In early 1993, Katatonia entered Dan Swanö's Unisound Studios and began recording their first full-length album. Swanö handled the keyboard duties, as he did on the Jhva Elohim Meth E.P. Blakkheim and Lord J. Renkse were joined by a character who called himself Israphel Wing, on bass. But this mattered little, as the project was always the brainchild of the two main members. Rumour has it that the band had more brutal material that they intended to be a part of the album, but were convinced to stick with the slower stuff, as this was where they truly shined. By mid-December 1993, an appropriate time, Dance of December Souls was released.
I discovered Katatonia during a very dismal period of my existence, so I was immediately drawn to it. My friend had purchased one of their albums and I had ignored it when he attempted to let me check it out, since I wasn't in the right frame of mind for such things. However, a short time later I found myself looking for something to better suit my dark mood. For some reason, the stuff was difficult to obtain. In an ironic twist, I managed to track down October Tide's Rain Without End album, first. It was around this time that I was told that the early Katatonia material was very similar, so I doubled my efforts to acquire this. I was teased, by hearing the song "Gateways of Bereavement", on the 'Haunted Mansion'. I then ran across For Funerals to Come and then Brave Murder Day. Each boasted a bleak atmosphere and decent songs, but it was their debut album that I sought. Finally, two years after being introduced to the band, I found a copy of Dance of December Souls.
The album begins with the intro, "Seven Dreaming Souls". This gives a brief glimpse into the darkened abyss. You stand at the edge, looking down into the murky depths, filled with dread and morbid curiosity. You fear that, one day, you will reside there in the deepest chasm of misery and suffering. Just as you turn to walk away, there is a thunderous sound and you are dragged down into eternal torment.
"Gateways of Bereavement" strips your soul of any and all hope and optimistic foolishness. The riffs are slow and heavy, accompanied by crushing drums and somber acoustic notes. The vocals are the desperate screams of a damned soul that has known this existence of true and utter sorrow. There are some hints of keyboards, as well, though only to add to the overall effect. The guitar melodies completely annihilate your withering spirit.
"Let me die"
Jonas Renkse speaks for us all when he screams this line. Deep down, this is what we all want. It is inescapable. This horror that has been visited upon us all, known as life, is something to reject; a prison of flesh to break free of. This is why we try, in whatever feeble manner we might, to fill our lives with something, anything, to take our minds off of this one truth. The song is drenched in an epic atmosphere of everlasting sorrow and a longing for release from this cursed mortal realm. The pace never speeds up, as this is more like a funeral march. Oddly, some more uplifting melodies work their way into things, only to be stamped out. Musically, one can hear a strong influence from early Paradise Lost, and it is put to good use.
"In Silence Enshrined" takes the atmosphere down to a darker level of misery, as this conveyes a sense of grief and loss that most should be able to relate to. The riffs are even more depressive than the previous song, and the vocals seem to be weighed down with an added sense of despondency. There is a musical contrast, as Blakkheim injects these minuscule bits of positivity into the songs, only for them to be crushed and destroyed, leaving no trace. This is similar to life, as fate will occasionally toss us something good, only for it to be torn from us, leaving us in a state of despair and overwhelming darkness.
"In silence I fall through sorrows"
The pace begins to pick up, later in the song, yet it maintains the bleak atmosphere. It almost gives the impression of one attempting to escape from the depths of the abyss, only to realize that they were never out. They were always here, and forever shall remain. As this realization becomes ever clearer, the pace slows down and the desperation in the vocals echoes our own feeling, regarding this sentence that we all must serve. Yet, as we may all suffer a similar fate, it is in solitude that we must bear this agony. Whether surrounded by others or not, we face this doom alone.
The next song already appeared on the Jhva Elohim Meth E.P. The feeling is still dismal, though the subject matter is not as melancholy as the other songs. This one deals with the opposition of the fictional Judeo-Christian god, or rather the nonexistence of this mythical being. There is also some comment on the disillusionment of those who were tricked by the Great Lie, while the narrator appears quite triumphant in his rejection of this false creator.
"Elohim Meth" is an instrumental that bears a desolate feeling. As you are broken and defeated, suffering at the fathomless depths, you have time to reflect back on the wretched existence that you've led. It has all been for nothing. As you lay there, afflicted by the burning cold and the freezing darkness, you begin to realize that this is no nightmare. This is your fate, and the worst is yet to come.
The dismal journey continues with "Velvet Thorns (of Drynwhyl)", which is the longest track on here, clocking in just under fourteen minutes. There is a certain beauty in the sorrow here presented. The sound is almost eloquent in its misery. As the song progresses, the melodies seem to take you even farther down, beyond those realms of anguish that you had begun to adapt to. Immortal torment is what you have ahead of you. Your pathetic soul will be raped of all sanity, leaving you in a feeble state. After a few minutes, the song speeds up a bit and the vocals become far raspier and more shredded.
"I must Die
Through the Sky
And the Forest"
The song gets even slower and the mournful feeling increases. Near the middle of this epic journey through depression and grief, it becomes more unbearable. Left alone on a cold stone, near the raging waters, you find fragments of broken glass and see a way out. You take these jagged shards and open your veins, allowing the blood to flow freely. It appears so black in the pale light, and a sense of relief comes over you as you welcome the end. But the end will not come. You are gripped by panic, as it becomes clear that there is no escape. You can die a thousand deaths, yet here you will remain. In a frenzy of anguish and despair, you shred yourself to pieces, bleeding all over the frozen landscape. Your tears will bring no salvation. Those spirits who are drawn to you will only feed upon this monumental suffering. This is what they wanted, all along. Your whole life has been but a game to them. Whenever you reach a point where you are adjusting to the pain, you see a light at the end of the tunnel. Something good comes into your life and you feel that things will change. But this is not so. You belong to them. Soon, your source of peace and happiness will be taken away, for only through the loss of something dear to you are they able to take you down to a deeper level. The cycle is neverending.
"Tomb of Insomnia" begins with another dejected riff, joined by tortured screams. This song is nearly as long as its predecessor. At this point, you are torn between madness and despair. The utter horror of existence is not something with which the normal human mind can truly come to grips. The slow, funeral march of guitar riffs continues on, and the raspy vocals echo your own internal screams. There is no sleep, no waking, no relief... the nightmare is reality. An added sense of doom is produced from the bass lines, joining the clean guitars, which build the tension. You can feel it in your bones... this isn't the end, or the beginning of the end. It is merely the end of the beginning. All the suffering and torment that you have ever known is but a mere shadow of true pain. This word is misused by so many who would cower before the true face of pain and eternal misery. It is something that resides beyond the comprehension of average mortal intellect. However, once you manage to get a glimpse of this, you will be forever scarred and soon to go mad, as you are slowly drained. This is the fate that awaits each of us.
"Tomb spirits marching in the fields of eternity"
By the middle of the song, there is still some tiny bit of hope remaining, soon to be extinguished and forgotten. With each cycling of the mournful riff and crashing of thunderous drums, you are taken deeper down into the abysmal realm of melancholy. Again, your eyes are filled with a small glimmer of hope, as an almost peaceful melody passes through, joined by clean guitars and keyboards. This is the highest peak that you can expect to see. Just when you think, once again, that you might escape this hell... the gate is closed before you. Around the 11:00 mark, it truly begins. The single most sorrowful melody on the entire album, rips into your chest and annihilates your heart, once and for all. It was all for nothing. Your trust in hope has failed you, and you have failed yourself and all those around you. None will even mourn your passing.
"Purest sorrow, embrace my soul"
The album ends with "Dancing December". This instrumental maintains the hopeless feeling from the last song. Imagine yourself in this abyss of suffering and despair, as viewed by a camera. It is during this song that it pulls back, farther and farther, leaving you to your damnation. Finally, it returns to the surface, showing that the world will, indeed, continue on without you. No one will even so much as notice that you are gone and the few that were unfortunate enough to have known you will be oblivious to your fate and probably wouldn't care either way. Life is pain. Your purpose is to suffer. Nothing more. Embrace the end.