There was a time some years ago where I never read anything about metal on the internet. My knowledge of the genre came from the music itself and books like Ian Christe’s indispensable Sound of the Beast. My barometer of taste was my group of friends; a record that we’d spin endlessly and enjoy together was a great one. Kataklysm’s Prevail was one such record, and it’s remained a favorite throughout the years. Entering into the digital wilds of the internet age, I was shocked to find that there existed people who didn’t think the Maurizio Iacono fronted version of Kataklysm was great. All the pedantic arguments in the world never dimmed my enthusiasm for the band, and every new release of theirs is met with great anticipation from me. Thirteenth record Meditations thus has an advantage here: I already like what Kataklysm has been doing for the last long while, and only a drastic and ill-advised change could hamper that.
This change doesn’t come, which is no surprise to anyone familiar with Kataklysm’s back catalog. Meditations is, however, a small detour from both Of Ghosts and Gods and Waiting for the End to Come. This move is interesting due to Kataklysm moving more towards their sound on In the Arms of Devastation and, to a lesser but still noticeable degree, Serenity in Fire. Opener “Guillotine” sounds like the opening salvo of the latter with choppy riffs, lightning-quick and pulverizing drums, and an impassioned vocal performance from Maurizio Iacono, who seems to get better with age. The bigger, wider, and sweeping melodic aspects hinted at on Devastation and realized fully on Of Ghosts and Gods are retained and merged seamlessly into Kataklysm’s new-old direction. Merging recognizable elements of your past work with the inspiration of your present is a great way to keep your sound from stagnating, and Kataklysm remains interesting because of their reliance on this strategy.
Mid-album highlight “In Limbic Resonance” is an illustrative example of the overall direction of Meditations. Like Serenity in Fire’s “For All Our Sins,” there’s a taste of extreme Hypocrisy in the proceedings (the former even had Peter Tagtren doing guest vocals), but it’s still unmistakably Kataklysm. Here as elsewhere, Kataklysm have found the line between harmony and heaviness, satisfying both of those wants in metal at once with the confidence and expertise only years of practice and honing one’s craft can bring. Beauty and catharsis; it’s hard to ask for much more from a few minutes of the music of our humble genre. Kataklysm delivers this throughout Meditations, and unlike the “good cop/bad cop” ideals of metalcore, none of it is jarring or forced. “The Last Breath I’ll Take is Yours” is a good example. An aggressive verse transitions to a more melodic chorus that’s controlled instead of restrained, vigorous instead of bouncy, red-blooded instead of candy-coated. There’s a real sense of purpose to the later Kataklysm’s songwriting, and Iacono’s vocals reinforce this. His love of Ancient Rome animated both Ex Deo and Epic: The Poetry of War, and the resolute, hardened, and nearly stoic outlook of Meditations seems to show inspiration from Marcus Aurelius. This isn’t the soundtrack to despair, but to victory and self-improvement, a shining example of the optimism extreme metal is capable of.
I’ve found myself enjoying Meditations too much to bother looking for nitpicky problems with the overall product. The ruthlessly catchy “Guillotine” sets a high standard for the record as its opener, and while not often surpassed it is uniformly met. There are no duds, no disparity in quality on Side A and Side B, and at thirty-nine minutes Meditations lasts exactly as long as it should, offering enough to sate but not over-saturate. It’s produced in a quintessentially modern way, but with each instrument audible and no problems listening at recommended volume (read: high), I can’t complain.
What is to be expected when a critic reviews one of his favorite bands? Too often “honesty” or “fairness” is conflated with arbitrary fault-finding, and that’s a waste of time. I don’t enjoy Kataklysm because I’m blinded by bias; I enjoy Kataklysm because they write great music, and Meditations is no exception. This is meat and potatoes death metal in the truest form: packed with energy, lacking in fat, great for building strength, and an always reliable comfort when times get tough that isn’t decadent but actually good for you.