The original Katatonia formula listed genuine depression and misanthropy as its first two ingredients. Evolution into a powerful, confident band that emanates gratitude to its small clusters of diehards probably still smarts like a betrayal to the most gothic of the original fans. Jonas Renkse no longer lists his relationship status as “dead to love”, and an increasing percentage of the songs he writes could conceivably be played on mainstream FM radio. You might expect that the lure of success would devastate all possible integrity, except for the indisputable evidence of Katatonia’s live show: with each successive U.S. tour at least, the band gets better and better, even if the songs don’t.
The just-released Dead End Kings is the most commercial Katatonia album yet, and it’s the third in a row that hews to the same basic sound: prog-lite, very Tool-influenced, with dark, super-polished riffs and melodic heavy-soft-heavy dynamics. The difference this time around is Jonas’s ever-better singing and much better songwriting all around, lyrics and music. Up to par with the band’s classic turn-of-the-century material? No, but this is the first time in ages I was more excited to see new songs live than anything else, even though I’m resigned to the fact that the band won’t play a single song from my favorite album.
I walked away with the clear understanding that at least two songs from Dead End Kings, “Dead Letters” and “The Racing Heart”, are among the best of the current millennium. Renkse has never written a better vocal melody than the latter; it’s the closest thing yet to a Katatonia pop song, which sounds like an odious concept but the power of this song can’t be denied. Other than new material, it was essentially a greatest-hits set drawing mostly from the last three albums, with the one surprise being “Walking By A Wire” from 2003’s Viva Emptiness. As Jonas belted out the ancient “Deadhouse”, it occurred to me how amazing it would be if the guys would re-record Discouraged Ones now that they have a kick-ass singer. This is another repulsive thought on paper. Things that would disgust me if other bands did them somehow make perfect sense where Katatonia is concerned. I’m like a dazed kid wandering out of Hamelin.When the band played “My Twin”, there were girls screaming like it was Bieber or The Beatles or something. It occurred to me that maybe the song is a Judas allegory (spurned right-hand man, as in Jesus Christ Superstar) instead of the bitter anti-love song I’d been hearing it as. Nobody feels special at Katatonia shows any more, like someone is up there voicing your pain, catering only to you and those depressed enough to understand. The band has gotten over self-pity, and demands that its fans do the same. We have to face the idea that the masses might be catching on, that this music is speaking now to a wider audience, and we can either feel jilted, as if all that’s been was all for nothing…or we can accept that we’re the ones who placed Katatonia above us all.