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Katatonia is a band that have taken many turns throughout their career. They started out as an outfit of two, releasing the raw almost black-like sorrow of "Dance of December Souls". Eventually they moved on to producing solid Doom/Death with Mikael Åkerfeldt on vocals, putting out "Brave Murder Day" and the "Sounds of Decay" EP. After disbanding for a short period of time in 1998 they made a big change and turned into a more rock-ish band featuring clean vocals by founding member Jonas Renske.
Following "Discouraged Ones" and "Tonight's Decision", this is their third release to feature those clean vocals. Many may think moving from growls to those vocals would be a move toward commercialism rather than quality, but that is not the case with this band. The "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" incarnation of Katatonia puts solid songwriting first while still retaining much of the emotion of their older albums. Much of their earlier craft grows more solid here. Better production and more audible clean vocals, as Jonas Renske has had a tendency of improving them by each new release.
The greatness of this album clearly lies in the emotion, the songwriting craft and the balance. While the band tend to throw huge amounts of emotion on the listener in choruses and heavy moments, they alternate the bombast with chilling sections. That's a very smart move in my book, because it never feels forced and overdone. All of my favourite songs on here tend to rely on this formula ("Teargas", "Chrome", "Tonight's Music" and "The Future of Speech").
One doesn't have to analyze far to find this pattern. Just comparing the "Who would call my name without regretting?" part in "Tonight's Music" to the chorus highlights so well how Katatonia capitalize on their ridicilously effective songwriting. They also have enough sense of variation in the flesh of the songs to stop it from becoming tedious. Alternating song lenghts, themes and generally trying different things instrumentally in each one breeds perfection. Once again balance is the keyword.
The progression that became "Viva Emptiness" is also present sometimes in here. Some songs, like "Clean Today" and "Sweet Nurse" carry that same story telling vibe that so much of "Viva.." has. Especially "Clean Today" is an immensely strong track. It combines what quite possibly is the heaviest guitar riffs on this disc with some of the most well-written lyrics. It tops it off with an infectious chorus. The interesting take on the alcohol topic is also quite original.
Looking at the tracklist I only find two tracks who are inferior to the others. "We Must Bury You" and "Passing Bird" are okay songs, but nowhere near equaling the genious of the rest of the disc. Beside this, I find about zero criticism to hand out.
All in all, I find "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" to be the best of the clean vocal-era Katatonia albums. This is a must have for fans of emotional music. I can't recommend this CD enough.