Katatonia’s inexorable rise as kings of the night-time world has been as beautifully understated as the band’s music itself. Starting out mired in doom and raw-throated screams, it took time and reflection for the band to settle into the dark pastures that they now inhabit, and with each release post ‘tonight’s decision’ slowly developing upon the desolate theme that album laid out, Katatonia moved towards a plateau of perfection they effectively reached with the remarkable ‘night is the new day’, an artistic and musical triumph that saw the band lauded for their stark, beautiful sound. Such critical acclaim would understandably unsettle some acts, creating a sense of artistic pressure from fans, media and label alike, and yet ‘dead end kings’ appeared quietly upon the scene amidst no great media furore despite the fact that it may even have surpassed its predecessor.
The first thing to savour about ‘dead end kings’, before the music is even sampled, is the beautiful packaging. Peaceville, along with the band and long-time collaborator Travis Smith (Opeth / Anathema) have created a special edition that matches perfectly the grandeur of the music. Housed in a large, hard-backed book you will find not only the CD, but also a DVD (containing 5.1 mixes in DTS), two 10” vinyl platters housing the record over four sides and a certificate of authenticity stating that there are only 2000 copies of this lovely edition available. For long-time fans of the band it feels like a reward, and being able to admire Travis’ artwork at an appropriate size is absolutely a bonus – even if you do not have a turntable with which to enjoy the vinyl, the glorious packaging (and the fact that it’s sensibly priced, unlike so many special editions) should tempt you to a purchase.
Having salivated suitably over the elaborate packaging it’s time to allow the album time to seep into your consciousness. Like the previous outing, ‘dead end kings’ is not a collection of songs, haphazardly strewn together to be played whilst you concentrate on something else. No, ‘Dead end kings’ is a carefully, even exquisitely, constructed mood piece that ebbs and flows over its fifty-seven minute run-time and it needs to be cherished by the listener so that the multiple nuances the band has sewn into the fabric of the work slowly work their way under your skin. Only then can you start to appreciate the expansive, wonderful intricacies of the music. Take opening track ‘the parting’ which showcases a startling clarity in the production work of Jonas Renkse and Anders Nystrom’s production, not to mention a greater emphasis on the keyboard work of both musicians. This is not to say that the guitars have been toned down – the riffs here are huge, towering, pulsating beasts that will instantly be familiar to fans of the band; it is simply that the spaces between those riffs are greater, allowing for the band to experiment with classical overtones, jazz time-signatures (with Daniel Liljekvist excelling behind the kit) whilst Jonas’ multi-tracked vocals range across the top, delivering his soliloquies of love and loss with heart-breaking clarity. ‘The one you are looking for is not here’ is a scintillating continuation, the band adding in a gently progressive element that sits somewhere between their established sound and the sparse arrangements of Porcupine Tree’s ‘Deadwing’ album. The vocals simply shine here and, speaking of heartbreak, Silje Wergeland of The Gathering makes a sublime contribution to the track on guest vocals that will draw a lump to the throat of even the most hardened cynic. ‘Hypnone’ segues straight out of the previous track, and again the band are experimenting with sounds and textures, weaving a dense, hypnotic sound that nods towards classical and progressive composition, yet which has enough power in the searing riffs to sate the appetites of those seeking a fix of heavy music. Shot through with subtle electronic flourishes, the music still feels organic, yet it is also multi-layered and beautifully composed, the band revelling in the power of the studio and yet never forgetting that whatever they create here needs to be reproduced live. It’s the most powerful work Katatonia have unleashed yet and it takes more than a couple of listens to fully appreciate the power of the music the band have captured on disc here – ‘dead end kings’ is a smouldering, slow-burning beast and it requires love and patience to get the best out of it, but the rewards the listener will reap in return are substantial.
Allowing no time to rest, ‘the racing heart’ bubbles up from the depths of its predecessor, bursting upon the surface with a more overtly electronic feel than anything else here, hints of Depeche Mode, Paradise Lost and Porcupine tree buried in its genetic make-up, although the overall sound is still uniquely Katatonia. Pulling back from the edge of the darkened, electronic void, ‘buildings’ kicks out with a genuine sense of fury, the crushing riffs and pounding rhythmic weight of Niklas Sandin’s bass guitar ignite one of the most ferocious Katatonia tracks of recent years which, for all its sparse verse arrangements, carries a terrifying weight with it. ‘Leech’ turns this on its head by proving to be a soft, jazz-influenced track that mixes up gentle electronics with a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pink Floyd record and a syncopated drum beat that pushes the whole thing in a darker, deeper direction. It’s the most obviously different track here, and it once again highlights the fact that Katatonia are unafraid to push themselves and push the boundaries in search of keeping their sound ever fresh and relevant. ‘Ambitions’ is a wonderful, heart-rending song that emphasises the terrible yearning of the lyrics with its driving rhythm offset by the downbeat chords and tremolo-laden guitars. It’s a paean to the self-deception of youth and the keen loss felt by all those approaching that stage of life where ambitions start to feel like unexplored failures rather than possibilities ahead, and Jonas’ sparse lyricism captures that feeling perfectly.
Once again shifting tack, ‘Undo you’ opens with a simmering atmosphere that recalls the opening of Mogwai’s ‘CODY’ with its barely-discernible samples intertwined with the music before the vocals come in over a restrained musical backdrop that slowly builds to a climax that mixes elements of Porcupine Tree and Opeth into the heady brew and then shatters upon the floor in a welter of glass and blood that slowly coalesces into the driving ‘Lethean’. At odds with its title, ‘first prayer’ proves not to be a dark, introspective number, but rather a heavier track that mixes up the atypical time signatures that prevail upon with the album with the sparse synth parts of ‘the great cold distance’ and the raging guitars of ‘last fair deal gone down’ for an engaging song that joins all of Katatonia’s signature sonic elements into one five minute ride. Final track ‘Dead letters’ manages to surprise, even to the very end, with an opening riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tool album before shifting pace into a verse that meanders rather than attacks, the contrast only serving to make the hwole sound more shockingly heavy. It is a stunning climax to an album that bursts with invention and intelligence and there is no doubt that fans of the band will be taken in by the album’s remarkable arrangements. Fans purchasing the special editions of the album also get two bonus tracks in the form of ‘second’ and ‘the act of darkening’ (which sadly don’t appear on the DVD or 10” vinyl portions of the album) which are handsome extras but do little to enhance what is essentially a perfect eleven-track album.
No-one ever suggested that ‘night is the new day’ was a flash in the pan, but even so it was a brave, challenging and exciting album. That Katatonia should so quietly step up and better it, seemingly with ease, is simply astonishing. Not a single element is out of place here – Jonas’ lyrics are emotive and intelligently written, serving to conjure and atmosphere of loss and crumbling decay that is positively Shakespearean, whilst the band explore hitherto only hinted at vistas, their soundscapes ranging from the blistering ‘Buildings’ to the rippling ‘undo you’ and everywhere in between. It’s hard to know what genre Katatonia belong to, so wide is their artistic vision, and it’s not clear that it even matters any more, Katatonia have crafted a masterpiece that stands out above even their own impressive legacy and if you are a fan of music that engages the heart and soul in equal measure then you owe it to yourself to engage with this magnificent artistic vision. ‘Dead end kings’ is nothing short of a blazing triumph and a lasting testament to Katatonia’s dark, brilliant vision.