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Katatonia and Messenger

Prog reviews Katatonia and Messenger at London's magical Union Chapel.

The sun is still streaming through the windows of the Union Chapel when Messenger unfurl their blend of psychedelia, folk and heavy blues. The influence of Pink Floyd is apparent in their affinity for harmonies and extended instrumental breaks.

The Perpetual Glow Of A Setting Sun shows their range, morphing from a trippy, gentle start to a cascade of vigorous tub-thumping from Jaime Gomez Arellano on his John Bonham-style acrylic drum set, while the breakdown of Dear Departure lets guitarist and frontman Khaled Lowe unleash numerous swirly guitar effects.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect backdrop for the melancholic majesty of Katatonia than the hallowed hall of the Union Chapel. The North London church, illuminated by a legion of candles encircling the band members and the pulpit behind singer Jonas Renkse, embodies the very picture of gothic gloom. As the sun slowly sets during the performance, the stained-glass windows remain illuminated from without, lending a growing air of solemnity to the occasion.

On tour to promote their unplugged album Dethroned & Uncrowned, Katatonia swap electric guitars for acoustics and hand percussion. As pioneers in the doom metal movement, the Swedes’ gradual transformation into a progressive, gothic band has reached its zenith, although they’ve had a bumpy ride of late, with the departure of drummer Daniel Liljekvist on the eve of the tour coming mere months after guitarist Per Eriksson flew the coop.

Filling their shoes tonight are Bruce Soord on acoustic guitar and keys, with JP Asplund on percussion joining Renkse, guitarist Anders Nyström and bassist Niklas Sandin. The only electric guitar on stage is Renkse’s, who uses it sparingly for melody lines. He’s never going to outshine Nyström on the six-string and his slide playing on One Year From Now is rudimentary, but he handles the simple lead parts well enough tonight.

They open with In The White from 2006’s The Great Cold Distance, establishing the sombre mood, led by Renkse’s heartfelt delivery and disarming honesty. “We’re all a little nervous,” he confesses about the unfamiliar acoustic format after the second song of the night, Ambitions, but there are no visible jitters as they begin Teargas. Their songs adapt remarkably well to the new arrangements, although for tunes that were originally on the sparse and subdued end of the spectrum, like Day from 1996’s Black Murder Day, it’s not really such a great stylistic leap.

Renkse has a haunting voice but he’s an introverted performer, preferring to let the audience find their way to him emotionally, rather than reaching out. That said, he’s on fine form with a beautiful rendition of One Year…

If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that their repertoire is resolutely mid-tempo, pouring forth a steady, immersive flow of music, with peaks and valleys created by shifts in dynamics, rather than tempo. After leaving the stage to rapturous applause, they return for three encores – Omerta, Evidence and The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here, joined on the last by special guest Silje Wergeland. The lyrics and mood may be sombre, but the audience depart with spirits soaring.

After starting his writing career covering the unforgiving world of MMA, David moved into music journalism at Rhythm magazine, interviewing legends of the drum kit including Ginger Baker and Neil Peart. A regular contributor to Prog, he’s written for Metal Hammer, The Blues, Country Music Magazine and more. The author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film, David shares his thoughts on kung fu movies in essays and videos for 88 Films, Arrow Films, and Eureka Entertainment. He firmly believes Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years is the tuniest tune ever tuned.