Album Title: Sky Void Of Stars
Label: Napalm Records
Date of Release: 20 January 2023
Long-time readers and supporters of manofmuchmetal.net will be aware that this is my first review in several months. Truth be told, I went so hard and fast at the start of 2022, that I hit burn-out, and couldn’t juggle everything anymore. Then it got worse, as worries over money, kids, health, career all collided in a perfect storm, leaving me having to reassess things. And, at the forefront of my mind was the scariest question of them all: do I want to keep writing reviews?
I’ve been writing reviews, conducting interviews, and generally making a nuisance of myself within the music ‘journalism’ sphere for about seventeen years now, and I’ve had some wonderful memories and experiences, not to mention making tons of great friends and acquaintances along the way. But it has been so hard to find the motivation of late, to the point where I have been questioning everything.
So where do I go from here? Well, there are a handful of bands out there that have the power to pull me out of the funk that I’ve been in – and one of them is Katatonia. My thought, therefore, is to write this review for the Swede’s latest album, ‘Sky Void Of Stars’, to see if it changes my mindset at all. No promises, but here goes nothing…
I won’t go into the backstory with Katatonia on this review, because you can read that elsewhere, in great detail. Suffice to say that for many reasons, they sit at my top table of musical entities, and justifiably so.
Many fans, myself included at times, will be guilty of wanting bands to stay within their self-created niche, delivering the same album over and over again. And, when they don’t, we either complain, stop listening, or just confine ourselves to the period of a band’s career that we love the most, bitterness and anger eating away at us. With Katatonia, it is different.
Here is a band that now sound nothing like they did at the beginning of their career in the early 1990s. Long gone is the doom-laden, black/death metal approach of their youth, a position reached over twelve albums and via many different twists and turns along the way, each one garnering new fans and alienating others. Not me. I genuinely like every single twist and turn, every guise that the band has assumed, and every album that they have produced has delivered a little slice of magic. I have my favourites of course, but I can say with total honesty, that I, for example, like ‘Brave Murder Day’ almost as much as I like ‘The Great Cold Distance’ and vice versa.
Line-up changes, and the simple passage of time have brought us to the position in which Katatonia now find themselves. And again, your view of their thirteenth offering, ‘Sky Void Of Stars’, will depend upon which side of the fence you sit. For the third album in a row, the line-up has remained unchanged with original members Jonas Renkse (vocals) and guitarist Anders Nyström joined by Roger Öjersson (guitar), Niklas Sandin (bass) and drummer Daniel Moilanen. And, for the second time, this record has been written and composed solely by vocalist Jonas Renkse.
It will come as no surprise to learn that I love it. But, as with many other albums within the discography, the love wasn’t instantaneous. I initially felt that some of the songs weren’t hitting the mark as strongly as I had hoped, with my opening appraisal suggesting that ‘Sky Void Of Stars’ was a little patchy. It also didn’t help that the album title kept bringing unbidden thoughts of the God-awful ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’ by the thoroughly overrated and tedious Coldplay. The last thing I wanted was that song buried in my head, I can tell you. Dead and buried, yes, but anywhere other than my head.
Anyhow, with time and attention, those early thoughts have been turned on their heads and I find myself enjoying immensely the vast majority of ‘Sky Void Of Stars’. Musically, it contains many of those instantly recognisable ingredients heard over the years from Renkse’s unmistakeably mellifluous vocal tones to the melancholy leads and embellishments courtesy of Anders Nyström’s guitar. The overall feel of the record is dark, oppressive, and bleak but I detect a smoothness and simplicity within much of the material here, but with a subtle technicality that lurks beneath the surface as well. If anything, I’s say it’s a clever amalgamation of the ‘Tonight’s Decision’ era, and their most recent last couple of outings.
There are a few songs that, in my opinion, stand above the others, and they appear in the form of ‘Opaline’, ‘Birds’, ‘Impermanence’, and album closer ‘No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall’. ‘Opaline’ is nothing short of a melancholy anthem that begins quietly and tentatively before unfurling majestically, delivering one of the strongest choruses that the band has ever penned. Hyperbole? Maybe, but it is truly stunning – it was the song that I liked on a first spin, and the one that kept me coming back to the album for repeated listens. ‘Birds’ on the other hand, took longer to work its magic. It starts off in energetic fashion with a strong beat and superbly emotive leads from the guitars, slowing in the verses to introduce some pronounced synth-led atmospherics. The chorus is where the pace and heaviness picks up again, delivering something of a slow-burner. But it hits the mark over time, becoming a genuine earworm, nestled within one of the most dynamic and powerful songs on the album.
‘Impermanence’ isn’t a ballad by any stretch of the imagination, but it has that vague feel to it. Cloaked in simplistic sounding, minimalist soundscapes that evoke that work ‘bleak’ again, the chorus hits with a forlorn, miserable beauty that cannot be ignored, soaring high and magnificently but laced with so much sadness, frustration, and resignation. We even get a lead solo that compounds the anguish expertly, an ingredient that has always been used very sparingly by the band.
To my ears, the closing track, ‘No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall’ is arguably the most complex and ‘progressive’ of the album’s content. I love the striking juxtaposition between sections of minimalist atmospheres and the punchier, heavier riffs that swirl and churn whilst throwing a few aggressive punches along the way. Easily the heaviest song on the record, we’re also treated to an unexpected moment of death metal brutality complete with double pedal drumming, fierce riffs, and wailing lead guitar notes. It only lasts a few seconds, to be replaced by immediately more fragile sounds, but the ebb and flow throughout means that it isn’t the last fluctuation within a properly interesting and engaging final composition that never sits still.
But, as I said before, the more I listen, the more I find to like elsewhere too. Opener ‘Austerity’, with its immediate, no nonsense start contains another insidious chorus that grows in strength. Having said that solos are not a big thing for Katatonia, the Roger Öjersson effect means there’s another one to enjoy here, as well as more moments that descend into brittle minimalism to counterpoint the more robust elements. Immediate follow-up, ‘Colossal Shade’ is another cracking song featuring some catch-as-hell moments, delightful melodies, and chunky riffing.
Is ’Sky Void Of Stars’ the best album of Katatonia’s career? No, it isn’t. But as with every other full-length that they have released over their impressive career, it delivers some utterly delightful music along the way that I have once again taken to my heart. I know, 100 per cent, that I will listen to ‘Sky Void Of Stars’ as much as any others in the discography, and derive plenty of enjoyment from the repeated experience. That’s more than enough for me right now, thus justifiably earning the album my seal of approval.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%