Katatonia’s “City Burials” Has Pop Appeal and a Heart of Steel
On paper, City Burials is perhaps nothing spectacular. After all, Katatonia has been mining this particular sound for roughly two decades now, with 1999's Tonight's Decision being the first of this melange of goth rock, alternative rock, prog rock, and just a kiss of heavy metal thunder. A decade after this first phase change, there was a breakthrough with Night is the New Day -- some implacable slight adjustment up and down the spines of the songs -- but their knack for hooks and sky-punching choruses teeming with righteous pain still marked the very best that radio-worthy rock could offer. And, now, in the grand scheme, City Burials is another record in this long string of musical evolution.
Let's not ignore the consistently potent emotionalism of Katatonia's material, though. There are a number of modes of heavy music, from the aggressive to the alien and more, but it's hard to deny that Katatonia's work lives more along an imagist-emotionalist axis, their songs conjuring images of cold rain drizzling over darkened city streets and forlorn cemetery statues, cloaked angels with spread arms bathed in neo-noir slashes of cold neon. This seems deliberate, almost, given that Kataonia fuses downtempo, trip-hop, and that particular modernist prog-rock that seemed to peak just as Radiohead burst into the lead of things in the mainstream and Porcupine Tree took the lead in the underground.
The imagist-emotionalist pivot, in fairness, isn't new to this era of Katatonia's material; they were once peers in death-doom in the early 1990s with Anathema and Paradise Lost, two bands who underwent startlingly similar evolutions, all three gradually tilting their death-doom to more and more explicitly gothic timbres before abandoning metal altogether. This arc traces a similar path through the emotional and aesthetic intent of Katatonia's music: it reveals that death-doom seemingly always was chosen because of its rippling emotional power, having more bleeding hearted melodrama latent within it than perhaps the gorier and more brutal wings of extreme metal at the time, and their pursuit of less and less obviously sonically heavy timbres is only because they always sought emotional heaviness first and foremost. (Katatonia landed squarely in the middle of any remaining metallic heaviness, with Anathema embracing contemporary prog fully and Paradise Lost undergoing a spontaneous return to the extreme over the past five years.)
With this in mind, City Burials provokes two lines of thought. The first and most contorted is one of wonder and splendor. Katatonia is a band, after all, that began its life as something substantially heavier and less approachable; unlike many bands of which this can be said, every move they made to streamline and open up their sound bettered their material. It helps that these musicians have shown themselves to be more or less songwriting masterminds outside of the group, with guitarist Anders Nyström being the mind behind progressive black metal act Diabolique Masquerade and Nyström with vocalist Jonas Renkse being founding members of old school death metal act Bloodbath. Those two groups, especially the latter, seem to have been clarifying forces for the group, avenues to explore heavier and weirder material such that the band could pursue more and more explicitly radio rock directions with their primary group.
Don't be put off by that genre tag, however; this isn't "radio rock" as we know it but instead what radio rock might sound like in an ideal world, where people heard the more clever groups making waves in that arena like Soundgarden and Tool or took note of the more adventurous moments of a group like Linkin Park and Alter Bridge and built an idealized form of the style around those ideas. It's lamentable, downright terrible, that City Burials isn't what fills the rock radio stations -- how much better off we would all be if that were the case, and how deserved it would be for the band!
The second thread of thought, meanwhile, is a simple one. The songs on City Burials are simply sublime.
The album eschews new tricks for old listeners; instead, like the greatest Rush albums, City Burials showcases a refinement and mastery of form over an obsession with pure novelty. It helps that Katatonia have already folded so many different genre ideas and aesthetic elements into their overall shape over the past two decades working in this lighter mode. The range of styles across City Burials spans a number of notable groups, Katatonia clearly paying close attention to that perennial heavy metal bugbear, pop songwriting.
Even on the most metallic or abstract songs on City Burials, Katatonia make sure to have a clearly stated skeleton to the material, such that you know instinctively the second the introspective and looming grungy verses are about to give way to the arena-rattling emotionally ebullient choruses. It is a sonic style that, bluntly, Katatonia doesn't own, deliberately forsaking the kind of instantly identifiable sonic imprint that bold sonic exploration gives you for the perfection of pop songcraft.
These two threads come together on that note of songwriting perfection. The power of great pop even within the world of heavy metal, hard rock, and prog is of writing those progressions, vocal lines, and lyrical turns that don't just ask but command you to belt your lungs out along with them. This power isn't new to Katatonia on City Burials; what does matter is that City Burials feels immediately intimate, like you've known it forever.
I can close my eyes and almost picture my head pressed against the passenger seat window of my father's car, earbuds plugged firmly in my ears, feeling my teenage heart sink deep into the admittedly melodramatic but still deeply emotionally arresting songs piped directly into my morose and maudlin head. Katatonia achieves this sense of immediate intimacy not by running away from those intelligible notes from great bands past or sounds we might associate with specific eras nor by running headlong into them in a kind of formless nostalgia aping slurring of identities, but instead through the steady workmanship of decades.
To those that have deeper familiarity with Katatonia, City Burials isn't a revelation but instead a confirmation -- not only that pop metal can be just as emotionally compelling and artistically fulfilling as our avant-garde and extremist heroes but that Katatonia is one of the truly great bands. To newcomers, too, City Burials is an open door, one that makes itself immediately legible without protracted and contorted evolutionary charts or the calculus blackboards sometimes needed to map the contours of the most aggressively challenging music of the genre.
Many bands forsake what they were to shoot for the kind of thing City Burials is and wind up destroying their legacy in the process. Not Katatonia; their continued success in these endeavors is what has cemented them in the hallowed halls of steel.
City Burials released last Friday via Peaceville Records.