The progression of Katatonia over their ten studio albums has been one of the most consistently gradual shifts in sound from any band I know. While it’s evident that their doom metal focused early material differs greatly from the alt-metal angst of the early 2000’s or the atmospheric mood rock of their recent material, it seems that with each album the band just push ever-so-slightly in one direction, it’s never in leaps or bounds. A new Katatonia album always brings comments of “man, they never seem to change at all”, yet it is the minuscule changes that contribute to a discography-long evolution, and The Fall of Hearts, in its own tiny little ways, contributes to this movement.
For me personally, the band lie in this weird subcategory of bands that I enjoy every record of, but simultaneously find incredibly overrated. I don’t think there is a single Katatonia record I dislike, but there is also no record that I would consider “great” or within my top 20 for a given calendar year. They are a notoriously decent band in my ears, and the accolades of “legendary” or “incredible” that some throw at them confuse me beyond all means. So therefore I’m not really sure what to make of the fact that I think The Fall of Hearts is the best record I’ve heard from this band, even if it is by a small margin. I hesitate to give it any high accolades because it is still only a decent-to-good album, but coming from a band that has never really released anything above that in my opinion, it ranks reasonably highly.
Before this, it was 2012’s Dead End Kings, with its focus on atmosphere, smooth drums and off-kilter vocal melodies that I called Katatonia’s best. That album shifted some of the obtrusive doom metal guitars from its predecessor Night is the New Day out of the picture and focused more intently on Jonas’ evidently unique skill at crafting hooks from strange places. Again, that album barely scraped my top 25 albums of the year, but it was a nonetheless enjoyable record with a solid handful of tracks and a strangely brilliant opener. The Fall of Hearts, in true Katatonia style, is barely different. All of the hallmarks of Dead End Kings are here, and at first glimpse it could be misconstrued as being the same record twice, but a handful of new influences and subtle intricacies make it something ever-so-slightly different and, in my view, ever-so-slightly better.
Dead End Kings was frequently called a more progressive influenced album by Katatonia, but in all honesty I didn’t personally hear it. The songs were the same short moody and tightly arranged pieces as on their previous records, just with a few more potent melodies. But there is actually quite a noticeable progressive influence on this record, and I that is the difference between the two. The songs here are just a bit longer and just a bit more fluid in their structuring than before. This is effectively a more progressive and dynamic version of its predecessor, which makes it all the better. Opener “Takeover” is one of four songs that outrun the length of every track the band have done since their death/doom opus in Brave Murder Day, and it is not only progressive in length – some of the more unique tapping guitar parts and rich vocal parts remind me of Katatonia’s good friends Opeth, particularly a record like Watershed. It’s a heavier song, but Katatonia haven’t limited themselves to the doomy heaviness that was their only connection to metal on previous records – some of the palm muted guitars and double kicks are about as prog as you could get.
Watershed is probably a record that Renkse and Co listened to a lot in the conceiving of this album, as most of the progressive touches seem lifted from the pseudo-prog metal that Opeth were moving towards before they veered off into 70’s worship, and it is admittedly a great fit for Katatonia’s downtrodden melancholia of recent years. “Decima”, with its distant organ, recalls a great number of Opethian pieces, and the progressive riffing on a song like “Sanction” is pretty left-field for Katatonia but honestly right in the same area as a track like “Heir Apparent”. “Serac” also manages to brilliantly channel some progressive notions in its structure, and is arguable the most Opeth of the entire record, with its opening section sounding straight off Ghost Reveries.
But all this talk of change is not with some more familiar material – with Katatonia the apple really never falls far from the tree, and the majority of the songwriting here is very similar to that on Dead End Kings, albeit with a handful of stretched movements and a general new life to some of the instrumentals, particularly drums. What made that record so great to me was Jonas Renkse’ vocals, which seem to work their way into your ears in the strangest of places, and he has smothered all these new additions in style with his distinctive brush, to keep the album sounding properly like Katatonia. His vocal style is undeniably one that seems to exist within the same timbre for 90% of its existence, but it’s one that can really make a song brilliant just by simply being there. The hooks on this record aren’t quite in the focus as much as they were on Dead End Kings, but there are some rich melodies that carry the handful of less progressive songs here. Lead single “Old Heart Falls” contains a wonderful break-away chorus hook that really personifies Renkse’s angular approach to melody writing. I mentioned “Sanction” as feeling like an Opeth song for most of its length, but when the chorus hits, with its melody that appears out of nowhere ringing clear over the guitars, you know exactly who is behind it.
I have no hesitation in calling The Fall of Hearts the band’s best record in their long career to my ears, though this may be down to the fact that this is the album in which the band finally did enough of things I like to impress me fully. It sounds like the standard Katatonia fare, but with just a bit more inspiration in the songwriting and parts. No doubts, there are parts of this album that bring up the classic “man, all of this sounds the same” comments, and if you include the four new bonus tracks, the run-time is a daunting 90 minutes, but for me at least, this is the sound of a band finally, in their slow evolution, meeting the perfect balance between gloom, melody and progression.