The Swedish doom/prog outfit’s latest is a testament to both their artistry and the potential for live music during lockdown
Swedish progressive rock/doom metal quintet Katatonia have made a career out of distilling anguish and anger into absurdly beautiful and resonant musical forms.
Featuring luscious yet often crushing arrangements and the always endearing singing of frontman Jonas Renkse, both their studio LPs and concerts offer impeccable glimpses into the soul. The same holds true for Dead Air, their latest live release. Recorded in May 2020 (during lockdown, of course), it offers a treasurable combination of Katatonia fan favorites and a few standouts from last year’s City Burials. Perhaps more importantly, though, it acts as evidence of how fruitful live sets can be in restricted and remote settings. After all, we may not see an adequate return to shows for many more months, but if more bands can pull off performances like this outside of such locations (and despite several limitations), the concert experience might just be sufficiently replicated at home.
Album: Dead Air
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Designed to “immortalise the strangest of times”—as the press release reads—Dead Air was streamed live from Studio Grondahl in Stockholm. Of course, there have been many at-home concerts over the last several months (biased or not, The Prog Report’s “Prog from Home” and Metal Injection’s “Slay at Home” have been among my favorites), but this is easily among the most refined and professional ones to date. Clocking in at roughly 90 minutes, fashioned by longtime collaborator David Castillo, and featuring nearly two dozen tracks (all of which were chosen by devotees), it’s a superb collection that all fans should own.
Of the newer material, City Burials is represented by three top-notch tunes: “Lacquer,” “Behind the Blood,” and “The Winter of Our Passing.” All of them are done exceptionally, as you’d expect, with “The Winter of Our Passing” feeling the most authentic (if only be a margin). Sure, some of the ethereal layers and echoes are missing, but that only helps to give these versions a bit more rawness and punchiness. The same can be said for other relatively modern gems, such as Dead End Kings’ “Lethean” (which starts the set) and “The Racing Heart,” as well as The Fall of Hearts’ “Serein” and “Old Heart Falls.” Everything sounds as pristine as possible, and everything is performed as professionally as ever.
In a way, the LP also serves as a kind of career overview since it features material dating back to 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down (“Teargas” and “Tonight’s Music”) and 2003’s Viva Emptiness (“Ghost of the Sun,” “Evidence,” and “Omerta”). Granted, these picks were never too stylistically removed from Katatonia’s modern sound (maybe there was a bit more of a goth/alternative metal edge to them), yet it’s nonetheless interesting to hear how they adapt them a bit for their current aesthetic. Likely the best aspect of Dead Air’s dedication to the past, however, Is the attention it pays to 2006’s The Great Cold Distance. Roughly half of the album is accounted for, in fact, including the hypnotically passionate “My Twin.” Here, it’s more intense but less nuanced, resulting in a significantly different but still satisfying rendition.
Dead Air is not only a terrific Katatonia live document and overview of their discography, but also a faultless demonstration of how well artists can persevere creatively and financially in spite of the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong: it doesn’t take the place of actually seeing them live for either the band or admirers (in terms of ticket sales, merchandise, banter between artist and admirers, etc.) but it also challenges the notion that there’s nothing artists or listeners can do to replicate the experience. With enough determination and support, records like Dead Air are possible.
Let’s hope that we get a ton more releases like this from our favorite acts in 2021.
AUDIO: Katatonia Dead Air (full album)