Album Review: Katatonia - 'Dead End Kings'

4 September 2012 | 5:20 pm | Staff Writer
Originally Appeared In

Big songs with big production to match.

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For a band who have already released several classic metal albums over a two-decade career, it would surely be an arduous process mustering the enthusiasm required to produce another such work of musical and technical merit. For Sweden's Katatonia however, it's just the next step in a long line of well-produced albums.

Known for their early work in death/doom metal, their sound has changed radically over the years. Ninth album ‘Dead End Kings’, while retaining the bleak despair of previous releases, features a more radio friendly, alternative metal style.

Largely self-produced by vocalist Jonas Renkse and guitarist Anders Nyström, ‘Dead End Kings’ has a clean yet punchy sound. Layered guitars and strings add depth and warmth to the production, and each instrument sits comfortably in the mix. The drums are particularly tight, and are mixed with precision to match the complexity of the performance.

Technical prowess, however, is not the order of the day here, as a strong sense of groove is always at the forefront of each and every riff. ‘Buildings’, possibly the heaviest and most technical track on the album, features a monumentally agitated vocal hook, contrasted with an odd-time breakdown of equally grand proportions.

This is followed by ‘Leech’, which, as a total contrast, opens with a dub-inspired jam. This is perhaps the album's most adventurous moment, as the rest of the tracks stay very much within the realm of progressively tinted alternative metal. The sonic palette is not entirely one-sided, though, as subtle electronic elements pop up during the album's more ambient sections.

The standout track, perhaps because it is the most melodically accessible, is ‘The Racing Heart’. Juxtaposing brooding verses with a powerful, driving chorus, the song hints strongly towards a love of 80s power ballads. Smooth vocal harmonies in the outro only serve to reinforce this idea. This is not to suggest that Katatonia have entirely relinquished their doom metal roots though. The overarching theme of ‘Dead End Kings’ is still associated with death and loss, which is dealt with in a typically bleak fashion.

A point of contention is the one-dimensionality of the vocals. Jonas Renkse has a strong singing voice, sounding like a Mikael Åkerfeldt/Steven Wilson hybrid. But, as the music transitions from clean to heavy sections, one feels as if the vocals too often stay in the same place. The only reprieve from this is the addition of subtle female vocals in ‘The One You Are Looking For is Not Here’. A solid performance overall, just too flat to be considered a great performance.

The string arrangements, though well orchestrated, are also flat, and the use of a live string section would be a welcome addition to an otherwise impeccably produced album.

The culmination of two decades developing their sound, and several lineup changes, ‘Dead End Kings’ is a worthy addition to an impressive back catalogue, and will appeal to fans of Katatonia's more recent work. An expansion of the vocal range though would've elevated this full-length from good to great.

1. The Parting

2. The One You Are Looking For is Not Here

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3. Hypnone

4. The Racing Heart

5. Buildings

6. Leech

7. Ambitions

8. Undo You

9. Lethean

10. First Prayer

11. Dead Letters