Yer Metal Is Olde: Katatonia – Tonight’s Decision

Back in the nineties, I was in a very famous TV show’s unrelenting grip, utterly unable to give a shit about anything that wasn’t Pokémon related. I craved anything and everything related to the show; the popular playing cards, the glorious Gameboy games, the shameless shirts… I had to catch ’em all, yo. As time passed, my Pokémania steadily waned while the franchise conversely expanded; each year brought change and expansion to the ‘monscape, yet I cared less and less for each new wave of monsters and merchandise. Katatonia are something like my anti Pokémon: when I first discovered them, circa Viva Emptiness, I shared none of the love that the rest of the metalsphere had for the Swedes, and yet it and each subsequent album would eventually dig the band a little deeper into what’s become their home at the innermost depths of my heartcicle. Like the infamous pocket monsters ov yore, each successive Katatonia offering has introduced new defining elements to their makeup, constantly evolving and establishing distinct historical chapters in their wake. Today we revisit Tonight’s Decision, an album that bade farewell to Katatonia’s violent youthful tendencies and set them on a course for dark prog greatness.

Though not yet the renowned and revered act that they would eventually become, Katatonia nonetheless had an established sound and following prior to 1999’s Tonight’s Decision; with three full-lengths and four EPs to their name by this point, the Swedes had already built an identity founded on death, doom, black metal, and aggressive general negativity. However, ’98’s Discouraged Ones found the band fleeing from the harsh vocals and death-doom styles that had previously comprised their sound, leaving the blackened instrumentation and demonic Åkerfeldtian screams of ’96’s Brave Murder Day behind and thoroughly perplexing their fans. Discouraged Ones’ unsubtle shift in direction was a bold and cryptic statement from the band, heralding change and making it rather unclear as to just what kind of path their music might now follow. When Katatonia returned the following year with Tonight’s Decision, it was decidedly evident that the dudes were definitely done doling out death-doom ditties and deliberately deviating in a different direction entirely.

No one is likely to laud Jonas Renske’s vocal performance on Tonight’s Decision as being his best, yet his exploration of less extreme environments was an essential expedition, both for the progression of the band and for himself as a singer. Unpolished and occasionally cringe-inducing when compared to Katatonia’s current caliber of crestfallen crooning, Renske & Co.’s gloomy gothic growth nonetheless owes much to Tonight’s Decision; looking back, one can see how the fundamentals of songs such as “I am Nothing” and “For My Demons,” which paired the young Renske’s tremulous cleans with the sweetly haunting melodies of Anders Nyström and Fredrik Norrman’s gently weeping guitars, paved the way for later definitive tracks such as “Forsaker” and “July,” respectively. “Right into the Bliss” suffers perhaps the most by Renske’s fledgling hands, and yet years of practice and commitment to this progressive new direction would eventually produce both an iconic band and a likewise legendary and inimitable frontman.

As developmentally significant as Renske’s role in Tonight’s Decision was, the artist formerly known as Lord Seth wasn’t alone in reshaping the core of Katatonia in the year of our Jørn 1999. Continuing Discouraged Ones’ exodus from black and death metal, Nyström and Norrman adopted a much more melodic methodology and began penning songs that embraced the structural tameness of alt-rock while retaining juuust enough tonal darkness and chuggy bits as to maintain a semblance of metal appeal. Despite being covered in Norrman’s plaintive sonic fingerprints, the likes of “A Darkness Coming” and “Right into the Bliss” were all but unrecognizable as the younger siblings of “Gateways of Bereavement;” these were radio-friendly compositions that eschewed extreme stylings altogether, far removed from the blackened hostility of Dance of December Souls. This markedly safer approach was indeed a significant departure from the band’s roots, and would eventually become something of a second set of roots as Katatonia continued to harvest and expand upon what they’d sewn with Tonight’s Decision. Staple songs such as “Idle Blood” and “Increase” owe more to “A Darkness Coming” and “No Good Can Come of This,” respectively, than to anything the band had released beforehand. And, for that, we say thank ya.

Tonight’s Decision is not a perfect album. It’s not particularly polished,1 it’s hardly indicative of the sound and quality of present-day Katatonia, and yet it was nonetheless an important milestone for the band, a key moment in their career that did away with what they’d done and defined the shape of funerals things to come. Tonight’s Decision paved the way for Viva Emptiness and The Great Cold Distance, shedding the band’s callous exoskeleton to reveal something gooey and tender that would mature into a melancholic pocketmonster. Though almost none of their eventual greatness was reached on Tonight’s Decision, its nascent potential is all quite clearly hinted at in retrospect, making this album one of the most important in Katatonia’s discography. It’s no holographic Charizard, but a trve master knows that you don’t just catch the albums and songs that are convenient and cool: you gotta catch ’em all, yo.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Which is kind of funny, remembering that one Dan Swanö was on sessions stick-duty at the time.
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