You might consider a band to be losing momentum when they go four years without releasing any original music, yet Katatonia‘s profile has risen since 2012’s Dead End Kings. With two live albums as well as Dethrowned and Uncrowned – a mellow reworking of Dead End Kings – under their collective belt since then, they’ve managed to keep their name in the press despite a lack of new material. If any band deserves this continued level of recognition and praise it’s Katatonia, but their development into a polished, modern rock outfit has resulted in a rather business-like approach to their output. While still writing some excellent songs, their sound has barely changed since 2006’s The Great Cold Distance, in stark contrast to the exciting musical development they exhibited in the first half of their career. I rarely return to their last two studio records, and assumed they would be content with releasing live albums and milking The Great Cold Distance‘s successful formula for the foreseeable future.
Wonderfully, The Fall of Hearts makes a mockery of my cynicism. Though still easily recognizable as New Millennium Katatonia1, the band have progressed their sound further than on any record since 2003’s Viva Emptiness. “Progressed” being the operative word: The Fall of Hearts is a fully fledged progressive metal record rather than merely hinting progwards like much of their prior art. Opener “Takeover” is a perfect demonstration of this new approach, its combination of luscious clean guitar and synth sections, triplet-dense heavy riffs, and inventive rhythms taking inspiration from Porcupine Tree, Tool, and Opeth while maintaining Katatonia‘s distinctive core sound. It’s also the longest track they’ve penned since Brave Murder Day, lasting over seven minutes, and worth every second.
This experimentation isn’t confined to the opener. While they don’t skimp on heavy riffs, The Fall of Hearts contains a great deal of beautifully written soft material. “Shifts” recalls the triplet lilt of Viva Emptiness‘ “One Year from Now,” “Pale Flag” floats over simple acoustic riffs accompanied by succulent synths and tasteful bongos2, while the agonizing “Decima” is almost unbearably tragic, the despair lifting only for a moment for some Opethian chord transitions in its mid-section. But the most interesting experimentation is reserved for heavier parts: the Soen-esque groove of “Residual,” the surprising harmonic movements in “Serac” and “The Night Subscriber,” the sinister descending synth line and distressing, unresolved ending of final track “Passer” – The Fall of Hearts is packed with such invention. Even the more traditional tracks surpass what Katatonia have written before, especially the fabulous “Serein” and “Last Song Before the Fade,” which are sure to become live favorites.
While each song has a distinctive character, they fit together perfectly: the band has clearly put plenty of thought into the album’s flow. This is just as well given its sixty-seven-minute running time,3 and save for the Katatonia-by-numbers of “Sanction,” every moment feels necessary. The new members acquit themselves well: Daniel Moilanen’s drumming is imaginative without becoming intrusive, and Roger Öjersson provides some classy guitar solos that further enhance the record’s progressive feel. As usual the production is simultaneously warm, enveloping, and polished. While I’m all for feeling warm and enveloped, the polish is a little heavily applied for my tastes, but I’m really nit-picking at what is a lovely overall sound.
Minor gripes aside, it is fantastic to hear Katatonia expanding their horizons after years of relative stagnation. Given my love for the simplicity of their Discouraged Ones/Tonight’s Decision period it’s perhaps surprising that I’m so enthusiastic about their move in the opposite musical direction, but the expert incorporation of these new ideas into their established sound and the sheer quality of the writing is undeniable. This is the most exciting music they have crafted in over a decade, and is essential listening whatever your preferred Kataton-era.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 16-bit/44kHz FLAC
Label: Peaceville Records