Back in 2018, Katatonia - the Swedish masters of melancholy - announced that they would be entering a hiatus for a number of reasons, one including a serious back injury suffered by their newest recruit Roger Öjersson. The future of the band seemed uncertain, but little over a year later they were already announcing an anniversary tour for their 2009 album Night Is the New Day. Only a year later, they have now presented another gift of onyx-like progressive rock in the form of their 11th studio album, City Burials.
The first single Katatonia released to promote this album was 'Lacquer', a sombre piece of downtempo electronic music. Whilst this is a sound that surprised many longtime fans of the band, it's not the first time Katatonia has dabbled with this style; songs like 'Departer' from Night Is the New Day are other examples of Katatonia going outside of their usual guitar-driven style to experiment with different sounds, and the execution of these sounds on songs like 'Lacquer' is nothing short of sublime. Overall, the electronics and synthesizers play a bigger part in City Burials than usual; the last time they were this prominent on a Katatonia record was on their aforementioned 2009 record, Night Is the New Day.
However, by no means does this mean that the guitars have been left on the backbench. The sombre melodies and dark rock riffs courtesy of Öjersson and founding member Anders Nyström are still here aplenty, and the guitar work here sounds fresh and re-invigorated. It was definitely worth waiting a few extra years for a new Katatonia album, as there is an encouraging spark to the otherwise somber instrumentation throughout City Burials. 'Behind the Blood', the second single released prior to the album's release, is a particularly strong example of this, with heavy riffs, a steady mid-tempo drum beat and some impressive lead and solo work. The guitar solos and leads are perhaps the most surprising addition to the Katatonia arsenal, as the majority of their output in recent years has relied much more on the downtuned riffs, doom-laden atmosphere and Jonas Renske's silky smooth crooning. Whilst a lot of City Burials still definitely uses these elements to its advantage, the leads and solos are a nice new addition to their musical palette, and it's good to see it used to greater effect on City Burials after hearing small glimpses of it on Katatonia's previous record, The Fall of Hearts.
Frontman Jonas Renske is, as with pretty much every previous Katatonia album, a definite strong point here too. After completely abandoning harsh vocals on their early material, he has become one of the most distinctive voices in the doom/gothic umbrella. His vocal performance here is spectacular as usual, and he even gets the opportunity to show his higher register on songs like Lacquer, where more focus on his vocal range works very well given the absence of heavy guitars. The vocal work on Katatonia's material has always been about complimenting the instrumentation, rather than trying to out-do it, and that's no different here on City Burials. On top of that, his lyric writing is spectacular, as sombre as the music, telling tales of their home-town Stockholm slowly falling victim to globalisation, and how this leads to a city losing its identity. The lyric writing is, like the vocals, the strongest on Lacquer, where Renske effortlessly goes from daydreaming and lamenting the loss of his hometown's individuality, followed by a stark jolt back to reality with the line “the road to the grave is as straight as an arrow”.
In spite of gradually shifting away from their death/doom roots over the years, Katatonia have very much carved a niche for themselves in the world of modern rock and metal in a way very few other bands have managed. Their sound over the years has aged like fine wine, and nothing in their almost flawless catalogue sounds out of place. Despite a short hiatus and numerous lineup changes in recent years, City Burials is simply another glorious chapter in their musical story with some new tricks thrown in to keep things interesting. The heightened presence of Öjersson in the songwriting allows for a much-needed replenishment to their instrumental department, and the greater variety and shorter runtime in comparison to The Fall of Hearts allows for a more concise and dynamic album. In spite of being around for nearly 30 years, City Burials is a sign that Katatonia are nowhere near close to slowing down.
City Burials is released April 24th via Peaceville Records. You can pre-order the album here.