Sometimes writing a review is like drinking girly drinks on a tropical beach. Sometimes it’s like getting really angry at a “customer service representative” at Musician’s Friend when they’re giving you the run around after they fucked you. And sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth. The two former are easy situations. You can wax poetically about the sunset in a tropical paradise for 600 words easily and that rant at the “customer service” guy was easily 1500 words (though only 900 non-four letter words). It’s the pulling teeth reviews that are so painful to write, instead you just want some morphine. Unfortunately, Dead End Kings is more the latter than either of the former. This record has just been painfully hard to write about, so forgive the halting review.
Katatonia are one of my favorite bands, I think it’s safe to say. In the top 10? Probably, but definitely the Top 15 – with A Great Cold Distance and Last Fair Deal Gone Down duking it out for one of the best records of the 2000s. Their development as an act that has moved this far from Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day is immense. Those records are absolute classics, but as a band Katatonia has developed a feel for modern, depressive rock in the late 2000s that one could only have guessed at when Discouraged Ones and Tonight’s Decision were being released. But I did not enjoy Night Is the New Day pretty much at all. Instead, while everyone was freaking out, I was underwhelmed. It was filled with songs that didn’t speak to me even remotely. And unlike Viva Emptiness which finally just clicked for me after about 18 months of not digging it, Night Is the New Day still doesn’t pack any kind of punch.
And it would be fair to say that Dead End Kings is pretty much a continuation of Night Is the New Day‘s poetic form, but not a continuation of the same mediocre poem. While the words are not the same, the verses follow the same cadence and the themes of the meloncholy melodies and are reminiscent of the feel – but the writing has been taken up a notch. The use of keyboards is particularly noticeable as a sign of all of this, songs like “Undo You” featuring long atmospheric keyboard introductions (á la “Departer”), while featuring less of the glitchy groove that was heard so clearly on The Great Cold Distance. Instead, this is a more ethereal, softer Katatonia, with less modern rock crunch and more pondering cleans. The track “Leech,” even follows suit with Opeth in the use of Jan Johansson-like Jazz på svenska melodies to build the frame of the song.
But it would be inaccurate to say that Dead End Kings is lacking of the well-formed post-rock poppiness that Katatonia has gotten so good at since the early aughts. The songs here are tight, with well-written choruses featuring Jonas’ immediately recognizable voice and a lot more harmonized vocal parts. The hooks are sharp, and you wouldn’t expect it at first blush, but songs like “Hypone,” “The Parting” and “Buildings” all get stuck in your head when you’ve been away from the album a while. And it’s also in these places, where that comfortable Katatonia crunch rears its head – like after the first chorus in “Buildings” which has a sick groove and a Gojira pick slide.
Musically, it’s hard to tell if the leaving of the Norrman brothers really changed anything at all. The guitar work – all of which is done by Anders now – is the same kind of heavy chug or minimalistic single-note passages like they’ve always been, whereas the bass is well-performed, but not standout. Probably, the most impressive work on here is in the realms of keyboards and programming, which is the soft pillow on which the rest of the music lands. The mix is smart, in that even when the music is largely just keyboard and drums, the keys never dominate. But the sounds used are perfect for these rainy Swedish days.
When you spin a record nearly 20 times you’re almost guaranteed to like something about it. But I’m not sure I would have made it to 20 spins if I’d not had to review this record. The problem is that a 48 minute album should be a quick listen every time, and Dead End Kings hasn’t been that. Instead, 1/3 of the time I’ve not made it to “Dead Letters,” which is possibly the album’s best. Somewhere on the back end of the record, I lose the thread. What’s more fascinating is that when I go and choose the songs individually to listen to the parts, I don’t dislike any of them directly. Instead, it’s more an issue of dragging flow and a lack of crunch. But Dead End Kings has continued to grow on me with time, with songs that are definite positive additions to the Katatonia discography like “Leech,” “Buildings” and “Ambitions.” Still, one longs for something a bit heavier and more foreboding even while enjoying the drab grays the band is painting in.