Friday, November 16, 2007


Everyone has their favorite bands. I'm no different. For me, music cannot be relegated to mere background noise duty or simply be a stimulus to toe tapping. Each new release is more than a collection of individual songs, whether built within a simple pop framework or the opposite extreme of being a multi-part progressive epic that would put an old Yes album to shame. Music is woven into the fabric of existence itself, as much a part of my life as the elements; it is the food and drink of the soul. It can be an inspiration for thought, or, more accurately, flights of naive, childlike fancy which often - hopefully - will lead to putting the pen to the paper and writing something worthwhile; a weapon against the nefarious blocking of the pen itself; a balm for a wound that persists in never healing. It has inflamed the passions, been the perfect caretaker for memory.

So, still suffering from Bush Bashing Burnout Syndrome, I figured I'd ramble on about one of the bands I dig the most, a virtually daily play in my headphones at home, work or traveling to and from both, Katatonia.

Let us skip ahead a few years, past the early works of doom: the extended suites of Dance of December Souls, the tortured, screeching, emotional vocals that bared pain both there and on the follow-up EP, For Funerals To Come; through the monumentally classic Brave Murder Day/Sounds of Decay LP/EP double shot of doom/death with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt handling all - save one - of the vocal duties, and arrive to that moment where the band - or more specifically, vocalist/then-drummer Jonas Renkse, tired of the wear and tear on the vocal cords - decided to discard the cookie monster stylings and go clean full time.

The first fruit of this decision was 1998’s Discouraged Ones. An excellent record to be sure, but upon repeated spins, it became obvious that it was full of the difficulty inevitably experienced with change. The heaviness remained, but the hammer earlier used to subtly inflict blunt aural trauma was smaller this time around and the vocals had yet to carry the confidence so prevalent in later efforts; the bile bubbling deep underneath the hurt had yet to rise to the surface. The album’s title was certainly apt: a happy, joyful record it is not, and much more worthy of the short-shrift that it's getting here, as are the releases mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Perhaps another post in the future. But on we must march with our tale. Mr. Renkse along with guitarists Anders Nyström and Fredrik Norrman carefully learned their lessons and, enlisting the help of session drummer and Edge of Sanity mastermind Dan Swanö for the 1999 follow-up, Tonight’s Decision, unleashed a moody masterpiece that saw the band hitting their bleak stride.

There are legions of goth bands who bark. This rock band, as dark as any goth, also bites, and we hear this almost immediately. A cycle of single notes, quiet, melancholy, flows until the descending riff crunch of For My Demons pummels the ears with chord after chord until mercifully returning to the softer parade, declaring amidst the otherworldly sound emanating from the keys that "I'm here, and summer's gone I hear," the narrator leaving town, professing to an unnamed malevolence that he'd never claimed a desire to stay. The wall of sound returns, reverberating with cascading chords and a warning that "you would never sleep at night/ if you know what I've been through."

An insistent unison of guitar and bass deftly advances, and if you "listen close at night/there's something coming my way." The chorus pleads, the voice and harmony guitars nearly shifting up an octave over the dark rumble of I Am Nothing. "A decision for tonight," a change; then a low melody, the steps of the unsure, the afraid. Coming back "to a place without sun," one would find In Death, A Song. The riff stops as seamlessly as it starts, mirroring the departure and subsequent return, again with a change of season and a choice hanging like a funereal pall, the last note of the main riff ringing out before returning to echoing heaviness.

A barely audible static and a low, doomy hypnosis conjures our attention, now they're gone, forever. They Had To (Leave). An error, a dissonant guitar line, vanishes, as does "the feeling I had for you." The price for this loss? This Punishment, arriving along a sparse guitar stripped of raw power over jangly drumwork. "When I come in/from where I've been" again proffers the suggestion of journeying there and back, of shifting place, both within and without. A meek vocal would also suggest that everything was deserved, the sound fading into nothingness.

A strangely hopeful, yet minor key riff takes "a black road," where we try and forget as we head Right Into the Bliss. Despite being railroaded by bad decisions relentlessly accumulating, "someday we'll go," but like the static of the old 45 during the bridge, this declaration of intent is already broken before it's been said. Hope clings with naivety.

A monochrome riff and shifting dynamics sees that "this is no good way out/afield lies nothing but disorder." Again, a path with obstacles, movement prevented, so why even make an attempt to change? Yet, if we stay, No Good Can Come of This. The circular guitar hums as "I read a letter I never sent/and saw me smiling on a picture" - even a mundane and presumably safe mode of communication is taken away by our indecision. An end and a start, where the undulating crunch is Strained and doesn't "know the word 'beginning.'" Above a midtempo hook, a loss of control stalks, a loss of any awareness of time before the notes shift down in pitch once more.

The plaintive, desperate introduction of a single acoustic becomes harmonized by another and the voice that is "the only one that can see/there is A Darkness Coming." The notes are transitory as heavy chords crash, the oncoming train that we can't get out of the way of, the descent encapsulated in one of the album's few extended solos, the inevitability of our end that manifests in the return of that single acoustic dissipating into the ether.

A cover that fits with stylistic perfection, Jeff Buckley's Nightmares By The Sea shares imagery with "the water on every side" in track two, and with decision nearly everywhere else. An incredible hook lures you in, a fuzzed out guitar riff, a broken love that's repeated over and over, the haunting bones of the past, young lovers dead. "Stay with me out on these waves tonight/be free, for once in your life tonight." A fleeting freedom that's all too unreal.

And at last, the album's magnum opus and thematic centerpiece opens with a dark, propulsive melody. Soon the grind of metallic, monolithic power chords enters, both sounds audible, distinct, intertwining, omnipresent, as are all the choices that have, are, and will lay before us. Here, they are in mechanical stasis. Our mind is not. "I sense infliction in the air/it's only me." Are we the sole cause of our misfortune? "I keep on living in this my only wish/that life will be good someday/I keep on losing my sleep because of this/seems so hard just to stay." It seems that we may indeed be. A plea heard over an agitated sea of guitar for "you to come by just this last time," a final instance of movement, one last, desperate chance at breaking the liminal, this Black Session. "Oh, the black." Indeed.

All eleven tracks share a unity of theme, a collection of musical short stories not about the ephemeral aspects of life, but of the ever-present shadow of change and our oft-wavering acceptance thereof. The stunning, blue-black artwork and imagery of Travis Smith perfectly accompanies the darkly crisp atmosphere of the album, a narrative of the desire to disinherit these disdained feelings. And the inevitable failure. Each song shares words and concepts throughout: routes, movement, departures and arrivals, the cycle of the seasons, death. Encapsulated within the chambers of the soul exist these doors - these alternatives - of comfort and discomfort of place, personified in a physical location, but always involving the heart - an emotion, a relation, a love - all birthed in a decision of our own or one made by another and thrust upon us. The selections we make and the ones that are out of our hands, the ones we desperately want only to find that our reach exceeds our grasp; everything overwhelms regardless of our best efforts. It is time to live with the consequences. Decide.


Mary Ellen said...

Again, you have managed to make me feel old and out of touch. Sigh.

Whatever happened to "I Want to Hold Your Hand"?

Beautifully written post, however-as usual.

Tom Harper said...

I love Goth and Metal, but I've never heard of Katatonia. When I clicked on their link I got that Windows error message.

Do they sound anything like Coal Chamber or Godsmack?

Distributorcap said...

i am with you ME
i dont know any of this
but i do have an iPod

is Katatonia like ABBA?

Freida Bee said...

Katatonia is the anti-ABBA.

My head hurts.

Randal Graves said...

First and foremost, thank you to both Mary Ellen and dcap for making someone who senses the creep of age each day feel much younger. No twisting hips here, so no need to call the morality police.

Tom, I just tried their site and it works. I think DHS infiltrated your computer. And they sound nothing like those bands. I'm trying to think how to describe them. Heavy mood rock is about the quickest description I can come up with.

Freida Bee, just swear a lot, you'll feel much better.

Tom Harper said...

OK, now the link works. I signed a loyalty oath to Bush and Cheney and in return, DHS agreed to free up my computer.

These guys sound pretty good. "Heavy mood rock" sounds like a good description.

b said...

What a brilliant post. You evoke such an incredible sense of the music with your beautifully descriptive writing style. I immediately downloaded several songs off iTunes. Good shit. Thanks!!

Randal Graves said...

Tom, one of my friends who abhors all things metallic probably described them the best, The Cure for metalheads. Glad you dig it.

b, merci. This was a difficult post to write because I feel like I keep on repeating myself. It's a pain in the ass to come up with yet another metaphor for "guitar riff." :) Glad I've converted two people!

I'd suggest catching them on tour, but they just wrapped up their first US one last month. Brilliant show!

b said...

I know. I have such a hard time trying to write a review that is relevant and original. But really, this is a great review and yes, you have converted me.