Of their own respective accord but coming to the same relative meeting point, OPETH and KATATONIA have inadvertently founded their own subgenre of dark prog. The common bond between the groups (aside from Mikael Åkerfeldt and Jonas Renkse going full-time clean singing) is a sophisticated hub where goth, prog and dirge rock meet. All but wholly abandoning their brutal death metal overtures from which both bands staked their claims in metal history, it's been gratifying to see KATATONIA push for higher virtuosity within their music.
Their tenth album, "The Fall of Hearts", is one of the most austere, heart-wrenching albums the band has yet laid out. Distortion finding lesser room to bark through (along with Renkse's growls, long ago forsaken as much out of necessity as artistry), KATATONIA seeks both majesty and fragility from "The Fall of Hearts" and they succeed triumphantly.
When the guitars peak during the 7:08 opening number "Takeover", they're divvied as dramatic accent marks instead of punched with brute force. Jonas Renkse, already establishing his most enthralling vocals within the first minute of "Takeover", exposes a humanistic vulnerability that's easy to empathize with, much less surrender to. When "Takeover" is at its most guarded, it's like getting a private glimpse into a man's demons which issues warning instead of rages when the song climaxes.
The astonishing but pleasing "Serein" is KATATONIA's most accessible song ever, a humming slice of goth pop that may alarm some listeners the band is treading into HIM turf. Nonetheless, the daring "Serein" distances itself with more progressions and a vocalist who embraces the bittersweet instead of the melodramatic. "Old Heart Falls" then sullenly digs deeper into the mire and while hardly the ear-tickling rip "Serein" is, the sulking descant builds toward grand choruses. KATATONIA slips like bandits out of "Old Heart Falls" into the somber "Decima" with barely a pause as acoustic serenities swim within the swirling keys and Niklas Sandin's morose bass lines. Comparisons to OPETH's "Damnation" album here are inescapable, but KATATONIA handles "Decima"'s replications with class.
The 5:04 "Sanction" containing some of the album's heaviest passages, its central location serves to raise the album toward the first of many pinnacles to come, including the breath-stealing rises on the shimmery, prog-chopped succession of "Residual" and "Serac". The surging apex of the latter is a devastating set-up to the explosive "Last Song Before the Fade", as is the heavy vortices blasting from "The Night Subscriber"'s tantalizing churns. The eruptive intro to "Passer" plummets into a slow, ornate wallow where KATATONIA teases and incrementally turns their caged beasts loose as a declarative closer.
As "The Fall of Hearts" sets KATATONIA's own record for length at 67 minutes, patience is crucial, yet the payouts are tremendous. It's not a balls to the wall album by any definition (the lulling spritz of "Shifts" drifting through mopey pastures instead of alleyways) and this is where KATATONIA may have lost a few people from their vast audience in their courageous shift from death metal toward refined fugue-prog. The good news is, most KATATONIA and OPETH listeners have urbane tastes and many can relate to the love-spurned nature of this music, which means "The Fall of Hearts" won't be merely a critical success.