When it inevitably comes time for a metal band to embark upon a stylistic change, a gradual shift often works best. Metallica, for instance, have served as a cautionary tale for bands going forward; they might have remained the largest act in terms of selling tickets and albums but when they released Load, they never heard the end of it from many of their then-hardcore fans. Katatonia’s evolution from death doom icons to their progressive, gothic-tinged metal sound of today is a road paved in the virtues of great songwriting. The group never painted themselves into a corner, which allowed them to abandon harsher growls in favor of Jonas Renkse’s equally bleak croon. His voice grew more refined in the years that passed, with the band fully hitting their stride on their 2003 masterpiece Viva Emptiness. Twenty years later, on Sky Void of Stars, they shed their doom roots in favor of a solidifying step into prog rock.
Leadoff track “Austerity” wastes no time establishing its hard rock drive, not unlike where they were sonically on 2020’s City Burials. Renkse sings the verse in a slightly lower register than normal, which carries a little more heft, though longtime fans might prefer the darker, heavier mood to “Colossal Shade.” It’s on “Opaline” where the album’s nuanced production begins to stand out, sounding very little like a typical metal record. The guitars are more delicately layered to create a jazz-like effect. The band have also blended a wide scope of electronic sounds, taking them more explicitly toward progressive rock but falling more on the darker side of that genre.
By “Birds,” I had to pause the album to see if I had left Pat Metheny playing in another window on my computer. It’s more upbeat, with the kind of atmospheric nuance that a Metheny fan might also mistake for the jazz-fusion great to be noodling in the background. The jazz inflections take a backseat to the classic melancholy we have come to expect from the band post-Night is the New Day on the “Drab Moon.” They continue to build off this mood as the album moves forward with a more straightforward rock dynamic. Many of these songs took repeat listens to fully ingest everything going on here, and the power ballad dynamic of “Impermanence” required a few listens to wrap my head around. Renkse continues putting his voice in different places here, with the moody phrasing of the band swirling around him.
For every noted change that finds the band drifting in the direction of Porcupine Tree there are more familiar sounds to balance this out with, most notably on “Sclera.” The guitar heroics that blazed the path on their last album return here, but the progressive direction taken is not one rooted in showcasing dexterity so much as in sprawling expanses of sound compacted into accessible songs too adventurous for commercial airplay. Not to say there are no songs like “Atrium” that might find a place on a more forward-thinking rock station—it’s no surprise this was one of the album’s lead singles. This is not the sound of Katatonia selling out or pandering for streams. And the progressive direction is even more appealing when coated in slithering darkness, as heard on “Absconder.” In the loosest of terms, Katatonia are still a metal band, even if their earliest recordings wouldn’t have suggested they’d evolve into the direction they’ve taken on Sky Void of Stars. No matter its relationship to their doom roots, their sound feels just as fresh as it ever has.
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