Swedish rockers Katatonia are no strangers to immersive audio, having first embraced 5.1 surround sound way back in 2006 for the release of their now-classic album The Great Cold Distance. Their following four studio releases–2009’s Night Is The New Day, 2012’s Dead End Kings/Dethroned & Uncrowned, and 2016’s The Fall Of Hearts–also received 5.1 surround mixes, as did the 2015 live album Sanctitude.
That exciting trend unfortunately came to an end with 2020’s City Burials, leaving immersive music fans wondering if the band and/or their label had abandoned the format. Released through Napalm Records in January 2023, Sky Void Of Stars is the band’s 12th studio album and the first to be mixed in Dolby Atmos.
Much like Opeth–another Swedish band operating in similar genre–Katatonia’s music has gradually transitioned from what some may call “death metal” into a more progressive rock/metal hybrid in the vein of later-era Porcupine Tree (think 2003’s In Absentia, 2005’s Deadwing, or even last year’s Closure/Continuation).
Though I loved individual tracks on The Great Cold Distance and Night Is The New Day (standouts for me on those two albums include the propulsive “Deliberation” and haunting “Inheritance”), The Fall Of Hearts is probably my favorite all around studio release from the band. It lands right in the sweet spot between ‘mellow’ and ‘metal’, with heavier songs like “The Night Subscriber” nicely counterbalanced by the mysterious, mellotron-laden “Shifts” or “Pale Flag.”
Sky Void Of Stars lands within that same coveted space, featuring some furious double kick-driven heavy passages as well as moody soundscapes underpinning Jonas Renkse’s hypnotic vocals.
Renkse shares lead vocals with Willowtree frontman Joel Ekelöf on “Impermanence,” arguably my favorite song on the album. This track perfectly encapsulates nearly everything I love about the band: the contrast between the mellow, mysterious verses and powerful choruses, the layered harmony vocals, that ghoulish mellotron in the background, and an epic guitar solo.
As with several of the prior albums, immersive mixes duties are once again handled by Bruce Soord of The Pineapple Thief. Soord has collaborated on-and-off with the band for nearly a decade now, having performed on stage with them on the acoustic ‘Unplugged & Reworked’ European tour (captured on the 2015 Sanctitude Blu-Ray release). He also released a one-off studio album with Renkse titled Wisdom Of Crowds back in 2014.
Though the Dolby Atmos mix is available to stream on Apple Music and Tidal, Soord’s 5.1 surround mix (which isn’t just a downmix of the Atmos) is exclusive to the Blu-Ray disc in the deluxe edition.
This is one case where I felt the Dolby TrueHD presentation on Blu-Ray did make a noticeable improvement over the Dolby Digital Plus/JOC streaming codec, particularly with regards to the rear surround channels–these tend to feature a good bit of ‘room’ sound from the drum kit and harmony vocals, both of which sounded kind of garbled to me on the Apple Music stream.
Both surround mixes are really enjoyable and effective at parsing out the individual layers of this densely-produced album. In the 5.1 mix, the rear speakers tend to feature backing vocals, percussion, electric guitar (both lead and rhythm parts), and synthesizers. Lead vocals are most prominent in the center, but spread across the front speakers as well for a more unified sound.
Whereas most Dolby Atmos mixes I’ve heard tend to utilize the four height channels for ancillary elements that come and go (backing vocals, percussion, horns), here they’re almost consistently firing at full volume for the duration of the album. Soord makes interesting use of the ‘phantom’ space between the speakers, placing Jonas Renkse’s lead vocal in both the front and front height channels. Similarly, backing vocals often appear suspended between the rear surrounds and rear heights.
In some songs–”Opaline” being a prime example–there are enough different vocal layers to fill out all four height speakers as well as the rear surrounds, creating a dome-like soundstage around the listener. The opening guitar line to “Impermanence” hovers somewhere between the side surrounds and heights, while that awesome guitar solo commands the fronts and front heights.
My only real complaint with regards to the surround mixes is the dynamic range. The compression seems less apparent than in the stereo mix–perhaps just by virtue of the individual elements being spread out to different speakers–but there is still a kind of ‘saturated’ quality to the loudest passages, like the ending of “Opaline.”
Soord’s surround mixes tend to be very dynamic, making me suspect that pre-mixed/processed stems were used to construct the surround mixes rather than the raw multitrack. Nevertheless, it’s all very listenable and I’m glad the band/label elected to have these mixes created.
Unfortunately for immersive music fans, the now out of print CD/Blu-Ray deluxe edition (pictured above, limited to 700 copies) is pretty spartan and feels almost like an afterthought. The 7x7 wood box is fairly attractive from the outside, but features only a handful of useless trinkets inside in addition to the CD/Blu-Ray. Plus, there’s no padding inside the box to protect the individual elements–causing some damage on the outside of the Blu-Ray case on my copy.
Seeing as the deluxe edition is being routinely scalped for anywhere from double to triple the original list price on secondhand sites like eBay or Discogs, it’s my hope that Napalm Records can be persuaded to make the immersive mixes available again in some other form–be it a standalone CD/Blu-Ray digipak or digital download–down the line.