Katatonia seems to be a theme this year. Dropping not only one of the best albums of 2016, but one of the best albums in their own extensive catalog, will certainly justify that situation. We’ve covered some of the more recent work from the Swedish gothic/progressive death metallers both here and on the podcast (Dead End Kings, Viva Emptiness, etc.). But when you look at how much ground their music has traversed over their 25 or so year career, it’s interesting to look back at their foundation. 2016 marks the 20th year since Brave Murder Day was released. Despite this album stark differences in the sound at Katatonia have mastered recently, it is still rightfully considered one of the more important death metal albums of all time.
Recorded July of 1996 and released later that year through Avantgarde Music, Brave Murder Day marked the end of an era for Katatonia — despite being only the second full length album to their credit. While some of the progressions and harmonies may foreshadow elements that would be used to define the Katatonia sound forever, there are some distinct features of this album that never emerged again. If you fast forward only two years to Discouraged Ones, we get an energy and feel to the music that is distinctly different. Both albums are considered classics, but it’s hard to believe they were released by the same band in such quick succession.
So what are some of the highlights on Brave Murder Day? Well for one, we need to talk about Mikael Åkerfeldt’s involvement on vocals. Obviously, Jonas Renske’s voice is one of the most definitive in the genre and the somber beauty of his voice can send a chill down your spine. It’s a style that works absolutely brilliantly with modern day Katatonia. But as well as his voice matches the music these days, Åkerfeldt aligned with Brave Murder Day just as impressively. Even on the deliberation of the opening “Brave”, with delicate tapping in the leads and a somber march from start to finish, the hollow density of his growls really helps the darkness of the music soar. You might expect a bit more dissonance between Mikael’s vocals and the instrumentals, but the combination really is gripping in a haunting kind of way. That said, Jonas is still featured as lead vocals on “Day”, so you can get a sense of how well both vocal styles work with this music within this single album.
Beyond that, the shorter subsequent tracks (ex: “Rainroom”) feature a bit more pace and a bit more aggression. They don’t have the airiness of some of the earliest moments of this album (or obviously Katatonia albums still to come), so it’s a different kind of darkness. It’s worth noting that the original album was not mastered, and it wasn’t until a 2006 re-release through Peaceville that it was cleaned up a bit. If you listen to the original version, you can definitely hear a lack of production in that sense during the middle tracks. It doesn’t ruin anything, of course, but it is a notable difference on this album that greatly impacted the end product. But of course, one way this album does parallel The Fall of Hearts is the progressive nature from one track to another and within each track. Various levels of pace and aggression are featured throughout, looking closely at, say, “Endtime”. The guitar melodies of the introduction are absolutely stunning as they are coupled with samplings from The Shining. But they are regularly interjected with dense moments of bleakness. Once we’ve moved into the crux of this particular track, the song sways from clean, ambient vocals to Åkerfeldt’s signature growls. It is a blend of the bleak and beautiful brought together in a way that only Katatonia could have mastered.
It’s hard to call Katatonia ‘death metal’ these days, and I’m willing to bet few actually would. But this album’s relevance, even 20 years later, is unquestioned. It marked the end of a certain Katatonia era, and paved the way for a new direction that they have perfected over the years. It is a blend of pure death metal and the gloomy Katatonia gothic elements we have fallen in love with more recently. It’s worth revisiting on a regular basis, especially now after the successes of The Fall of Hearts. Join me, won’t you?
“Ein Bier… bitte.”