Every so often, something comes along that you pretend to embrace as a 'neural reviewer' but ever so slightly dread at the back of your mind. Something that makes you question your own integrity, wonder whether you can give a fair and balanced account. Something too easy to dismiss, or something far too easy to heap unfathomable praise on in the hope that it'll make you a better person, make you seem less of a snob. I've found the balance hard to judge in the past, gaining numerous comments of abuse for flushing away rock/metal talents, and coming across as far too glowing for something I really couldn't give two flying shits about. Yes, I'm ashamed to say it but I'm well, well outside my comfort zone here.
I guess the first rule of the review is to not tell the reader what your likes and dislikes are. It's a dangerous game and instantly reeks of an upcoming page of babble filled with hastily readied preconceptions and numerous piss poor references to all the wrong purveyors of stadium rock or metal, showing the reviewer as hideously out of his depth. Oh, I wish it was so, so different, especially considering fans of these guitar bashing heroes are generally among the most snobbish. But let me assure you, this is all too relevant. Why?
Because fifty minutes later, when all preconceptions and shit comparisons are laid to firmly to rest...well, it's incredibly hard to argue against the fact that this is an absolutely marvellous record.
This feat is made all the more remarkable when reading into the fact that Katatonia are 21 years old. Having had no previous experience of their music (I was from a council estate, following the tedious working class preacher brigade, what do you expect?) I was all the more interested to see how this stood up against their older records? Were they now in a state of serenity that I could relate to? Are they past their best in terms of relating to fans of the genre(s)? Do they drink green tea for breakfast and eat Ryvitta? Well, critical and fan remarks on websites and message boards suggested their new found maturity was not an indication of them exceeding their sell-by-date. Indeed, 'Dead End Kings' is an album they can be especially proud of.
I guess it's also something that hardcore fans of a band particularly dread when they get to album nine, as Katatonia have done here; a mature record. At some points, they're so far away from what I'd perceive as 'doom metal' that they could pass for an Idlewild or Biffy Clyro, just with bigger bollocks; 'The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here' being particularly true of this. The whole album is caked in bleak atmospherics as you'd expect, with the monotonic delivery of singer Jonas Renske particularly fitting for lyrics such as "my dreams are getting darker" ('Dead Letters'), "I am not what you have waited for" (the glorious cascading 'Hypnone') and "still so in love with you" (the longing and nostalgic 'Ambitions'). If I'm nitpicking, the endless balladry (or epic metal if you want to pigeonhole) sometimes never quite breaks out of its shell, but the gentle arrangements and the quiet loud dynamics ensure that the album doesn't get lost mid-way in a dark grey drudge. Particularly accurate to this description is 'Undo You', which sounds like a key Final Fantasy enigma moment, something Nobuo Uematsu would be especially proud of.
I'm really not sure what they put in the water in Scandinavia. There's everything here you'd expect from an atmospheric goth/metal album bereft of hope and drenched in misery and isolation. But somewhere behind the earthy vocals and orchestral darkness there's something beautiful, something that if you open your ears to, might very well just let you in.
Hopelessness never sounded so appealing.