The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday May 14, 2001
How I Discovered Katatonia (And Learned To Love Metal)
Plus true tales of "Leo's Revenge"
By Michael Goldberg
I've never really been the kind of guy who's into death metal, or even black metal. Back in the day you know, like when I was 18 I warmed up to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and I came to appreciate Metallica. (It was all just "metal" in those days.)
I tend to prefer my downbeat messages about the end of the world and such telegraphed by tortured troubadours, rather than screeching headbangers.
So I probably would have gone about my business, oblivious to metal of any kind, if not for the neighbor's kid, who started a metal band. I call it "Leo's Revenge" in honor of the boy's neighborly father, the kind of guy who's letting his kid's metal garage band play at stadium volume and then complains to a neighbor about the sound of their pool pump note that Leo himself has a pool and an equally loud pump. Behold! I was confronted with a noise I couldn't relate to. I would hear those pounding drums (the kid is a drummer!) and lose my cool. I felt like one of those cartoons, the ones with smoke rising from the infuriated character's head.
Imagine me, of all people, calling the cops because a band was playing too loud. I'm the guy who blasts old Pere Ubu albums the ones with broken glass in the mix. You can find me grinning as two minutes of some odd tone from the opening of the latest unwound album fills the room.
Luckily, the noise police never showed up. Perhaps they had some real crimes to investigate. Meanwhile, a funny thing started to happen. As the weeks passed, I noticed that, well, these guys can play!
On a walk one afternoon, I found myself disappointed as I got out of hearing distance. I came to look forward to particular pieces of music that Leo's Revenge had rehearsed. "Wow," I said to my wife the other day. "That sounds like Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." I was impressed that the Leo's Revenge sound seemed to be getting wider, with more influences building on the bedrock: Metallica. I contemplated getting a tape from them and passing it along to Metallica's management.
Mellow And Depressed
And right about then, two things happened. I'm not sure which came first. One of them: I stopped by Aquarius Records in San Francisco, which I try to do each week, and on their new-releases rack was a CD, Tonight's Decision by Swedish hard-rockers Katatonia, with a write-up taped to it. An excerpt: "It's the follow-up to 1998's Discouraged Ones, a record that threw everyone for a loop, with clean singing and an hypnotic, almost Cure-like (but ultra-heavy) sound, refining their earlier and harsher black metalish doom-death style. This time around, these Swedes are even more mellow and depressed. They even do a great Jeff Buckley cover (better than the original we think)! In fact, the more we listen to it, the harder it is to understand why they're not huge."
I bought it, I played it, I love it. Yes, it lives up to the hype. And, yes times two, their version of "Nightmares by the Sea" has just got to be heard: a masterpiece.
The other thing that happened: John Darnielle, reviewer and the leader of the Mountain Goats, came into my life. Aquarius owner Windy told John about InsiderOne, and soon enough John, who recently became "metal columnist" for spin.com, started writing about Candiria and Suspiria for me. And then Johnny Walker (Black) insisted on raving about Tony Iommi's Iommi. And, well, I'm suddenly neck-deep in some very weird stuff. Metal.
Katatonia's latest album is a rather amazing piece of work titled Last Fair Deal Gone Down, which any self-respecting rock fan should seek out immediately. For some reason, Katatonia remind me of the Blue Öyster Cult, the ironic early-'70s hard rock/metal band that, as a teenager, I totally loved. I even remember walking to Winterland in the mid-'70s, reeling out one of my suspect theories: there were two kinds of people in the world, I explained. Those that loved the Blue Öyster Cult, and those that didn't. It's only now that I truly understand the extent of my madness....
In the beginning, the Cult, as we called them long before there was a band called the Cult, sang some songs with lyrics written by R. Meltzer. Some of the hippest rock critics of the early '70s championed them. One of their members was Patti Smith's boyfriend for a while. That, plus the music I'm serious, check out Blue Öyster Cult's Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties made them a kind of hipster's hard-rock band. How could you not like a band with such songs as "Career of Evil" and "Harvester of Eyes"? We could dig the joke while rocking the night away.
Joke, What Joke?
There's nothing funny about Katatonia well, except everything. On one level, Last Fair Deal Gone Down is a dead-on unintentional death-metal satire, from the dark, monotone cover art to the equally dark minor-chord music and lyrics (in "Dispossession" Jonas Renkse sings: "In this dead hour/ Here with you/ Seconds are worthless... Dispossession/ It has become my obsession.").
You could take it like that. Or you can take it at face value. Or you can take it both ways, which I guess is the way I take it. I can laugh at some of the drama, I can laugh at myself for finding this so engaging so many years past my teens, and I then I can, totally seriously, appreciate what is certainly one of the year's best albums.
After listening to both albums for some weeks, I went to the group's excellent Web site (www.katatonia.com) and found some info about the band. There's an interview with guitarist Anders Nystrom, who summed things up well as he explained why the cover of the album is a picture of a dirty bathroom with a broken mirror on the wall. "Yeah, it's a completely deserted room, totally abandoned from humanity for years, which we feel represents the album title very well," he said. "Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and you've got nothing more, everything is gone." The interviewer contrasted the new album's cover ("a closed room, hence narrowness") to that of Tonight's Decision which featured railroad tracks "leading somewhere into the distance... vastness." "You're right about the narrowness," said Nystrom. "It's that all the railways led to somewhere, and on this album it led to this, decay, the ruin, hopelessness."
I could tell you more, but I think you get the idea, and, really, what more is there to say? I mean, imagine the sound of "decay, the ruin, hopelessness...." Imagine a cavernous noise and epic melodies and monster guitars and a voice that makes every word a dramatic event.
As I ate my lunch today out on the patio, Leo's Revenge began to play. They were rehearsing the Pink Floyd number, and I thought maybe I'd pick up a copy of Last Fair Deal Gone Down for the kid. If he doesn't dig it, maybe he'll pass it on to Leo. I mean, what are neighbors for?
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.