Yer Metal Is Olde: Katatonia – Last Fair Deal Gone Down

Album cover of Katatonia's Last Fair Deal Gone Down

The year of our Angry Metal Overlord 2001 was a “very good year,” to quote the everyone who has ever spoken about wine in a movie. Indeed, the year that produced Opeth’s epic and scene-changing Blackwater Park and Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes (“With Friends Like These, Who Needs COINTELPRO?”) also gave us Mutter by Rammstein, Awakening the World by Lost Horizon and Laundry Service by Shakira. And it was a particularly important milestone in the evolution of my metal identity. While I was busy discovering Scandinavia a few years late and dating strappy-booted ladies that would eventually hold public office and likely publicly deny that we dated,1 Last Fair Deal Gone Down fell in my lap. I really just fell in love with it at the time, and it’s a love affair that long outlasted the strappy-booted ladies.

At first blush, the songwriting is what makes Last Fair Deal Gone Down an improvement on Katatonia’s earlier material. The band developed a lot between 1997 and 2001, with the craft of writing the most obvious consequence. The songs are consistently more memorable, in that subtle Katatonia way, than previous albums. Tracks like “Teargas,” “Sweet Nurse,” and “We Must Bury You,” are sticky, despite the guys not exactly being Max Martin. And the songs are clearly streamlined. Gone were the awkward moments that haunted the brilliant, but over-long Tonight’s Decision, and even 5-and-a-half minute songs feel sharp. More importantly, Last Fair Deal Gone Down is also the album where the band dropped any pretense of being a doom band. While their early material is legendary, by 2001 they were comfortable writing albums that were a kind of ‘mid-paced post-metal’ that even push into pretty heavy material at times (“Clean Today”). This makes Last Fair Deal Gone Down energetic in a surprising way. Weirdly, this record kind of ‘slaps,’ as the kids would say.

Katatonia in the vaguely right time period I hope

An old picture of Katatonia that I think this is vaguely the right lineup. Promo photos from 2001 require a Google-Fu that I do not possess.

But it’s not just the songwriting that was better. In fact, upon reflection, Last Fair Deal Gone Down has a timeless sound. While the albums that went before it are defined by the fact that the band hadn’t quite figured out how to produce the material they wanted in the studio, Last Fair Deal Gone Down finds Katatonia mastering their sound. The wall of sound guitars sound huge and despite his borderline catatonic vocal performance,2 Jonas sounds great. His voice is produced in a way that doesn’t hamper heaviness of the band’s sound, unlike later albums where the band’s production seems to disconnected from how they sound live. And even the use of shitty drum machine sounds that are a bit dated—this was all the rage among the post-black metal crowd in 1999—aren’t out of place with the kind of thing one could hear today. Last Fair Deal Gone Down holds up really well sonically and we literally made Impure Wilhelmina‘s latest album the RotM when its sound had a strong whiff of Katatonia‘s 2001 masterpiece.

The result of the mastery of their sound and the maturing of their songwriting was a record that I think is an undeniable classic. And crazily enough, Last Fair Deal Gone Down is not my favorite Katatonia album. But what makes this album worthy of remembrance is that it is the start of—or at least a strong part of—a string of unassailable albums by these morose Swedes. This record features the payoffs on the formula they had been developing since 1997. And even if we often count Tonight’s Decision as the start of the band’s incredible string of releases, Last Fair Deal Gone Down is the first one that gave voice to the band’s genius, instead of hinting at it. Finally, the fact that this is probably my most listened to album from 2001 is a red flag that everyone should’ve noticed regarding my metal cred and RotM choices. But man, this album is still so fucking good.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. But would not deny the strappy, 10-inch platform boots they wore at the time.
  2. Though, keep in mind that Radiohead released Amnesiac that year and Jonas doesn’t get anywhere close to the total lack of enthusiasm that Thom Yorke performs with. Unpopular take: Amnesiac is Radiohead‘s best post-The Bends album.
« »