CD/DVD Review: KATATONIA Last Fair Day Gone Night
Katatonia have been in a reflective mood of late. After retooling their 2012 album Dead End Kings on last year's Dethroned and Uncrowned, the band return not with a new album of studio material, but instead an expansive package collecting full-length live performances of albums Last Fair Deal Gone Down and Night Is the New Day. While the former is often considered the band's masterpiece, the latter made the cut solely because it was the most recent album to have been released at the time these gigs were recorded in 2011. Fair enough, but why now?
Nothing is certain – the band themselves haven't formally commented on their motivation – but the answer may lie in the epic documentary disc accompanying this set. Obviously the documentary itself took time to produce, but if you sit through all two-and-a-half hours (!!!) of the fucking thing one recurring theme starts to undulate like a ripple throughout the narrative: just how much of a shit live band Katatonia were until surprisingly recent years. This is their words, not mine, and whatever early video footage surfaces during the chronology is presented sans audio, so we pretty much have to take their word for it.
And speak at length they do, though this is far from a bland, talking heads affair. Guitarist/founder/lynchpin Anders Nyström takes on the directing and editing duties himself, and one gets a quick sense of why the rest of the band insisted on Nyström carrying the burden of management duties for so many years: the guy clearly has his shit together. Instead of the usual approach where a cavalcade of interviewees are positioned on a bar stool against a monochrome backdrop, with fleeting images of found footage interspersed with their anecdotal reminiscences, Nyström either scripted or had scripted a sort of oral history of the band, narrated by its three most longstanding members: Nyström himself, singer Jonas Renske, and longtime percussionist Daniel Liljekvist (who just left the band on amicable terms earlier this year).
The most captivating parts of the documentary are the early years, as told by Nyström and Renske, who are both articulate and candid about their early influences and the travails they faced coming up in a late-80's Stockholm still stuck between a belated appreciation of pre-gangster rap American hip hop and the still-emergent national death metal scene. Of those early influences, the one that looms most above the usual Gothenburg suspects is Paradise Lost, whose evolution into clean, alterna-friendly goth metal was paralleled if not fully mirrored by Katatonia themselves later down the line.
That early history betrays a sort of inevitability: having been turned on to Fields of the Nephilim at some point early on by a fellow touring musician, Renske and Nyström recorded a goth-rock experiment called "Scarlet Heavens" that was intended to signal a completely new direction, but upon completion the two felt it was too radical a departure to expect their growing fan base to embrace. Fate intervened, however, with Renske coming down ill and having throat surgery which would forever impair his ability to sing brutal vocals ever again. The stage was pretty much set for the Katatonia we know today, except there were a few unlikely years there where a series of false starts found the band continuing somewhat in the death metal vein with Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt singing the gruffer vocals, both on album and on tour.
Because of these and other reasons, Katatonia rarely ventured far outside Scandinavia – aside from the occasional festival invite here and there – for much of the 1990's, and combined with a rotating cast of musicians the band remained surprisingly green behind the ears as live musicians well into their careers. Liljekvist bemoans this fact the most, citing as recently as the Great Cold Distance tour when things started to finally come together from a musicianship standpoint. It's at this stage in the documentary where the once-tight narrative starts to degenerate into disjointed backstage party tales, but it returns me to my original point, which is that – given the disparity between recording history and touring history – it's entirely reasonable that the band are simply reveling in the mastery of a talent that had long eluded them.
These guys are still not the liveliest performers on stage; the concert DVD portion of this set features four black clad, unusually well-dressed gentlemen flanking the stage at the expected positions, gently headbobbing in front of their microphones but otherwise offering zilch in the way of theatrics or showmanship. However, in terms of musicianship these performances are top notch, no overt shredding to be found, of course, but the complex interlace of parts being executed cleanly and masterfully. These guys aren't flash enough to qualify as "prog", but their multi-layered songwriting is every bit as sophisticated as the bands who self-identify by that appellation.
Last Fair Day Gone Night was actually released last year in limited vinyl form, but it's the visual portion of this package that makes it a cornerstone addition to the discography. In spite of a little bloat on the back end, the documentary alone is worth the cost of admission, and this four-disc set features the live shows on two compact discs on top of the two-hour concert DVD. Whereas last year's Dethroned and Uncrowned seemed to portray a band using their existing material to search for a way forward, Last Fair Day Gone Night is an unapologetic look back at what's already been achieved.