The Great Cold Distance
ne of the most overlooked Swedish contributions to metal is songcraft. Swedish metal is known for its melodies, which have heavily influenced American metallers today. However, the Swedes have elevated melodic metal beyond mere stylistic exercise. Ever since Swedish metal came to prominence in the early '90s, its bands have gradually mastered the art of songcraft. The latest albums by Opeth, Dark Tranquillity, Darkane, and Burst all hit hard, yet have focused, sophisticated songwriting. The Swedes have helped push metal past the "thrashing in E" of the '80; Katatonia's The Great Cold Distance further moves the songwriting goalposts. The album will be sold in the metal section, but with songwriting this accomplished, it is really just music. In filling four-minute songs with substance, direction, and depth, Katatonia has few peers.
Katatonia began in 1991 as a duo in Stockholm. On their full-length debut, Dance of December Souls, Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström offered a heavy doom/death metal hybrid, much in the vein of early Paradise Lost. Renkse injured his voice through too much harsh growling, and the band enlisted Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt for vocals on 1996's Brave Murder Day. Renkse returned to the microphone for Discouraged Ones, but with a new vocal style: clean, melodic singing. Over its next few albums, Katatonia added members, sped-up its tempos, and shifted towards a rock-based sound. The evolution was complete on 2003's Viva Emptiness. The album was a sleek, moody masterpiece; if The Cure's Disintegration had been a metal album (minus the keyboards), it would have been Viva Emptiness. Without a single blastbeat or screamed vocal, the album conveyed menace, longing, and vulnerability. The success of Viva Emptiness resulted in a slew of compilations and reissues, but it's been a three-year wait for new Katatonia material.
The Great Cold Distance adds oomph to the loneliness of Viva Emptiness. The haunted feeling is still there, but the riffs are bigger and heavier. It's as if Katatonia reached back into its past to reclaim some of its former doominess. Slower numbers like "Soil's Song" and "Journey through Pressure" could have been on earlier albums, but for the clean singing and sharper songwriting. With these heavier riffs, perhaps the band was thinking of live performance. Viva Emptiness was a great home listen, but given how gentle it often was, its songs might not have hit hard live. "July" will surely be a live favorite here; its bridge stacks eerie clean tones and precise, palm-muted riffs. But with the increased volume, the songs are still subtle. The magic is in the details—a pause here, a passing note there, and well-turned vocal harmonies all around. "Heartstrings" isn't a word commonly used with metal, but Katatonia knows just how to tug them. However, this tugging isn't manipulative. The lyrics are abstract and open-ended: "Mask / Your face well hidden / Keep your last words in your hand / Fold it up and open up / Time to go / Release the glow." It's nice for once not to be hit over the head by a metal album.
The grooves aren't forced, either. The drumming is relaxed and organic, and the basslines are warm and full. There's enough space between the notes, so when the dirty tones kick in, they feel that much heavier. But while these songs have force, they won't incite moshpit mayhem. The distortion isn't aggressive; it's more to bathe in, such as with Godflesh or Isis, rather than to hit people with. Those turned off by metal's testosterone, but who brook darkness in Thrice or Tool, will find much to like here.