Ah, the seventies. An excellent decade for wanton sex, drug abuse and consequently, psychedelic music. In the common mindset, the foremost psychedelic band is of course Pink Floyd, and with good reason. But another influential band that tends to get overlooked, is Hawkwind, who had a bit more oomph than the aforementioned space rock colossus, using experimental timbres and textures to accentuate their otherwise fairly straightforward proto-metal. The influence of Hawkwind (who, amazingly, are still around) is clear on the debut of the trippy Swedish quartet Katla in their mix of old school stoner rock, surprising guitar textures and warbling synthesizers. But have no fear; they have more in store for you than a cardboard copy.
For one, vocal duties have not befallen another hairy manperson; instead, a woman (only known as Lisa) infuses the disc with her voice, and does so admirably. Her timbre brings to mind a younger version of Elizabeth Blackwell (Castle), but her delivery is more airy and haunting, sacrificing some punch for a more mysterious and atmospheric take that works especially well on the quieter tracks. Some lyrical awkwardness like the occasional ad-lib or unnecessary vocalization doesn’t take much away from this either, although her pronunciation edges into ESL territory at times. The only real shortcomings break through some of the heavier tracks, like “Eat Sleep Die” when her range proves slightly more limited and she just can’t muster enough punch.
That little minus comes wrapped in a big plus: Katla perfectly manages to balance a great deal of musical variety without ever sounding like anything but themselves. From the throbbing hooks of opener “Horsehead” to the surprising major key punk riffing in “A Black Slimy Smooth and Tongue-shaped Form,” the band makes sure you’re never bored. Along the way there are forays into jangling blues guitars on “Circles,” The Sword-like riffing interspersed with atmospheric interludes on “Eat Sleep Die,” and a slow build from hazy country rock into a peyote-filled tidal wave on album standout “Endless Journey.” The sound doesn’t rely on heaviness to carry it across but employs strong hooks and a good sense of atmosphere, accomplished by layered guitars, warbling Hawkwindian synths and occasionally the tasteful and appropriate addition of cello. None of the songs overstay their welcome, with the exception of “Illusion” which lacks an end-goal and drifts on too long.
Production-wise, “Embryo” is full tilt seventies worship. The guitars and synths have a typical sound that retroifies the album, especially when reverb or mild flanging are employed. The master is a tad compressed, not given full room to breathe, but not in a brickwalled sense – rather, it increases the feel of an older album, created in the time of 4-8 tracks instead of 128 tracks. It’s a stylistic choice that works best for the atmosphere-laden cuts. It doesn’t support the heavier songs though, which sound alright on earbuds or a car stereo but lack depth and punch on higher quality systems or headphones. Coupled with the minor vocal issues these cripple the heaviness, thus the stompers are among the weaker songs. The mix puts the vocals too high and the bass too low as well, which exacerbates the problem. Better balance in the levels would certainly improve the low-end and help the foundation of the overall sound.
If the heaviness had been the focus of the album this might have been a dealbreaker, but thankfully it isn’t, and so it remains a small mark on a promising debut. It’s not an album that will win any awards or blow any minds, but it’s a solid debut that will still get an occasional spin from me. If their sophomore effort shows some improvement in the production, Katla has what it takes to create a winning formula.