Katatonia: ‘Sky Void of Stars’ Review
Every wave starts with a ripple. Jonas Renkse is in many ways a master of the ripple. With guitarist and co-founder Anders Nyström beside him (he himself deploying a massive sonic influence), Katatonia has been a constantly, subtly evolving project since their foundation back in 1991. From their genesis taking death and doom metal and blending them beautifully to their shifting towards a gothic sound accompanied by sorrowful clean vocals, the band has been consistently putting out quality albums every few years, always succeeding in their goal of channelling sorrow and subtlety into their output.
Recent albums have seen more experimentation and ambition displayed in song structure, leaning firmly into progressive influences and impressively finding footing in the difficult midpoint between accessibility and complexity. The gradual inclusion of prog elements does not come as a shock: it was Renkse that introduced best buddy Mikael Akerfeldt to the music of Porcupine Tree, igniting the spark that led to the most iconic bromance and fanfiction subject in progressive music to date. The master of ripples works in mysterious ways.
The doomy influence remains but Katatonia have once again reinvented themselves in 2023. Their twelfth record (an impressive feat in itself) is aptly titled Sky Void of Stars. With such a storied catalogue it can be difficult to stick out – especially with legendary albums such as Brave Murder Day and The Great Cold Distance to your name. It’s a common criticism among bands such as this – but seconds into ‘Austerity’ and it’s immediately forgotten. This opening track deploys an immediate intensity that seamlessly couples itself with an absolute earworm of a chorus and the rare-but-welcome inclusion of an absolutely filthy solo from axeman Roger Öjersson. Any notion that this is a band going through the motions is dispelled here – Katatonia still has much to say.
Momentum doesn’t stop there – ‘Opaline’ has an almost danceable quality with heavy use of synthesisers and a crooning vocal from Jonas that can’t help but send chills down the spine. This album may well hold his best vocal performances across the entire chronology – ‘Author’ being another great demonstration of his more matured and confident execution. ‘Author’ in itself also brings with it some excellent drum fills courtesy of Daniel Moilanen, and a riff tremorous enough to alert seismologists the world over.
It’s worth noting at this point that the full-bodied nature of Katatonia’s music almost demands an active listen and the mix is oftentimes meticulously executed. Sky Void of Stars is no different in this regard. In recent weeks it has been my soundtrack whilst aimlessly traversing through Central London at night and yet the hustle and bustle of the big city is lost in the sheer sonic magnitude of this record. Extra credit for this goes to Nyström and Öjersson for their choices in guitar tone which seamlessly range from incredibly regal to absolute filth.
Now that you’re paying attention: ‘Impermanence’ is another highlight for Renske and his vocals, here accompanied by Soen vocalist Joel Ekelöf – also in fine form for this ballad. The interplay between the two is incredibly natural and skilfully avoids falling into the hamfisted tropes that come expected in a duet on a metal record. ‘Atrium’ also has some classic Katatonia guitar work running throughout with Nyström firmly holding onto his stake as a particularly intriguing riff wizard.
The final track – ‘No Beacon to Illuminate Our Fall’ – is peak Katatonia. The longest and most progressive track on the album has every member bringing their absolute best as the listener is swept from intense rhythmic madness from Moilanen to some incredibly smooth bass lines courtesy of Niklas Sandin. Renkse is also firmly placed to deliver another fine vocal performance – another album highlight for him. Both Nyström and Öjersson take solos here, with both reaching astonishing levels of beauty in their incredibly tasteful playing. This closer is frankly jaw-dropping – the band are going from strength to strength right now but if this is what they chose to end on, I wouldn’t even be mad.
While this album is not without its imperfections – I personally find songs like ‘Drab Moon’ and ‘Sclera’ to be serviceable tracks, though somewhat bland compared to the album’s peaks – Sky Void of Stars proves to be an exciting chapter in the Katatonia canon. A band producing a record with some genuinely incredible cuts such as ‘Author’ and the previously gushed about closer ‘No Beacon to Illuminate Our Fall’ over three decades into their career is a massive achievement and certainly worth shouting about. Bring this record on an aimless city adventure near you, you’ll be very unlikely to regret it.