Katatonia – The Great Cold Distance

katatonia_052206_greatcoldBefore I commence with what will become a convoluted review, let me make this clear: Katatonia’s “The Great Cold Distance” is a pretty good album. It’s a Katatonia album, and all Katatonia albums since the mid-90s have been at least pretty good, most very good, though some are better than others. Stylistically, it’s a lot like “Viva Emptiness” – similarly schizophrenic (for Katatonia) with the loud/soft sections, and with much the same sound in terms of guitar tone, drum quality, etc. Now onto the convoluted part of this review.

Since I became a Katatonia fan about 6-7 years ago, the release of each new album has marked a new section of time in my life. It’s like that for me with bands I really love. Megadeth’s disappointing “Countdown to Extinction” will always remind me of the summer of 1992, hanging out with the gang at my friend Graham’s house, going for late-night Taco Bell runs, and watching Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow” video on MTV. Of course, it’s because I absolutely loved Megadeth’s magical “Rust in Peace” that the release of the disappointing follow-up was such a monumental moment in my life, one that by its mere mention brings to mind the clean smell of Graham’s house and the crunchy noise his red leather couches made when we sat on them.

During my years of Katatonia fandom, I have cumulatively spent more time listening to their music than I have any other band [note – Pink Floyd still wins the “most listened to ever” award]. So the release of Katatonia’s “The Great Cold Distance” was certain to be a big moment for me in 2006, regardless of the album’s quality. A release date of mid-March added to the excitement, because it meant I could enjoy the listening premiere later that month when I visited my friend, Craig (who was part of the old Graham gang), in New York. When I subsequently learned that the US release was actually delayed until April, I contrived to have a friend who lives in Ireland buy the disc and mail it to me so that Craig and I could still premiere the album together on his fantastic stereo.

This despite the fact that Worm Gear had received from Peaceville an advance copy of the album, which had in turn been sent to me by Worm in early March so I could review it.

Why the effort to purchase an original copy for the listening premiere if I already had one? Because Peaceville almost committed an unpardonable sin on my life by including a voiceover that sounds multiple times throughout the promo-copy, reminding the listener that they haven’t bought the real album. Luckily I had been warned, because if I had listened to this album and all of the sudden heard some guy start talking in the middle of each song, after I’d gone to the trouble to delay the listening premiere for a month so I could experience the album for the first time on a specific stereo with a friend that I get to see only a few times a year, I’d have probably tried to organize some sort of Peaceville boycott. Note that Peaceville doesn’t make this clear on the promo – I just heard about it from Worm when he sent it to me for review. I understand the effort by Peaceville to make people buy the album, but please at least WARN us. I’m still angry. While in New York, Craig and I gleefully broke the awful Peaceville promo.

So anyway, with all the buildup, you can imagine that it was hard for “The Great Cold Distance” to live up to my expectations. And it didn’t. But I reminded myself that every single Katatonia album, without exception, has improved upon repeated listens. As of this writing I’m in the middle of my fifth spin, and it’s grown on me. One of the reasons I like Katatonia is that their music stands up to repeated listenings much more than most music. The reasons for this are many, but here are several of the key ones:

The music is extremely well-produced and easy to listen to, not remotely stressful on the ears.
The numerous extra layers of vocals, guitars, and keyboards mean that I hear new things with each spin.
The songs are well arranged, including little changes in orchestration that add up to exciting developments in the music.
Katatonia never does anything stupid in their music, so there’s nothing to annoy me.

But I’m not sure if “The Great Cold Distance” is going to stand the test of time. I can’t point to many obvious flaws to explain this feeling; other than the relative dearth of catchy vocals on this album, nothing specific is missing. Nonetheless, it suffers from “Exit the Dragon” syndrome, the failure to provide something new and (hence) worthwhile. Whereas each of the last few Katatonia albums has maintained a core sound while showcasing something new, this one feels like they just tried to duplicate “Viva Emptiness”. Craig and I call this the “Exit the Dragon” syndrome, in honor of Urge Overkill, a rock/glam band from the 90s that achieved tremendous heights with their 1993 album, “Saturation”, and then fell flat two years later with “Exit the Dragon”, despite it initially seeming to possess many of Saturation’s virtues. And I’m sure the members of UO probably thought they’d gotten it right – perfected their sound from Saturation and made another album of similarly good songs. But for some reason the experience of listening to the same thing a few years later just didn’t work.

Simply put, bands must evolve to remain viable. And despite the quality of “The Great Cold Distance”, I have the sad feeling that Katatonia’s time has come and gone. They may continue to release relatively enjoyable albums every few years, but I doubt I’ll go to tremendous lengths to hear them. I hope they surprise me. – Jeff Herriot


~ by martyworm on January 3, 2009.

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