Friday 20 January 2023

Katatonia - Sky Void of Stars (2023)

Country: Sweden
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Jan 2023
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I liked Katatonia's eleventh album, City Burials, and I like this twelfth that's so similar in approach that I could almost replace this entire review with one word: ditto. Wherever they've been in their musical journey over the years, they're a very comfortable prog band nowadays, sitting happily on the border between rock and metal, heavy for the former but light for the latter. And they have an uncannily consistent tone that means that, while the songs are all clearly different, they end up as a blend in our brains, which automatically aggregate them all together.

Maybe it's a little more immediate than City Burials, but it's still such elegant stuff that every one of these ten songs (eleven if you count the bonus track, Absconder) needs to to be fed and watered frequently for it to bloom in our hearts. Jonas Renkse maintains such a consistent vocal tone that it sometimes seems like he's being sponsored by a couple of specific pitches and he can only move away from them maybe three times per song. The guitars are more versatile but only if we focus a lot more than feels natural. And how you take that last sentence may be the key to whether this is truly for you or not.

The entire album sounds so comfortable that the easiest course of action is to to leave it as it is, to let it simply wash over us like a sweet smelling cleansing action. We feel embraced by its presence and so comfortable that we have to set it on repeat or lose an acute belonging. It's feelgood music that's almost addictive. Life seems better when it's playing and we don't want to return to the big bad world with its demands and expectations. Can't we just curl up in the arms of our beloved and close our eyes and let this album roll through our headphones for the next year?

It's so comfortable that it almost feels wrong to listen deeper. This is carefully crafted music, and it benefits from us actually paying attention to see what the musicians are actually doing, because a lot is going on here, regardless of which track is playing, and it's fascinating to focus in and follow the bass or the keyboards or the guitars. However, unlike what must be every other band, it seems like we're cheating when we do that and we have to look over our shoulders to make sure nobody's watching. In fact, it almost feels dangerous, like this was supposedly placed here by God and we're suddenly heretics to stone if we acknowledge that it was created by mere human beings.

If you're happy with the positive feeling, this is a peach of an album. It's seamless and immersive. It's kind of like Paradise Lost at their most commercial, on albums like One Second when they were a new wave band, all Depeche Mode with emphatic almost gothic hooks, only smoothed out with a serious algorithm so that the hooks are constant but exquisitely subtle. Everything's melody in an ever-extending set of layers. It'll be your favourite album of the year. It'll be home.

However, if you feel that sinister underbelly, like it's conning you into believing that everything's a paradise and you've put on the prohibited glasses that let you see past its facade, it's going to be uncomfortable. You're still going to feel that constant insistence of welcome, but you're going to know better and it becomes a beautiful nightmare. It's not home. It's the Matrix and you want to wake up.

With all that said, can I call out anything for special mention or is it just a consistent fifty minutes of being surrounded by amniotic fluid? Maybe. There's some sassiness to Colossal Shade's central riff. The intros to Opaline and Atrium are beautifully intricate, the former being a real grower. In the end, though, perhaps only No Beacon to Illuminate Our Fall steps out of the conformity to be a creature of its own. It finds some nice grooves and works through some complex prog changes, but it also loosens up to drop into something more exploratory.

Bottom line: it's impeccable stuff but it makes me increasingly uncomfortable.

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