The kings of Swedish heavy rock and doom and gloom pop return with perhaps their strongest outing yet. Two years after its last release, Katatonia has issued the most balanced, forward-looking record of the band's career. While Discouraged Ones established a niche for the group in the U.S. and marked a turn from the dark metallic mayhem of earlier records Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day, it was 2000's Tonight's Decision and 2001's Last Fair Deal Gone Down that carved out the uniqueness of the band's sound. Here are equal parts dark gothic pop, crushing heavy rock, textured keyboards, lithe pop melodies, beautifully crafted songs with unique dynamics and sculpted sonic environments to surround them, and bleak, even morose subject matter. While it's true that fans of the band's earliest material may not return to the fold with Viva Emptiness, those who have arrived since Discouraged Ones will be even more enthralled. The major difference between Viva Emptiness and its immediate predecessors is that the band has brought a more rockist edge to even out the textural soundscapes. This one is definitely heavier -- check out the bone-crushing intro on "Will I Arrive" or the bridge on the refrains on the album-opener "Ghost of the Sun." Vocalist Jonas Renkse's delivery is clear and deeply expressive of the band's atmospheric music and stays well within its tenor range. Guitarists Anders Nyström and Fred Norrman complement each other well in that both are well-versed in swirling, shaded enormous guitar sounds and neither overplay; they join together to create a warm, fuzzed-out wall of noise that is equal parts devastatingly edgy yet warm and full of melodic invention. (This is gorgeously displayed on "Burn the Remembrance" and "Complicity.") The rhythm section of Daniel Liljekvist on drums and Mattias Norrman on bass is fatter and meatier than any in heavy metal -- the stuttered stop-and-start of "Walking By a Wire" offers a rounded foundation that gives up none of its thudding power in an otherwise angular yet restrained tune. The other thing that sets Katatonia apart from all of its peers with the possible exception of Liverpudlian quartet Anathema is the band's lyrics. Virtually every track here will have the listener entering into a dialogue with Renske as he offers observations on everything from questioning the right to continued existence to revenge to determination to grief to alienation to political and social dystopian catastrophes, and even to glimmers of hope in the wasteland. Viva Emptiness is a dynamically jarring and intellectually demanding yet musically accessible journey to the dark side and back, full of glorious riffs, complex harmonic sensibilities, and a vulnerable yet ultimately powerful brute force. Viva Emptiness is so intelligent that it borders on brilliance; it's a candidate for one the finest rock records of 2003.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek