Sound — 9
Katatonia's formula is not a particularly complicated one: take a lot of simple guitar and keyboard parts, only play in minor keys, add Jonas Renske's haunting vocals, stir in a bit of Opethian production, and you basically have the gist of everything they've done since "Discouraged Ones" back in 1998. But there's a depth to their music that belies such a simple formula, pretty much everything they've released is incredibly emotive, and really hits a nerve for people looking for melancholic progressive metal, but may have an aversion to some of the usual trappings of the genre, such as Opeth's death metal tendencies.
"The Fall of Hearts" picks up where "Dead End Kings" and "Night Is the New Day" leaves off, with huge atmospheres provided by the ample amount of keyboard playing on the record (performed by founding guitarist Anders Nyström), huge guitar sounds, massive beats... The production on this record is almost like a meeting point of stadium-rock hugeness and Opeth-style dynamics. I keep bringing up Opeth, and it actually makes a bit of sense as once upon a time in their harsh vocal days, Mikael Åkerfeldt was a member of the band. But the influence seems to have stuck, and the band drenches their sound in a whirlwind of Mellotrons and electric pianos. Vocalist Jonas Renske sings in a very Åkerfeldt-ish way, and even uses some of the same voice processing in the production that long-time Opeth fans will be familiar with. The interplay between the guitars and keyboards will remind a lot of fans of Opeth's more recent output. And even though the band hasn't messed with their formula much at all, guitar playing fans will enjoy the fact that there are more guitar solos on this record than Katatonia usually perform, and many are especially good, like the one that opens the song "Passer," certainly one of the heaviest intros on the album. Many of the songs exceed the five minute mark, and the album feels a lot more epic and progressive from it. However, a few of the songs do have a tendency towards meandering, and maybe feel a bit more tiring to get through, like "Residual." But the album does serve up a lot of variety, with some heavier tracks that have very laid-back tempos, a couple of faster tunes, some ballads, and a few that combine all of these elements. The band does use some odd meters from time to time, adding a bit of rhythmic variety to the mix as well. Even a few guitar riffs that could be confused as being "djenty" show up on the album, like the one near the end of "Passer." It's hard to pick out a standout track from the album, because for all the variety, it does sometimes seem as if the album kind of blends together as one cohesive body of work, almost as if it were a rock opera or concept album. Each track is as strong as the last.
The performances on this record are pretty good all around. Founding members Jonas Renske and Anders Nyström obviously get the lion's share of the spotlight, but new guitarist Roger Öjersson (whose name I know from a very brief touring stint with Pain Of Salvation) also holds down the fort well with his riffs and lead parts. Bassist Niklas Sandin and drummer Daniel Moilanen make up this band's excellent, tight rhythm section, and are both fairly recent additions to the band as well.
As mentioned, production-wise, the album is surely going to be a treat to anyone listening to the likes of Opeth, Porcupine Tree, or more recent Tool. Every instrument is loud and clear, and the atmospheres are almost stadium-levels of huge. It's no wonder this band is often called "metalgaze" when you hear all the layers of strings, Mellotron, reverb-drenched clean guitars, and thick distorted rhythm guitar parts. The intricacies of the album are not lost in the production style, though, and the songs do show a fairly keen sense of dynamics. The band even gets a chance to show their acoustic side in "Pale Flag," and the production still sounds huge, without drowning out any of the instruments. It also sounds very warm, possibly because of the prevalence of vintage keyboard sounds like Rhodes piano and Mellotron strings.
Really, my only gripe with the album, sonically, is that a few of the songs seem to meander a little too much, and feel a bit longer than they actually are, but this is a very minor gripe, since the warmth of the sound on this record really envelops you, like a warm blanket of vintage keyboard sounds and detune guitars.
Lyrics — 8
Katatonia's lyrics have never tended to be very positive, happy ones, and this album is no exception to the rule. Depression is the theme of nearly every Katatonia song, and there are plenty of good examples of this to choose from on "The Fall of Hearts." Jonas' pained vocals deliver lines such as "In the morning/The battle for endurance has been lost/Sold my worth and dignity the same/I am shade/And essence of corroding time" from the track "Serein," or "For every dream that is left behind me/I take a bow/With every war that will rage inside me/I hear the sound/Of another day in this vanishing life/Returned to dust/And every chance I've pushed away/Into the night" from the song "Old Heart Falls," showing a lyrical theme of despair and loss of hope that pervades the entire album.
Jonas' vocal style is very reminiscent of Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth, though he hasn't used harsh vocals since the '90s on a Katatonia record. Like Mikael, he has a very melancholic way of singing that sounds very chilling, though there's a certain warmth to his voice as well. His emotive style of singing works very well with Katatonia's music, and there's been absolutely no reason for him to change his style.
I personally do not care for an abundance of melancholic lyrics, but as far as songs about depression go, these are some fairly good ones. Very poetic and well-written, but maybe a little too melodramatic for me, especially with lyrics like "The vapour of old love/Will transfigure through a veil of clarity/I sense my grave way below the mire," but that's more a personal thing to me than an actual issue with the lyrics. This is pretty standard fare for a Katatonia record, and Jonas handles the vocal melodies and harmonies quite proficiently throughout the record.
Overall Impression — 9
Even though this is about the third or fourth Katatonia record to follow essentially the same formula, the band keeps finding ways of offering up their music in a manner that sounds fresh and engaging. Their song structures and instrumental playing have grown a little closer to true prog-metal in the past decade or so, and each album brings them a little closer to sounding like Opeth at their lightest. And frankly, Opeth fans who didn't dig the concept behind "Heritage" but did approve of them ditching their harsh vocals might actually find this Katatonia record quite able to fill the void, as it's very similar in a lot of ways to Opeth's "Blackwater Park"-to-"Watershed" era, without any of the death metal leanings. But there are a lot of things that do differentiate this band from Opeth, like the song structures and the much shorter tunes. Dynamically speaking, this album is a very impressive record from start to finish. The production is very clean and modern, but not so surgically precise that it sucks all the emotion from the album.
This is a very good effort from a band that I'm pleased to put back on my radar again, and a reminder that the sounds popularized by bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree are not dead yet. I can't wait to hear their next one.