vocal passage. but the subsequent explosion get louder with each snare stroke. Choreographed stop/start sections, while not a major part of the back catalog, work well here, giving you cause to put your fist up. The piano that opens "Leech" may be a surprise. Honestly, the entire first thirty seconds may be cause for concern. But how the band goes from a jazzy piano/vocal opening into the meat of the track makes it all worth it. Renkse takes a softer approach early, and a more forceful, yet melodic, one later on. The strength of the track lies in the instrumental, moving from soft to loud, delicate to heavy, all with little to no effort whatsoever.
if there is one track that could be seen as the bridge from one album to the next, "Ambitions" would be it. Still maintaining some of the sound that "Night Is The New Day" had, while still adding in an extra dose of new found guitar melodies, this five minute track (coincidentally the longest on the album) gives you everything you could have expected. In that sea of drums and guitars, Renkse stays afloat, delivering some of the more powerful lyrics that album has to offer. One such line, "I'm left to believe that things would change if I go away," is simple on the surface. But its delivery, and tone of voice it comes with, makes it all the more rich. To complement the vocal performance, you also have one of the more layered musical passages. You are treated to a surprise, again, in the opening to "Undo You." Strings and keys fill the air, leaving you wondering if this is a long interlude. Instead, they are setting the stage for a beautiful, if not overly melancholy, offering from Renkse and company. The track barely reaches a simmer, for better or worse, and relies heavily on atmospheric elements to carry it through. This is not to say it drags, however, as the quality of the writing makes the lack of a knockout punch.
What happens in "Lethean" may be what you had been waiting for. The rhythm section takes over, giving you a heavy dose of low end power. Buried nine tracks deep is a gem that is one of the most well rounded tracks Katatonia has to offer. There is a noticeable groove in the verse sections, one built on a foundation of bass and guitar. Every kick drum hammers the beat farther into your head, setting the table for a building distortion level. A wild guitar solo steals the show, if only briefly, bringing the album to a high. It continues well into "First Prayer," a track where Renkse croons about not being able to find the right words. This is his most heartfelt track, with every word and every note dripping with rich, deeper meaning. What remains evident is the greater use of keyboards and synthesizers to create mood. This may not be their first foray into that field, but it has certainly seen an increased role here. The closer, also serving as the first single from the album is "Dead Letters," easily the heaviest track on the album. As each verse comes and goes, the bridge becomes the calm before the oncoming storm. The first chords of the chorus light the match, and suddenly explode. The guitars riffs could be called catchy, or could just be called awesome. This is the one that will become engrained in your mind, coming back day in and day out to get you through the day.
The evolution of Katatonia over the years could be taught in universities across the world. From their days as a blackened, death metal dominated band, to their more recent domination of melodic metal, they have redefined themselves numerous times, without ever turning their backs on what got them here. Sure, there are those narrow minded fans, much like those of Opeth, who will see this album and all its melodies as the end of the band they once loved. But what it should signify, rather, is the maturity of a band that has been in existence for two decades. Despite this album being an exploration of those dark corridors, this is anything but a dead end. Instead, this is an open door to the next evolution. And now the waiting starts again.
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