Keep of Kalessin – Katharsis Review

Despite the positive review we gave to Epistemology, Norway’s Keep of Kalessin polarizes the rowdy AMG staff. For reasons I can’t fathom, despite the band’s 30-year history and commercial success, nearly none of my peers has heard of them except Grier, who hates their guts.1 I enjoyed Epistemology when it came out. Keep of Kalessin’s over-the-top brand of symphonic black metal lacked consistency, but the best parts of the album steamrolled me with a vigor that I still feel eight years later. Its long-awaited successor Katharsis nails it in the alliteration department.2 Does the music follow suit?

Katharsis is a surprisingly distinctive blend of familiar ingredients. It’s tempting to describe Keep of Kalessin’s music simply as symphonic melodic black metal. Expect to hear a combination of frenetic tremolos and occasional soaring leads, with synths playing a critical supporting role. But this isn’t an Emperor album, nor is it a Dissection album. Rather, Katharsis often sounds like the Finnish melodic death metal scene in its emotional content, even if not quite its musical style. Keep of Kalessin’s theatrical bent reminds me of the Wintersun and Children of Bodom records of yore, aided by gang-chanted choruses (“From the Stars and Beyond”) and spoken-word vocals (“War of the Wyrm”). This has always been an element of Keep of Kalessin’s style but is accentuated here, making Katharsis resemble a musical soundtrack. Each of these individual ingredients is something you’ve heard before, but no other band sounds exactly like this.

Keep of Kalessin’s greatest asset is their sheer energy, and Katharsis hits hardest when it takes no prisoners. The middle of the album, the bane of many a record, shines brightest. “War of the Wyrm” bangs out death-metal-tinged riffs that are slower but devastating, while “From the Stars and Beyond” is a sixteen-wheeler with Jeff Gordon at the wheel. Keep of Kalessin’s stellar choruses help them stand out further, with epic vocal melodies that both grab my attention and make me stand up straight (“Katharsis,” “From the Stars and Beyond”). Still, Katharsis struggles when it resorts to textbook black metal instead of leaning into Keep of Kalessin’s strengths. The generic tremolo riffs on “The Obsidian Expanse” go in one ear and out the other, while the symphonic black metal of “The Omni” evokes Dimmu Borgir on life support. The highlights of Katharsis are the parts that sound unmistakably and unabashedly like Keep of Kalessin, while the blander blackened gruel leaves me feeling shortchanged.

Katharsis suffers from bloat in its quest for cohesion. Some of the longest tracks are the worst offenders. Ten-minute “The Obsidian Expanse” rehashes a forgettable black metal melody ad tedium, while “The Omni” fails to break enough new ground to justify its seven exhausting minutes. It’s no wonder that the two shortest full tracks are among the strongest (“War of the Wyrm,” “From the Stars and Beyond”). The uniformity in Keep of Kalessin’s style across much of the album also makes the record lose its novelty over several listens. Musical theater requires plot development in every act, but excessive repetition makes Katharsis feel too long, despite its seemingly manageable 48-minute length. Ironically, at its best, Katharsis deftly uses repetition as a creative tool rather than as a cop-out. The unexpected highlight “Journey’s End” centers around just a single beautiful vocal melody, but builds it up from sparse clean guitars to distorted wails and mournful chants to avoid monotony. With some more careful editing, Keep of Kalessin has the tools to write a tighter album where every song flows smoothly.

Katharsis is not your father’s black metal, except when it is. Keep of Kalessin earns a lot of credit by leaning further into the extravagant qualities that distinguish them from their peers. Katharsis thrives in its fiercest moments, especially when its most aggressive riffing and its theatrics coalesce. These high points are counterbalanced by swaths of generic black metal that add bloat and reduce the record’s replay value. Keep of Kalessin set a high bar for themselves from the get-go, naming themselves after a dragon from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. They have the skills to write a record that’s not only engaging but unique, but Katharsis isn’t that record. I’ll keep waiting for Keep of Kalessin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320kbps mp3
Label: Back on Black
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: March 24th, 2023

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’ve heard of them and just don’t care. – Steel
  2. I deserve a Pulitzer for not typing “Keep of Katharsis” anywhere in this review.
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