A beautifully-conceived live album and concert video, Sanctitude (Kscope) finds Katatonia going mostly acoustic in a well-curated exhibition of songs sympathetic to the quieter spaces. Yes, there are candles, and yes, they play in a church, but this is not an overwrought episode of MTV Unplugged; rather it’s an essential expression for Katatonia and its songs, an approach they explored at length on their Dethroned and Uncrowned album, where they offered the entirety of Dead End Kings in similar stripped down fashion. Sanctitude is a complement to last year’s Last Fair Day Gone Night; where that live set, issued on CD/DVD last year, offered a rocked-out, straightforward career retrospective, the new album demonstrates why Katatonia is Katatonia. Because they’re a death metal, no a black metal, no a doom metal, no a shoe-gazey rock band — or are they? — that has the chops and the artistic will to deliver an environment rather than a category, to see the value in reinterpreting their own work. I find this fascinating because so often rock and the subgenres associated with it forget about personal context and mood, depending heavily on delivering the album as recorded, to keep the adoring fans adoring. Vocalist Jonas Renkse and guitarist Anders Nystrom, the persistent heart of the band, have consistently created terrain for their music that didn’t exist before. It can have hooks and riffs, but texture and, importantly, a dependence on the sounds words make, rule the day. Classic goth is a touchstone, along with the dynamics of Nirvanaesque grunge, and I also find myself thinking Disintegration-era Cure is seated deep in Katatonia’s grooves. Sanctitude throws into relief the band’s reach for such delicate shading — an element that’s been in their music at least since Discouraged Ones (1998) — allowing luminance into the screen of permanent twilight their mood and lyrics often inhabit. In the film of the show, they put Union Chapel in London to great use. It highlights the importance of space in Katatonia’s music, and adds intimate warmth rather than gothic solemnity to the concert. The band — this iteration including the Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord, bassist Niklas Sandin, and percussionist JP Asplund — and the crowd are clearly having a good time. The performances are solid, generally relaxed despite an admitted nervousness and a new band, and Jonas’s lead guitar lines, the only overt nod to electricity outside some subtle keyboarding, are a kind of revelation, their snaky simplicity conjuring the same spirits Opeth raised on Damnation. The highpoints are many, from the opener “In the White,” from the Great Cold Distance, to the finale, “The One You are Looking for is Not Here,” a duet with Silje Wergeland that originally appeared on Dead End Kings. In between the band covers fifteen other songs, from Viva Emptiness (“One Year from Now” really killing it with a slide guitar, tarantella figure, and bluesy vocal break), Brave Murder Day, and Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Because the songs are so weighted with the sonic emotion Jonas brings to his vocal approach and Anders to his playing, the edge of the songs is never lost; as Katatonia has long demonstrated, heavy music is much more than volume fraying to distortion.
Whereas the documentary accompanying Last Fair Day Gone Night is a fantastic oral history of the band, Sanctitude’s doc is a detailed analysis of this particular tour and the state of the band at present, very simply presented, with Jonas and Anders answering questions that avoid what you might expect: these aren’t simply softballs, but address aesthetic decisions and processes, band and artistic partnerships that have disintegrated, fan-base issues and future possibilities for the 25-year-old Katatonia. As rock documentary Katatonia’s films work because of their thoroughness, and provide portraits of not only the band but of Swedish metal over the past quarter-century, its vernacular. DVD bonus packages aren’t always a bonus, but Katatonia delivers, and a lot of bands would do well to speak so honestly and openly of their music in this context.
Along with Swedish peers Opeth and northern neighbors Gazpacho, Katatonia is creating a body of work that suggests their influence will be long felt, with a music that feels organic and electric, identifiable and unique, personal and expansive. Who wouldn’t want to see what happens next?