For Niklas Sandin, bassist of Katatonia, their new album Sky Void of Stars represents hope. The Swedes’ music is often described as dark, melancholic and forlorn. Sandin's incongruous sense of optimism springs from finally being able to play live again after two hiatuses.
The first, in 2018, was voluntary. The band took a break. It allowed them to ‘catch our breath a little bit', according to Sandin. The second was a forced stop brought about by the pandemic, following the 2020 release of previous album City Burials. Sandin relates more to new Katatonia albums after he has been able to tour them. It felt like he’d been cruelly denied the chance to get to get to know City Burials properly.
Above all else, Sky Void of Stars might be an album about healing. It looks ahead, and it reflects. Vocalist Jonas Renkse sings of ‘Transmitting scars/My future watching me’ on the album’s second song, “Colossal Shade”. The damage is evident on the album, but so is the recovery. Memories surface like the ‘fragments of sky’ on opener “Austerity”. ‘I gave you my shards of sky/But we can barely see the reflection’ goes the chorus of the magnificent “Impermanence”, at the heart of the record (sung with Joel Ekelöf of Soen).
The album is haunted by cityscapes. This amounts to an ‘urban melancholy’, as Sandin puts it.
‘The melancholic feelings and emotions and experiences that we go through on a day to day basis, especially here in Scandinavia, where it's very, very dark,’ he says.
Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Scandinavian people are known to be phlegmatic, even hard. Sky Void of Stars is broody and introspective, but rarely quiet. Its emotive music, but on its own terms. The album burns with a steady fire throughout and has a heavy, leaden undertow. Hard-charging single “Birds” is incandescent, though not necessarily angry. It reminded me a little of the single “Ghosts” from the 2020 Paradise Lost album, Obsidian. Both bands share a history of sonic progression from their death-doom roots in the early nineties.
‘It doesn’t stray from that energy,’ says Sandin. ‘There could be a big amber alert all over the album.’
On “Birds”, Renkse recites a cryptic series of numbers. I ask Sandin to explain them, but he demurs. Katatonia allude to things, but are careful to keep certain elements in the shade. The listener can pore over the songs, elucidating their own meaning. Sandin sees this as the charm of Renkse’s lyrics: ‘It’s not like hearing a Bruno Mars song.’
Some of the new songs are hard-hitting in a way that reaches back to the punishing “Forsaker” from 2009’s Night Is the New Day and even further to 2006’s classic The Great Cold Distance. This evolution backwards towards more ‘direct songs’ surprised Sandin.
‘As a member of the band, I would probably have expected more integration of electronic components, and maybe more full-on electronic songs, like you experienced on City Burials with “Lacquer”,' he says. ‘As well as having more interludes, and it be more like an experimental record.’
But Katatonia records are also deceptive. Sandin can hear new material written by Renkse and think it sounds complex, only to find it relatively simple to play. Conversely, the most seemingly straightforward songs can be challenging when Sandin attempts them with a bass in his hands.
He says his playing on Sky Void Of Stars is ‘both progressively rhythmic and also it's very, very straight on. There’s almost AC/DC-esque bass playing on it.’
Sandin points to the rhythmic feint and parry of the verses of “Atrium”, which then opens out to a 4/4 near-pop-rock chorus. Elsewhere, “Author” marches out with a grim, almost industrial feel and explodes in its bridge section. But the album’s biggest riff is reserved for its closer, “No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall”. It’s one of the hookiest the band has written and hard not to see it as a set climax on their forthcoming European tour with Sólstafir.
“No Beacon To Illuminate Our Fall” blends the more playful and progressively minded elements of the band. For Sandin, it speaks to Renkse’s ‘intuitive’ approach to songwriting.
‘He’s the opposite of a one-trick pony,’ Sandin says of Renkse. ‘He blends major into minor and back, and creates these groovy rhythms that really hook you.’
The song has a sinister tone. ‘The more you hurt/The more I love you’, Renkse sings. Sky Void of Stars also seems to be about the pain of reaching into the past and of a life that is vanishingly short. Some of this is rooted to real places. ‘I touched your ember with a little bit of my wing/In a room, Marriott, New York', Renkse sings on “Atrium”.
Predominantly the album is set in an emotional interzone, suspended in the middle of a life. ‘46 now/How many left’, Renkse speculates on “Opaline”.
Katatonia’s music is a dark glass to pour in our own experiences. The imagery of the songs is intensely private but universal. ‘Recall the red sun burning over the avenues’, goes “Opaline”, inviting the audience to open up its own memories: ‘Then you shift into a looking glass/A sky full of stars’ (“Author”).
In a clip shared widely on social media recently from a televised interview in 1977, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan expounded on the effect of the electronic age on our bodies.
‘When you’re on the telephone or on radio or on TV, you don’t have a physical body,’ he says. ‘You’re just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body, you’re a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. And this, I think, has been one of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their private identity.’
McLuhan goes on to say that ‘one of the big marks of the loss of identity is nostalgia <...> We live by the revival. The revival tells us who we are or were.’
When we speak of Katatonia’s melancholy, maybe it is really nostalgia. A nostalgia to breathe life into who we were, and an attempt to connect that to who we might become. This is our way of filling that sky full of stars.
This is hard even for Katatonia to achieve on their own. They’ve enlisted Danish producer Jacob Hansen again for Sky Void of Stars. Hansen mixed and mastered City Burials. Before that, they mostly self-produced, with Renkse and founding guitarist Anders Nyström at the controls. Aside from being professional, polite and making a great cup of coffee, Sandin credits Hansen as someone who has ‘leveled up’ their sound. He thinks this latest album is more generously produced – benefitting from a ‘more airy approach where the instruments can breathe’.
It has certainly added to the band’s armoury. They have the delicious challenge of twelve studio albums to choose from on their long-awaited tour. But even choosing a setlist can be laden with regret and nostalgia for what could have been.
‘It can both be liberating with lots of material, but also difficult,’ says Sandin. 'And you will always make someone disappointed that you haven't played a song, including yourself. Before, on many tours I've been on, I've thought it's very sad that we didn't play certain songs. But it might not be the one that maybe goes down well or make senses
I ask Sandin what he sees as the must-have Katatonia songs live. He singles out “July” from The Great Cold Distance for its ‘energy, momentum and something that always works’. “My Twin” from the same album is also ‘a given’. He calls “New Night” from Night Is the New Day and “Leech” from 2012’s Dead End Kings personal favourites and ‘forgotten gems’ that probably won’t make the final setlist.
Within the realm of gloomy Scandinavian sounds, Katatonia has its own, unique (maybe even awkward) seat at the table. Subtle, hook-driven, introspective and often surprisingly heavy, their sound is hard to pin down. Their personal and collective influences are vast: ‘You have the span of listening to artists like Nick Drake, all the way to Deicide and we listen a lot to Morbid Angel,’ says Sandin. He points to funk and fusion guitarist Cory Wong’s collaborations with Vulfpeck as someone he has been listening to a lot.
‘And also the jazzier side of things,’ he continues. ‘There are lots of influences on the music. We are not just this band who listens purely to something that would sound like the Nordic sadness we put into the music, or yes, the heavier parts. And I also think that's also what makes it great – that we're not trying to mimic something. We're actually influenced by other genres in a true and honest way.’
The sum of their influences is a singular band. Sky Void of Stars shines brightly in Katatonia’s exceptional and always fascinating discography. Katatonia feels its way through intuitive emotion, and they progress with unassuming assurance. As long as they are as unflinching as they are here, the path ahead is paved with optimism.
Sky Void of Stars from Katatonia is currently available via Napalm Records. Order the album - HERE. Katatonia also embarks on their co-headlining tour with Sólstafir on an sprawling European trek that stretches through the end of February. Dates and cities can be found below.
Twilight Burials UK & Europe Tour
w/ Sólstafir and SOM
20.01.23 FI – Tampere / Tampereen Tullikamari (Pakkahuone & Klubi) – SOLD OUT!
21.01.23 FI – Helsinki / Kulttuuritalo
22.01.23 EE – Tallinn / Helitehas
24.01.23 PL – Warsaw / Klub Stodoła
25.01.23 DE – Berlin / Huxleys Neue Welt
26.01.23 DE – Cologne / Essigfabrik – SOLD OUT!
27.01.23 DE – Stuttgart / LKA Longhorn
28.01.23 CZ – Prague / ROXY Prague
29.01.23 AT – Vienna / Arena Wien
31.01.23 HU – Budapest / Akvárium Klub
01.02.23 DE – Munich / Backstage Werk
02.02.23 CH – Zurich / Komplex 457
03.02.23 IT – Milan / Live Club
04.02.23 FR – Lyon / Ninkasi Kao – SOLD OUT!
06.02.23 ES – Madrid / Kapital
07.02.23 ES – Barcelona / La Salamandra
08.02.23 FR – Toulouse / Le Metronum
10.02.23 GB – London / O2 Forum Kentish Town
11.02.23 GB – Manchester / O2 Ritz Manchester
12.02.23 GB – Bristol / Marble Factory
13.02.23 GB – Glasgow / The Garage
14.02.23 GB – Wolverhampton / KK's Steel Mill
16.02.23 DE – Frankfurt Am Main / Batschkapp
17.02.23 NL – Haarlem / Patronaat – SOLD OUT!
19.02.23 FR – Paris / Le Trianon
20.02.23 LU – Luxembourg / Rockhal
21.02.23 BE – Antwerp / Muziekcentrum Trix
22.02.23 DE – Hamburg / Gruenspan
23.02.23 DK – Copenhagen / Amager Bio
24.02.23 NO – Oslo / Rockefeller Music Hall
25.02.23 SE – Stockholm / Fryshuset Arenan