Katatonia are a very good band. They’d have to be given the career path they’ve gone on, making the jump from death metal to something more progressive and gothic, without invoking the ire of metal fans who’ll have a conniption if you even indirectly gesture towards something lighter. All the while, critical acclaim has almost always been theirs, right up to the current post-hiatus work that plenty would struggle to get to the same standard after so long. Truly, the hallmarks of a very good band. A great one, though? Well…
Okay, yeah, they are. You can play devil’s advocate and say that some of their revolutionariness has stilled a bit, but even so, you don’t get many bands as well-versed in the sort of gloom and titanic atmosphere that Katatonia dole out on a regular basis. Sky Void Of Stars is no different; Katatonia still sound tremendous, in both senses of scale and quality. They’ve picked up a consistency that really can’t be faulted, even this far in, and flaunting it to this extent can hit exceptionally hard.
That’s not to say they get there immediately, as Austerity opens the album on a clunkier prog wavelength (that’s later replicated on No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall), and it’s absolutely not an example of Katatonia at their best. Rather, that comes when they’re at their grandest, a mould that proves rather flexible for them in how it’s pulled off. Colossal Shade definitely brings it forward through its stomp across the cavernous size of the mix; meanwhile, Opaline and Birds strike into borderline hard rock with how hook-laden they are, both with tones even verging on brightness woven through them. It’s no wonder Katatonia have been blessed with such longevity when they’re constantly sounding fresher and more alive.
Those dynamics provide the bedrock for how Sky Void Of Stars works so well. When the crossover gene isn’t as prevalent (though not completely absent, mind), Katatonia prove spellbinding in plenty of other ways, all circling back to how enormous they sound. That can come in the hair-in-a-wind-tunnel shredding of Impermanence, but it’s mostly the richness in composition, and how sonic darks and lights are so acutely balanced to grip without fail. There’s a rather varied palette that comes from it, comparing heavier, riff-based fare like Author to something more lucid and sweeping like Atrium, but there’s always a recognisable core to it. It’s wonderfully brought about to get the most from Katatonia’s style, even to where the album feels as though it moves at a pretty brisk clip, simply for the lack of dead weight to lug around.
Moreover, it’s emblematic of a band for whom refinement to this degree has clearly been a long time in the making. That’ll happen when you first started making music in 1991, and yet Sky Void Of Stars has none of the fatigue or workmanlike trudge that tends to plague the output of metal’s elder statesmen, regardless of subgenre. Sure, the lyricism isn’t anything special—broad, monochrome-painted goth-isms that Katatonia could knock out all too easily—but Jonas Renkse sells the hell out of it regardless, with a voice that’s slightly weathered with age in a way that lends it a lot of character and resonance. On top of that, it’s the expected flavours of excellence that Katatonia tend to traffic in; they’re less explicitly heavy than they are all-encompassing, especially with the touches of strings and synths that fill in some negative space without doing too much to overpower. Again, it’s the use of the sonic palette that’s the most important thing, and that can’t be understated when there’s so much done right with it.
On top of everything though, it’s just a really great album to soak in, and with the ongoing popularity of Katatonia, it’s hard to imagine much disagreement. Maybe the scorned minority who are still salty that a band changed their sound a quarter of a century ago, but otherwise, there’s such a wealth of melody and musical sweetness to dig into, all the way down. The old guard rarely come out swinging this hard, but Katatonia just continue to deliver time and time again, with expected precision. They are a very good band, after all.
For fans of: Anathema, Paradise Lost, Swallow The Sun
‘Sky Void Of Stars’ by Katatonia is released on 20th January on Napalm Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall