REVIEW: Katatonia – Sky Void of Stars

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Last summer, the Swedish masters of melancholy, KATATONIA, signed to Napalm Records and the band was not fooling around in claiming that the move marked a new chapter for them. The first fruit of this new collaboration will see the light of day on January 20th, 2023, when KATATONIA‘s twelfth studio album, “Sky Void of Stars,” is due out via this pedigree metal label. In a way, their previous outing, City Burials,” (2020), what with all of its subtle new nuances of darkness, foreshadowed that the band’s signature sound was once again evolving towards something new. Ever since the band’s genre-defining 1990s milestones, such as “Dance of December Souls” (1993) and “Brave Murder Day” (1996), these gloomy Swedes have been all about moving forward. While the new album showcases all of the band’s vintage hallmarks of atmospheric gloom, these eleven new songs pack a punch so prominent that I think it has been a while since the last time a KATATONIA effort has kicked ass this hard. If the first couple of singles off the album didn’t exactly blow me away right off the bat, once through the album I was already convinced that this outing, like so many KATATONIA endeavors before, will be among the most impactful releases of 2023. In their own words, “Sky Void of Stars” is a dynamic journey through vibrant darkness and – damn! – these words have more than a good ounce of truth about them!

The album opener, “Austerity,” was first released as a single in December 2022. It sets things in motion with a good upbeat riffathon. At first, I thought that the song lacked that instant earworm quality of, say, “Lethean” from their 2012 album, “Dead End Kings,” and while it is very much true, in less than a month, it has become one of my KATATONIA favorites. Jonas Renkse has cultivated a unique and poetically soul-gripping style when it comes to writing lyrics and this song has some of the most striking lines on the album. With just a few words, Renkse creates a highly evocative mood, for instance, when he signs, “With city lights from 1988 sprinkled like dust on your window pane.” Nevertheless, the band should have maybe opted for releasing “Opaline” as a single instead, had they wished to knock us off our feet immediately – it does have an instant killer of a chorus! The melancholy churns the blood just as bittersweetly as the band only knows how to. Then again, this is something that the band is diabolically good at – crafting songs that do not provide an instant knock-out, but slowly, over time, become a visceral part of your musical psyche.

Birds” was also released as a single, right after New Year’s Eve. The first thing I noticed about the song was the melismatic and melancholic guitar motif; it resonates with a somewhat AMORPHIS-like air and, if you ask me, there’s no way in hell that you can go wrong with something like that! So, in a way, you get the best of both worlds: a good pinch of that familiar atmospheric gloom à la KATATONIA and a side-order of that haunting Kalevala melancholy that has become the trademark of Esa Holopainen and co. So, not only did the 2-year hiatus do a whole lot of good to the band, as was evidenced on “City Burials,” the change of label seems to have charged the band with a further punch of creative impetus. It is almost as though the new riffs hit a tad harder than before. I quickly counted that more than half of the songs in this new selection could easily be filed under upbeat riff-maelstroms, whereas on some of those earlier albums, the banger-to-downtempo ratio was far less generous in punchy riffathons’ favor.

One of the most haunting tracks on the outing, however, takes a nod toward the sound of those last couple of KATATONIA outings that, in general, traversed more mellow waters. Featuring Joel Ekelöf of SOEN as a guest vocalist, “Impermanence” serves as an absolute pinnacle of atmospheric gloom. Well, I guess that’s the least you could possibly do with these two singers! The song could fit on some of those more recent SOEN efforts just as well.

The first video single off the album, “Atrium,” was released already in October 2022. At the time of its release, it also came off as lacking that instant earworm feel but (you know the score), by now, it has become one of those go-to tracks on the album. The song is a cross between the sound of “Night Is The New Day” (2009) and “City Burials.” So, for long-time fans, there is no question about the fact that this new selection will be bringing home the bacon, so to speak. If it does not hit you in the head immediately, it will over time.

As I have stated before, KATATONIA have cultivated a certain level of prominence when it comes to capturing the darker nuances of human emotions. Some might even go as far as to call them masterful architects of existential dread. Not only have these Swedes reached sensei-level at crafting beautiful, dark melancholy with musical means, but the song lyrics also factor in this phenomenon in nothing short of a heart-wrenching manner. Their new album is a brilliant addition to their canon of atmospheric gloom and elaborate prog wanderlust. The raven-black gospel from the KATATONIA camp has not sounded this vivid in a while! Bathing in an ethereal gloom that is exclusive of their own brand of metal, these Swedes did it again! Damn! They surely did!

Written by Jani Lehtinen

Tracklist

  1. Austerity
  2. Colossal Shade
  3. Opaline
  4. Birds
  5. Drab Moon
  6. Author
  7. Impermanence
  8. Sclera
  9. Atrium
  10. No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall
  11. Absconder (Bonus Track)

Lineup

Jonas Renkse – vocals

Anders Nyström – guitars, backing vocals, keyboards

Niklas Sandin – bass

Daniel Moilanen – drums

Roger Öjersson – guitars

Label

Napalm Records

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