Album review: Katatonia – Viva Emptiness (2003)

Katatonia fans can be split very roughly into two camps: people who mostly admire their early blackened-death-doom work, and those who enjoyed the band’s evolution to a goth and doom-laden prog-rock sound. Among the first group, it’s common to hear Brave Murder Day touted as their best; the second will probably name The Great Cold Distance as it is accessible while remaining gloomy and even hauntingly beautiful.

I am closer to the second group, owing to Jonas Renkse’s development as a clean vocalist. For me, the four first “clean” albums, released between 1998 and 2003 – Discouraged Ones, Tonight’s Decision, Last Fair Deal Gone Down and Viva Emptiness – mark a special time in the Swedish metallers’ thirty year career. Renkse’s range and confidence improves considerably, and his songwriting with guitarist Anders Nyström advances to the level of consistent quality that can be recognized today. Of these four classics, Emptiness is my favorite to listen all the way through. There are layers of sophistication that I did not fully appreciate until buying a new copy of this year.

The album opens with “Ghost of the Sun.” Screamed backing vocals in the chorus combined with an insistent riff make for a relatively aggressive first impression. “I trusted you / You lied / It’s all I hear / A FUCKING LIE,” Renkse sings, almost hitting the top of his baritone range. The first quarter of the record is probably the heaviest and most angsty, while retaining a quintessential Scandinavian restraint that is not present in the American alt-metal of the time (think Linkin Park, Trapt).

“A Premonition” sets a more introspective tone with better utilized keyboards, some cleaner guitar, and poppier vocal stylings. In general, Emptiness tones down the angst as it goes along. There isn’t a bad song on here in my opinion, but they blend together in a way that lends itself to listening all the way through. “Burn the Remembrance” is the most likely standout from the middle of the album, with sweet melodies that eventually get drowned out by overdriven guitars.

“Evidence” injects a dose of adrenaline that stays with the listener over the course of the final three songs, while dropping the angsty-teen lyrics in favor of a plaintive yet catchy multi-track vocal performance. One more song worth mentioning before the instrumental closer is “Omerta,” which is melancholic, almost Beatles-esque rock, betrayed only by the sturdy rhythm section. It feels out of step with some of the other louder tracks, but I can’t complain as it is one of their best songs.

For me there is no such thing as a bad Katatonia record, but Viva Emptiness has been my favorite for a long time. It’s pretty rare I find an album that remains an enjoyable listen from start to finish. Part of this might be the greater variety of moods that appear here compared to the previous three LPs, which rarely made it past despondency even on Fair Deal. The band had clearly grown as musicians after 2001, most noticeably with Renkse’s vocals. Importantly, that growth occurred without the attendant inhibition of a more typically progressive group like Porcupine Tree or Opeth. Not every song on the album is a delicate masterpiece, and the lyrics aren’t incredibly deep, but Viva Emptiness is very well-crafted and even manages to be endearing in some of its over-the-top moodiness.

Standout tracks: “A Premonition,” “Omerta”

Rating: 9/10

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