Tour Review: Fallen Hearts of Europe 2016 – Katatonia with Vola and Agent Fresco
The creative youngsters Vola from Denmark (with their Norwegian guest drummer), one of Islands finest musical exports, Agent Fresco, and dark prog metal legends Katatonia from Sweden – what a tour! For five long weeks they were touring a big part of Europe, and there was no way our editors were going to miss them. All of us went to different shows in different stages of the tour, so here is our community effort of a tour review. We start our little trip in Frankfurt/Germany, head over to the Belgium show in Antwerp and move up north to Hamburg/Germany and finally Norway’s capital, Oslo.
Raimond was the lucky one to first see this tour on its third show. He made a stop in Frankfurt on September 28, on the way to ProgPower Europe Festival (PPE) in Baarlo/The Netherlands. “I estimate the new venue “Batschkapp” capable of 2000. When I entered the hall I, instantly feared a lot of distraction by huge reverbs, because of a headroom of 8 meters”, reports Raimond. But luckily that wasn’t the case. The sound was crystal clear overall and the reverb very little.
The Frankfurt audience seems to be culpably ignorant to warm-up bands. When Vola went on stage, the audience was barely 400. “Vola surprised me very much, because they sounded so much better than what I had remembered from PPE in 2015. The guitars were pushed a tad into the back and so a lot of space opened up for the keyboards and the wonderful vocal harmonies. Also the bass got a better sound profile by it. Simen Sandnes (guest drummer from Norwegian Arkentype, filling in for the tour with Vola as their own drummer Felix Ewert couldn’t come along due to scheduling conflicts – read our interview with Simen here) was still quite concentrated and played by sheet about half of the set, but he played it all already like a pro. Incredible I must say, because he had only 3 weeks of time to practice this complicated arrangement”, says Raimond. The band altogether did a perfect job and impressed most of the still thin audience, around 500 in the end. Vola’s stage appearance is very powerful. They live their music on stage with much power; standing fully apart from any posing stereotypes, they are very original and powerful and know how to warm up! A big bonus is that they have a human involved who plays all the soundscapes, textures and samples live on a keyboard, says Raimond: “I dislike the notion of having programmed electronic music from a computer in this genre very much.”
Agent Fresco began playing when the audience had grown to approximately 600 and as usual started like a rocket. It is again and again impressive how naturally they perform a show of their immensely varying music in one go without ever producing a break in their arc of performance. Spanning from intriguing sad emotions over happy power melodies to pure aggression and fear, they take the audience on a rollercoaster trip over the entire performance. Their stage performance is even more powerful than Vola’s but they are quite as natural and nothing on their physical performance appears choreographed. “At the end of their performance, the audience was really hot and enthusiastic and I saw very many stunned faces, because the band was unknown to almost all, and the band had gathered hundreds of new fans, it seems” – a typical Agent Fresco moment.
The audience had grown to approximately 900 when Katatonia began their set in front of an already cheering hall. They had a very big welcome. “My problem with their live performances is that Renkse doesn’t use the vocal techniques he’s using in the studio”, says Raimond. On their albums it’s the dynamics of his techniques that make it so wonderful to listen to, especially when it comes to the melancholic, yet sometimes sad mood. But he doesn’t use them all on stage, there he has only one. So the whole show became somewhat underwhelming in Raimond’s eyes: “This one technique doesn’t provide the different moods and so in their live performances the band sound morphs into a rather generic prog metal effort that has nothing special in my eyes.” Also the stage performance of the band is reduced to shake hair for a minute every here and there and that’s it. Right after two such powerful bands, this appeared rather lame, which also reflected on the audience: When Katatonia came back for the encore, 200 people had already left the hall, and when Jonas announced the next song, a friend said: “But this one will sound just the same as all other 15 songs.” People around agreed to that.
Fast forward to the middle of the tour, when Dario had the chance to see the show in Antwerp/Belgium. He had the chance to take a sneak peek into the empty arena of the “Trix”, a modern venue in the industrial suburbs of Antwerp, fairly sized with a capacity of up to 1100 people and long stretched steps to provide a good view of the stage for the entire audience. Probably 200 people came early to enjoy Vola’s set, some of them unmistakably already hardcore fans, singing along every single note. Their trademark harmony vocals shared by guitarist and frontman Asger Mygind and bass player Nicolai Mogensen again were delivered spot on with lots of feels. The sound was at a decent volume, spacey and clear, giving room for Martin Werner‘s synthesizer soundscapes and stand in Simen did an impressive job handling those complex drum arrangements after only some few weeks of touring.
Unsurprisingly, approximately 400 people were subsequently blown away and rolled over by the emotional energy tank that is Agent Fresco from Iceland. “Seeing them for the fifth time in less than 10 months didn’t take anything from their impact on me”, notes Dario. On the contrary. The volume and energy level was pumped up quite a bit and they proved once more that they can handle a big stage like this just as well as a tiny little bar. “However, I would prefer an intimate setting like in Tilburg at Pub “Extase” just a few weeks before, as all the energy and the emotions hit the audience far more directly”, says Dario. Perhaps it was also the rather restraint reaction from the crowd in Antwerp, as compared to Frankfurt. “If this was due to them being unfamiliar with Agent Fresco and just not getting it or just being too overwhelmed by the sheer raw emotions I could not say. Maybe a mixture of both. Anyway, I for one just can’t get enough of Agent Fresco live!”
And then, well, Dario had been waiting to see Katatonia again since the triumphant “Dead End Kings” tour (and that was in 2012!). “Especially with the fantastic new album ‘The Fall of Hearts’ in tow, I was expecting nothing less than greatness”, says Dario. By the time Katatonia hit the stage, “Trix” was loosely filled with a roughly estimated 600 people. Sadly, also for Dario this time around Katatonia weren’t able to live up to the promises they give with their perfectly produced albums: “Don’t get me wrong, it was a good metal concert with lots of headbanging to enjoy, but I have to agree with Raimond’s observation that Jonas Renkse didn’t quite manage to transmit all the emotions captured on record live as well.”
He seemed to lack the depth and despite hitting all the notes failed to impress, as his beautiful deep vocals are an integral part of what makes the Katatonia studio sound so magical. Add to that, the guitar sound of both axe-wielders were missing the lower spectrum completely, giving it all an almost old school heavy metal feel. Technically, Katatonia played a nearly perfect set and especially the two new guys, Roger Öjersson on smoking lead guitars and Daniel Moilanen on the drum throne impressed with superb skills. If it wasn’t for the guitar sound and the missing emotions in the vocal department, this could have been high up in the ‘Best of the year’ concert list. Like this it was “just” a good metal concert. But despite all the criticism: “I’m not giving up on Katatonia and will definitely give them another chance live. All in all I didn’t regret going all the way from Munich to Antwerp just for this one evening. Not a single bit.”
And neither did the people in Hamburg’s legendary “Markthalle” just some days later. Katatonia sold out the place (which takes around 1000 people) and electrified the crowd. It definitely seems to come down to personal taste if you like their live performances or not. Van, who is a long time Katatonia fan, since the times of “Tonight’s Decision” (1999), was blown away by their powerful performance, delivered with perfect sound (which was excellent overall, also for Vola and Agent Fresco). A very much anticipated show for her, waiting to see them again since 2009 in Bremen, when the experience was quite disastrous for a variety of reasons not worth mentioning here. About this tour, she disagrees with Raimond, Dario and Matt about Renkse’s inability to transmit the spectrum of emotions as in the studio album.
For Van, not only Renkse’s beautiful velvety soft vocals underlined by a powerful energy coming from the emotions from each song plus his stage presence, the ever dark and retreated Renkse (almost never in front of the crowd, always 2 steps behind, out of the very few spotlights and the long black hair covering his face 99% of the time), contribute to the atmosphere of darkness, melancholy and that feeling of this powerful energy not quite released in a full blow but slowly delivered. “I was very impressed to see the huge difference between the show in Bremen in 2009 and Hamburg 2016. Many years passed, a lot changed in the band, I was sceptical but gladly it was worth to be front row and truly enjoy and get surrounded by the powerful emotions the Swedes immersed us all in that night. In my opinion Renkse did take me to places with his voice, the soft tremolo here and there, his tessitura and the changes in volume, from mere whispers to the rasping raised and emotional passages on songs like “Serac”, which was of my favorites of the night. For me it was like witnessing an electric version of their ‘unplugged’ live album “Sanctitude” (2015)” , Van reflects. Matt, on the other hand, was missing a keyboard on stage, which is such a substantial part of Katatonia’s studio sound, though they had its sound sampled, but for moments very low in comparison with the instruments on stage. He also would have wished for some more variety in Jonas Renkse’s singing.
Still, Katatonia delivered a full force rock show, and crowned a night which saw a very tight and confident Vola (at least judging from the second half of their set, which was all Van and Matt were able to catch). The Markthalle was already decently filled, it might have been 500 or 600 people, might be that the proximity to Denmark brought in some ‘house’ fans. Indeed there were many singing along quite passionately! Simen Sandnes fit in as if he never had played with anyone else but Vola, and despite putting a very different mood to the table than Katatonia, they were very warmly received by most of the crowd. He later confirmed that he was by then much more comfortable with the setlist, knowing it almost 100% by memory after so many weeks on the road. He was very happy with the reception in Hamburg.
Agent Fresco unsurprisingly captured the audience in the already well filled Markthalle from the first sounds of “Anemoi” right through to the last notes of “A Long Time Listening”, which faded right into the cheering of most of the roughly 1000 people. It is hard to resist the power that the four Northerners bring on stage with their unique mix of brutal guitars, sweet piano and Arnór Dan’s vocals, which range from soft, fragile whispering to merciless screaming – often within one and the same song. Definitely not what part of the audience expected, but the reception was overall very enthusiastic. Just some few die hard metalheads shook their heads about this musical approach, which is so very different than the headliner’s. But that’s what made this tour so special – it was a unique mix of the different styles modern progressive metal has to offer. And those metalheads certainly forgot every irritation after almost two hours of shaking their heads to Katatonia, who presented themselves in an excellent form, leaving some 1000 sweaty and happy people. “Still – their shows are different than their studio releases”, says Matt, “but as so often, I guess it comes down to personal preference.”
Two days later, Raimond travelled to Oslo/Norway, to one of this European tour’s lasts shows. The “John Dee”, located in the same building as the legendary “Rockefeller Music Hall”, was sold out. The venue’s website speaks of a capacity of 400, but locals told of more crowded shows than this one. It was the smallest venue we visited during the tour, but does smaller venue equal smaller sound? It does, at least in this case.
“Vola still sounded very much better than at PPE one year before, and better than on the album, but a good portion of the atmosphere in the sound had vanished as compared to Frankfurt”, says Raimond. As if their band sound needs the big air to develop its full potential. Maybe it’s the reverb – even if litte – that helps the band’s overall sound. So Vola probably can improve if they manipulate their textures to the extend of sounding bigger. Their performance was more routine than at the beginning of the tour, but that might be something only Raimond had noticed due to the comparison, because they were still very good just some weeks before. Simen played very effortlessly and secure. He’s used the sheet only here and there and appeared as if it was his own music. “He made one or another little mistake which nobody but himself would ever notice, but I noticed his irritation”, laughs Raimond.
Agent Fresco performed at full power again and took the hearts by storm. During their performance the volume was raised noticeably. “Towards the second half of the show I even found it a bit too much for the music they play and at their last song my ears began ringing big time and painfully at Arnór Dan’s screams.”
Katatonia left the same impression as in Frankfurt. Maybe the problem is that a powerful stage performance just doesn’t fit the normal melancholy of their studio music, and they don’t do that much therefore. But without the melancholy, it would be due. “Doing it like this was boring, compared to the prior bands”, says Raimond, so he and some friends went out of the first row during their fourth song, also because the volume had gotten extremely high. “Halfway through the set maybe 100 people had already left”, observed Raimond – that’s around one quarter audience.
While it was possible to chat with all Vola and Agent Fresco members after all the shows – in Oslo Einar Solberg’s (Leprous) wife was hunting autographs -, Katatonia didn’t show up in public at both gigs – which is a shame in the relatively small and generally very warm and thankful prog metal scene.
The “Fallen Hearts of Europe 2016” tour offered us a very interesting mix. From the Swedish old school death/doom metal band – turned more and more into prog through a long career spanning 25 years, to the smashing force of creativity and emotions the Icelandic guys (and a Dane) deliver on every single show, to the new Danish (and a Norwegian) ‘youngsters on town’, but by no means less genuine or less creative, entirely the opposite. This ‘Northeners’ tour with this powerful trio of bands, represented perfectly the wide spectrum Prog Metal has to offer nowadays.
Batschkapp, Frankfurt (September 28, 2016)
Trix, Antwerp (October 23, 2016)
Markthalle, Hamburg (October 25, 2016)
John Dee, Oslo (October 27, 2016)