Katatonia: Peabody's, 9/25/11

Tue Sep 27 2011

The general trajectory for metal bands is to start off heavy and caustic and noncommercial, then gradually write more accessible music amidst cries of sell-out and, occasionally, greater measurable success. Some fans of Katatonia’s early, guttural-doom albums probably gave up after 1998’s Discouraged Ones, and many who embraced the band’s more melodic direction likely jumped ship after hearing the electronic and indie rock influences on the barely-metal Last Fair Deal Gone Down in 2001. But despite those guardians of static integrity, the impact of this album went deeper than anyone could have predicted, cementing the legacy of Jonas Renske and Anders Nyström as truly unique songwriters and musicians and permanently breaking down musical boundaries for those fans open-minded enough to stick around.

Even though Last Fair Deal may not be the band’s best album, it is Katatonia’s boldest artistic statement to date, and it heralded the chameleonic impulse that has been its core essence ever since. The only failure would be stylistic stagnation, which is why 2009’s Night Is The New Day still stands as the band’s weakest album. It’s little more than a retread of ‘06’s The Great Cold Distance with fewer memorable riffs and an overall lack of inspiration both lyrically and musically. Small wonder, then, that the band has returned to Last Fair Deal, perhaps in hopes of recapturing the adventurous muse that seemed to have fled. It’s Katatonia’s 20th year as a band and the 10th anniversary of its landmark album, and following a successful run of European dates, the group squeezed in a half-dozen headlining shows in between opening dates for Opeth. These would surely be must-see events for fans who could get to them.

Sure, I would’ve preferred Tonight’s Decision in its entirety, maybe, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance no matter how I looked at it. Cleveland was the closest date, a Sunday night; the stage was set for an eight-hour drive resulting in the most miserable yet in a long string of Katatonia-based letdowns. I caught a couple songs at the band’s first-ever U.S. show, the near-disastrous 2000 Metalfest appearance, which Renske has called the worst event of his career. Then, it was another seven years before Katatonia finally embarked on its first U.S. tour; my agonizingly-long wait for my first real show resulted in impossibly high expectations and not a single song from my favorite album. It wasn’t bad, but it left me wanting much, much more. Then last year, I discovered about a week late that Katatonia just played at the Rave; my dismay was only slightly tempered after I saw the setlist for the tour. It seemed pretty clear that, aside from a couple of token must-plays from the old days, the band was gung-ho on almost all newer material, and not even playing the best song from the crappy new album.

All of this probably contributed to Sunday night at Peabody’s being a dream come true. Last Fair Deal was perfect, top to bottom, and the normally glum Renske was overflowing with enthusiasm. The small crowd was evidently all diehards, rapturous. One track from each of the first four albums was all we got, plus the best tracks from the last two albums and a couple of b-sides to boot. Renske’s voice has developed into a powerful instrument over the years; his palpable frailty lent a certain realism to the dour material in the old days, but here he was breathing fresh vigor into the old songs. Everything sounded vibrant and vital, and Last Fair Deal suddenly sounded timeless. For “Murder” and “Without God”, Renske grabbed a guitar and Nyström handled the death growls to excellent effect.

It was a different band from what I’d seen before. Until Sunday night, I suspected Katatonia was one of those bands that could write some of my favorite music ever, but was never going to blow me away live. Over the past decade, there have been several times when I’ve felt like the band was on the verge of becoming a has-been, but each time my faith has been renewed. I only hope that this tour has reignited the creative fire, and the next album will branch off in yet another new direction. And that in eight years or so, we’ll get a 20th-anniversary tour for Tonight’s Decision.

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