GIG REVIEW: KATATONIA, THE OCEAN and CELLAR DARLING Live at The Opera House, Toronto
Swedish metal band Katatonia recently stopped by the Opera House in Toronto during the second week of their current North American tour. This was their first time returning to Canada in five years, as the band had gone on a short hiatus following their previous visit in 2017. Katatonia are joined on this tour by The Ocean, a progressive metal band from Germany, and Cellar Darling, a progressive folk metal band from Switzerland. Though the music of the three bands varies in terms of heaviness, they all share some atmospheric and moody elements that help them to complement each other nicely.
Taking the stage first was Cellar Darling, composed of Anna Murphy on vocals (and a multitude of other instruments), Ivo Henzi on guitar, and Merlin Sutter on the drums. The band’s usual touring bassist Nicolas Winter was unable to join them for this tour, so their lineup was rounded out by Las Vegas-based bassist Rachel G. The band’s half-hour, the five-song set consisted mostly of music from their most recent album, 2019’s The Spell, before ending with Black Moon, from their first album This Is the Sound. Insomnia saw the band navigating some shifting time signatures throughout the verses, and showcased Murphy on keys, as well as a hurdy-gurdy solo over a chaotic instrumental section. The song Death featured a standout vocal performance, as Murphy sounded fantastic in her powerful higher register, repeatedly belting out the line “you and I at the end of time” in an operatic fashion towards the end of the song. Death also subverted expectations in a fun way – about halfway through, the band played an evil-sounding breakdown that felt as though it was building up to something heavy, but instead, they brought the dynamic level way down to make way for Murphy to take a flute solo. Although a relatively new band, the members have no shortage of performance experience – the trio of Murphy, Henzi, and Sutter had all played together in another Swiss folk metal band called Eluveitie for over a decade before leaving to form Cellar Darling in 2016. Should you decide to check out the Katatonia tour in a city near you, make sure you arrive early enough to catch Cellar Darling. The only downside is that their short set will leave you wanting more.
In direct support, the slot was The Ocean, making their second appearance on the Opera House stage in 2022, as they had opened for the Norwegian prog rock band Leprous back in April. Loïc Rossetti was back in fine form – the vocalist had unfortunately broken both his legs during the Leprous tour, and had had to miss the final two weeks of shows, including the Toronto stop. The rest of the band powered through their remaining shows without him at the time, but it was great to have another chance to see The Ocean with the full lineup. The band’s six-song set drew equally from their three most recent albums: 2013’s Pelagial, 2018’s Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic, and 2020’s Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic / Cenozoic (those titles are a bit of a mouthful, aren’t they?). Their music has an incredible dynamic range, as the band goes from quieter, vibey sections, to crushingly heavy passages with distorted down-tuned guitars, blast beats, and ferocious harsh vocals. The band excels at utilizing lighting to elevate their show as well. They mainly used backlighting, which kept the band members shrouded in shadow and contributed to the mysterious atmosphere. For faster and heavier passages, they used intense strobe lighting synced up to the music, which accentuated the chaos. A highlight of their set was during a particularly heavy part of Pleistocene – the music, lighting, and the crowd were all going wild, and Rossetti actually dove off the stage into the audience and continued screaming while crowd surfing.
The band, unfortunately, ran into some technical issues during their performance of Pleistocene, as guitarist Robin Staps had his guitar cut out, and had to get that sorted. The rest of the band carried on, and the issues might have gone unnoticed, although Rossetti jokingly called attention to the lack of guitar in a quieter section, telling the audience they’d have to imagine it was there. Mistakes and technical issues are unfortunately going to be a part of the job when you perform live as often as The Ocean does, but they dealt with them like absolute pros. Aside from that one hiccup, the band sounded absolutely incredible all night.
Katatonia may have kept their North American fans waiting a long time since their last opportunity to see them live, but the band made sure it was well worth the wait. Taking the stage shortly after 10 pm, their headlining setlist contained no fewer than 20 songs – not bad for a band that’s been around for over 30 years. The setlist drew primarily from their 2006 album The Great Cold Distance, as well as their most recent album City Burials. This tour was the first time that the City Burials material was getting played for Canadian audiences, as that album was released in 2020. The band did a good job of spanning most of the band’s catalog with the remainder of the set, with at least one song each from every album released going back to 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down. Unfortunately for fans of the very early material, which featured lots of harsh vocals, those songs don’t get played anymore, as vocalist Jonas Renske had had to move away from that style as a result of the toll it was taking on his voice.
Katatonia started their set with Heart Set to Divide, from City Burials, which showcased vocalist Renske right off the top, as well as some background vocals from guitarists Anders Nyström and Roger Öjersson. Similar to The Ocean, Katatonia also used a lot of backlighting to keep the band members as silhouettes, which helped to create a moody atmosphere on stage. Renkse mentioned to the audience at one point that he had hurt his back earlier that day, which explained why he wasn’t particularly mobile up on stage. Fortunately, this injury didn’t affect his singing voice, which sounded phenomenal the whole show. Another vocal highlight came at the end of Evidence, from their 2003 album Viva Emptiness, as Renske repeats the line “no one will find you”.
Katatonia’s sound has evolved over the course of their career, but they still sound equally good playing their heavier material, like Forsaken, and their softer, more vibey songs like In the White. Their music, while incorporating progressive elements, isn’t overly technical or flashy. That said, the band members had little moments to shine here and there throughout the set. Onward Into Battle, from 2009’s Night is the New Day, featured drummer Daniel Moilanen playing a cool groove with an offbeat ostinato for sections of the song. Songs like Teargas, Forsaken, and Untrodden featured tasteful guitar solos by Nyström and Öjersson. The band also played a new song, Atrium, which will be on their upcoming album Sky Void of Stars. This song sees the band lean a bit more into their less heavy, more accessible elements, while still featuring a great vocal performance from Renske, and some creative drum fills by Moilanen.
Interestingly enough, although many of Katatonia’s songs have a melancholic feeling to them, dealing with themes like loss and loneliness, the audience’s energy seemed almost joyous. When Katatonia played Leaders, and the motion of the crowd picked up, it resembled less of a traditional mosh pit and more of a giant bouncing group hug. Songs like My Twin and July also elevated the energy of the crowd in a similar manner. This collective catharsis was a good example of seeing the healing power of music play out in real-time. The band wrapped up their set with Untrodden, from City Burials, and walked off stage, leaving the audience chanting for more. After a few minutes, Katatonia returned to the stage for the requisite encore, and performed Behind the Blood, from City Burials, and fan-favorite Leathean, from Dead End Kings. The latter song featured yet another great vocal performance, as well as plenty of double kick passages and great drum fills from Moilanen, and an explosive guitar solo by Nyström. The band seemed genuinely moved by the positive reception and repeatedly thanked everyone for coming out.
It’s great to see a band like Katatonia still be at the top of their game, even after being active for over 30 years. It’s also great to see them bring bands like The Ocean and Cellar Darling out with them, and get them exposed to new audiences. From top to bottom, this was a solid night of music – sometimes heavy, sometimes peaceful, but generally highly emotive throughout. This tour is running through the States until December 10th, so go catch a show if they’re coming to a city near you.