Katatonia - The Great Cold Distance (2006)
Having never really cared for Katatonia, I was a little nervous about giving one of their records the fullest of my attention. This is a band that has modulated their sound considerably since the humble beginnings as a death doom metal band, spanning alternative metal, gothic metal, and even progressive metal in later years. It makes checking out a bands discography a daunting task. And if you never grew up with this group, these pivots may not resonate in the same way as they did around the albums initial release window.
Anyways, The Great Cold Distance is perhaps the culmination of the bands first major pivot from death doom metal to more accessible alternative doom. And for what it is worth, I do not think that The Great Cold Distance is a bad album. Certainly if we are comparing this to albums with similar timbres, Katatonia are far more advanced, but I feel like much of the drama is diminished.
Now the comparisons that I am making are to the specific brand of post-grunge revival that came out of the mid 2000s that included groups like Breaking Benjamin, Seether & Shinedown. Breaking Benjamin were always the closest comparison, but Katatonia's compositions and song structures are far more developed than anything from the groups mentioned previously. The typical slower tempos that are reminiscent of Swallow the Sun and (more likely) Trees of Eternity that are complimented with slow double bass percussion and complimentary guitar riffage present a more energetic side of doom metal that is commendable, especially when the vocalist follows suit. Otherwise the mismatch in timbre is unsettling, which may be part of the point.
In addition, the compositions of individual songs is very good. The modulation of ideas through time signature and rhythmic changes is pulled off with proficiency. Whether that be "Consternation" or "The Itch", they do sound quite wonderful together. But even on this record, these sounds were not going to last on their own. You can already start to hear elements of progressive/post-metal creep in during the albums closing moments; almost as if a teaser as to what the next era of Katatonia will bring. Very reminiscent of the post-metal sounds that Tool were experimenting with during the 2000s. And, once again, the mixing of these sounds is executed with precision and grandeur.
But let's talk about drama. Not so far back as Last Fair Deal Gone Down is the band allowed to let their songs resonate and reach the desired conclusion. This album feels rushed, as if some of its main ideas are not allowed to finish. And the album clocks in at a brisk fifty minutes so their would have been plenty of wiggle room to allow "Soil's Song", "The Itch" and especially the closer "Journey Through Pressure" to reach some finality. Instead, the album just....fades away; perhaps reminiscent of the band on their next great journey. If you believe that, then this album will serve you well. For me however, I see it as a cop out. Doom metal inherently implies some sense of completion, whereas this implies that this journey is just beginning. I can appreciate the diversion of expectations, but I have heard it done better.
As someone who never grew up with Katatonia, my opinions may be skewed, so take my conclusion on The Great Cold Distance with a grain of salt. For a time, Katatonia expanded the possibilities of what post-grunge could sound like and arguably did it better than any of their influences or contemporaries. But I have heard many of the sounds on display within this record done better in the years following, including from Katatonia themselves, which makes this an album that I respect, but do not love. The journey that Katatonia speaks of on this record is long and bitter, and that is okay. It's what you find at the end of your adventure that counts.
The Great Cold Distance is another step into Katatonia's mainstream alt-metal nature that started with Viva Emptiness, an album that has downhearted lyrics, somber vocals, and occasional fast changes. The Great Cold Distance continues those easily accessible elements in a way that's still not great, lacking some things just like the previous album. While some songs have good consistency, the same cannot be said for the fairly weak atmospheres explored.
Remember at the end of Dream Theater's Octavarium where it's mentioned that "everything ends where it began"? The Great Cold Distance is an album that begins where it ends. The album is more aggressive in a few parts, yet most of the time, it spirals back and forth from the atmospheric undertow to the soundscape surface.
"Leaders" sounds so good in a truly poor album. It is one of the best songs I've heard in this album. The fantastic bass and drums are what make that song shine. "Rusted" is an excellent example of guitars in impeccable interplay and excellent keyboards to fill the hollow background. Those kinds of keyboards never sound as good as that! The vocals are so greatly smooth, though it might've influenced Alcest to temporarily take that weak post-rock/shoegazing route. Either way, that song's lyrical mix of emotion and world indifference help make that song one of the least rusted ones in this album. The faster guitar in "July" makes a highlighting experience of aggressive turbulence helped out by Jonas' good vocal display, all that shaping the band to what their modern sound would become. "The Itch" is a great example of some of the band's most powerful moments in the band's modern era.
So there are a few great gems in The Great Cold Distance, a little more than in the previous album, here showing that Katatonia still has their deep dark side even at a slightly lighter alt-metal sound, though the experimentation still didn't win back a lot of their earlier fanbase. The pace is kept steady by those song's fantastic rhythms, strong sounds, and solid songwriting. It still stays in the same poor level as their previous 3 albums. Either way, those 4 songs in the above paragraph are the backbone of higher quality in this album caught in the mainstream slipstream....
Favorites (only songs I like in this album): "Leaders", "Rusted", "July", "The Itch"
With the majority of Katatonia's albums, I find myself describing the changes that have occurred between the current release and its predecessor. This has been due to the band’s habit of constantly editing their sound, evolving from their raw death doom of the early 90s through to the still doomy but far more commercial alternative metal of the band today. This constant change could also be due to the bands line-up changing regularly over the years. But Katatonia has managed to keep a solid line-up for the past 6 years, so it's not surprising to find the last three albums that have contained these members being somewhat similar in style.
This is not a bad thing at all as 2001's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" was in my opinion one of the biggest highlights of a long and successful career, and I'm pleased that they've chosen to run with such a good thing. "The Great Cold Distance" may not be quite as crushing as that release, but the comparisons are still plentiful. Jonas' lyrics and vocals continue to be both emotional and honest, Daniel's percussion is still constantly interesting, and Anders' and Fredrik's guitar work remains breathtakingly melodic and full.
I hope I haven't made it sound as if "The Great Cold Distance" doesn't bring anything worthy to the table, as that would not be true. This album contains a wonderful, consistent quality that while not completely unique, still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable. The band have really matured and concentrate on writing constantly moving and interesting rock music that can still be classified as metal due to the occasionally heavy riff and a generally downcast mood. The previous album, 2003's "Viva Emptiness" was solid too, yet it contained a couple of awkward moments that slightly let it down. "The Great Cold Distance" holds a steady class throughout. The highlights would have to be "Deliberation" (with its superb rousing chorus), "My Twin" and "Follower" (with that intriguing percussive beat). Surely Katatonia are close to breaking into the mainstream as some of these tracks have real chart potential.
"The Great Cold Distance" is exactly what I expected from the new Katatonia album. While it's a tiny bit more-of-the-same, it's a perfectly produced, finely crafted album that showcases the Swedes sound in all its glory. I really enjoyed it on first listen and still do so after dozens more, so I'm completely satisfied.