on 24 September 2013
It's been fascinating watching Katatonia's career arc. In many ways their artistic evolution has echoed that of Anathema, both bands forged in the furious flames of extreme metal, only for age and experience to temper the white hot passions of youth and shape them into something altogether more evocative. Over the years the guitars have gradually shifted form, evolving from the early flash floods of distorted rage into swirling, ethereal mists of great beauty and the vocals of Jonas Renske have gained a unique, grandiloquent quality few can match. Where once katatonia stood upon the shattered ramparts of a fortress, bravely unleashing their might upon the hordes of darkness, now they sit beneath the long abandoned buttresses of fading palaces, hunched upon the throne, still proud, but gnarled and buckled with age and care. They are grand, possessed of great majesty, and yet twisted by the weight they bear.
It is nothing new for a band to rework its back catalogue in the light of stylistic change - Anathema performed the trick twice with `Hindsight' and `falling deeper', but where those albums drew upon heavier, earlier works, `Dethroned and uncrowned' draws exclusively from the stunning album `dead end kings', following its track-listing exactly and adding a further layer of darkness to Travis Smith's evocative artwork. It is, if you like, a companion piece to that record, not exactly an acoustic reworking, but rather a further exploration of the sounds and atmospheres that lurked at its dark heart. Presented in a beautifully rendered digi-book, like its predecessor it comes with a surround sound mix (although, unusually, it is a DTS 4.1 mix) that is by far the best way to experience this deeply mysterious and brooding album.
`The parting' opens with Jonas' voice, backed by simple, haunting piano. You immediately notice the absence of the pummelling guitar that originally opened the track, but instead layers of reverb and new vocal lines flesh out the sound, whilst synth string lines add a haunting quality that was only hinted at upon the original release. Jonas' voice, always a thing of wonder, is very much to the fore and his weary lament weaves a soft, silken web around the listener until you're bound head and foot in a glistening web of gossamer threads that refuse to let go until the music has passed. It emphasises a beauty to Katatonia's music that was always present but occasionally obscured by bombast and here it is laid bare for all to see and admire. `The one you are looking for is not here' replaces the original backing vocals with a subtle ambience to create the haunting feel of empty, stone-walled corridors lit only by the light of guttering candles. There is a stunning ambience to the track and just when you feel it can't possibly become any more astonishing, a gentle percussion comes in alongside the sylph-like vocals of Silje Wergeland (the gathering) and you're drawn once more out of the grey, tired world which you inhabit towards a place of open fields and crystal clear, flowing streams. Few pieces of music are so evocative, and this particular track arguably improves upon an original track that had previously seemed perfect. `Hypnone' is the closest thing here to Anathema's work on `hindsight', with a lush, full acoustic guitar driving the sound and sweeping strings blazing brightly in the background. `The racing heart', in contrast, opens with a sparse piano, backing Jonas' soulful vocals before the guitar slides in with a hint of David Gilmour's liquid lead work on `the division bell' about it before the vibrant strings return once more. There's so much going on amidst the rich tapestry of the song's construction that no review could satisfactorily cover it and tell the reader all, suffice it to say that it is a work of compelling depth and extraordinary beauty.
One of the original album's standout tracks, `buildings' is rich and full, the guitar's warmth emboldened by the echoing piano and haunting melody. Yet for all that, it's a strangely disconsolate number that shifts darkly into the minor key, adding gothic organ to the mix to further accentuate the song's unnerving ambience of loss and faded grandeur. `Leech' is awash in strings, but the primary focus is Jonas' gently distorted vocals which are delivered with more power and passion in their naked hopelessness than if they had been harnessed to a thousand flaming guitars. `Ambitions', in contrast, takes on an almost folky feel, thanks to Jonas' intonation and the simple guitar melody that is picked out subtly beneath Jonas' echoing pleas. It's perfect music for those late night reveries, lost in self-reflection and contemplation and the electronic percussion accentuates the ambient feel the band have gone for on this release. `Undo you' echoes through vaulted chambers, the guitar sweeping over a dreamy synth backing as the candles burn low and the vocal harmonies employed at key moments are the best of Katatonia's impressive career. It emphasises the progressive aspects of Katatonia's music and recalls elements of Porcupine tree and Caravan in its dreamy, ethereal feel. `Lethean' is one of the grandest songs, utilising a greater deal of percussion found elsewhere and huge, cinematic strings giving the song an epic feel that aptly justifies the much-overused turn `widescreen' in describing it.
The final two songs on the album see night falling fast and the band raging at the dying of the light. `First prayer' is a powerful song, even stripped so bare, with the vocals shimmering in the delicate moonlight as the percussion slithers across the chorus, although it builds into something deeper and more satisfying as it develops. Final track `dead letters' is, well, it's just a remarkable work that captures and sums up everything that makes the entire album special. Here there are gentle strings, gorgeous vocal harmonies, the warm, rich swell of the mellotron and the subtle ripple of picked guitars. It's the perfect climactic end to an album that never ceases to astonish with the richness of the song-writing.
Where `dead end kings' provided the band with an opportunity to pile layer upon layer to build up the warm textured sounds of the album, `dethroned and uncrowned' bravely takes all that away. The songs, it is plainly obvious, have no need of embellishment, they stand proudly on their own, stripped bare and, in many ways, the better for it. It is not a matter of which record is better - they are both so different in execution as to be like two totally different directors creating a movie from the same script. If you loved `dead end kings' then there is no question that this is an essential addition to your collection. If, for any reason, you missed out on that record or considered Katatonia too metallic for your tastes, then this is the perfect introduction to their unique song craft. Beautifully presented, perfectly recorded and deeply rewarding, `dethroned and uncrowned' confirms what many already knew - that Katatonia are master song-writers who have only improved at their craft - this is a sublime, majestic release of which the band should be justly proud.
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on 14 September 2013
So, this is basically Katatonia unplugged with a reworked mainly acoustic rendition of Dead End Kings. Dead End Kings is a great album, though I wonder if die-hard Katatonia fans feel a little worried about the direction the band appears to be taking. I reviewed 'The Wisdom of Crowds' album that Renkse did with Pineapple Thief main man Soord. I really like that album, so no surprise that I like this side of Katatonia. I sometimes find that the Katatonia sound - dark and intense - gets to sound a bit repetitive. Their songs are all live at the same tempo and similar structure - abrupt endings featuring quite a lot on Dead End Kings. And that doesn't really change on Dethroned & Uncrowned. The songs have all been reworked, and beautifully so. But for me there's still a sameness about them. I think Katatonia could push themselves a lot further. They're extremely comfortable in what they do (and hey, that's not a bad thing), but I just feel they could do more.
Not sure that tis album will find them any new fans, but I don't think that's its intent. It's a very good album, and a very interesting direction. I think what will be more interesting is the direction that Katatonia decide to take on their next offering.
All in all, 4/5 for me.