It is highly likely that the title for this album may have been inspired by a song of blues god Robert Johnson who provided endless inspiration to early rock icons, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton. Though musically Last Fair Deal Gone Down bears little to no resemblance to Johnson, the Katatonia guys have always been interested in blues, particularly during their stoner rock period. A prime example of the genre, Last Fair Deal Gone Down not only marks the breakthrough of Katatonia, but it is also arguably their most important release post-Brave Murder Day. Blending the band’s melancholic roots with their new-found interest in modern darkness, the album is also the first disc the band produced by themselves.
Upon its release, Last Fair Deal Gone Down was Katatonia’s thickest and most layered work to date. It would be safe to say this is the album where Katatonia found their true self. Vocalist Jonas Renkse provides his finest vocal performance, delivering the depressing lyrics convincingly and making the listener believe. Guitarist Nystrom opts for a wider scope of songwriting, unafraid to delve into all kinds of genres, from rock to pop to progressive. Gone are the band’s earlier doom metal leanings; this disc sees the band turning their face to other inspirations, including the Cure, Tool, and even Porcupine Tree. The album was originally intended for a Steven Wilson signature production; however, Renkse and Nystrom later decided to handle the work on their own with stunning results. That said, there are still some subtle Porcupine Tree-like moments on the album, such as “Chrome” and the epic “The Future of Speech”, both featuring processed vocals alternating between Renkse’s more direct and clean delivery. The songs are filled with airy Mellotron sounds floating above the central instruments, most of which are a combination of delicate acoustic guitars, prominent bass, and contrasts between slow and heavy choruses.
From a melody point of view, again Last Fair Deal Gone Down boasts excellent harmonies, both produced through Nystrom and Norrman’s guitar work and Renkse’s awe-inspiring harmonies. This is always carefully supplemented by a rhythm-conscious drum and bass hybrid. Never before was the bass employed as such a main instrument in Katatonia songs; “We Must Bury You” and “Clean Today” are defined by such bass and drum contribution that help thicken the moody soundscape. The vocals on “Clean Today” are particularly striking, brimming with confidence, whilst the echoic dual guitar harmonies constantly push the piece in unexpected directions.
The diverse nature of the album is most effective during the minor hit “Teargas”, a perfect representative of the new Katatonia sound, complete with varied vocal styles (again some Porcupine Tree vibe here), a cool acoustic build-up, terrific drum fills, excellent harmonies, and engaging waves of guitar sounds. It seems like a dangerous experiment, but Katatonia makes it work. On the more straightforward yet catchier front, “I Transpire” is basically Katatonia-style pop music, accentuated by quiet verse and really heavy chorus contrasts, with the vocals being amazing once again. On the effect-laden “Sweet Nurse”, however, distinctive traces of the Cure can be heard with a memorable, easy-to-follow melodic pattern.
The first song “Dispossession” is actually the embodiment of all things Katatonia, blending their acoustics with ever-present drum beats, shimmering Mellotron effects, and a heavy guitar runout. The last track, on the other hand, “Don’t Tell a Soul”, not only closes the album on a depressing note, but it also signals similarities to Katatonia’s earlier, bleak material, highlighting Renkse’s lyrical standouts: (“When you have no one, no one can hurt you”). Renkse sounds a lot like Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt here, which should be no surprise considering Akerfeldt produced his vocals on the previous two albums. It’s a grey song with Nystrom’s melodies peeking through foggy guitar themes.
The reissue version of the album contains three bonus tracks, two of which were released as a single before the full album came out. Of these two, “Sulfur” ranks among the most powerful statements Katatonia have made, with mournful vocals, doubled acoustic guitars, and a slightly Scandinavian folk feel that would normally be attributed to bands like Opeth and Ulver. “March 4″, the other track on the single, isn’t quite in the same league, but would have made a better cut on the initial pressing than the somewhat mediocre “Passing Bird” whose lyrics fall rather short given Renkse’s talents.
This is a digipack release with cardboard sleeve with fantastic artwork. As a matter of fact, Travis Smith, who is among the most popular cover artists in metal, has said more than once that this is his favourite work (along with Terria). Essential to all fans who are curious about the current Katatonia sound.