American Truck Simulator – First Impressions

Hurrah American Truck Simulator has finally been released. The favourite game of many a dad everywhere sees a shift in focus from Europe over to the USA. SCS Software’s new game is a celebration of Americana and initially features California and Nevada, with other states to follow later.

So what’s it like?

American Truck Simulator is a lot like European Truck Simulator. In some ways it feels more like an add-on rather than a full fledged sequel thanks to the reuse of the gameplay model and interface. However there’s plenty new to enjoy – speed cameras make way for cops, turning right on red takes some getting used to and there are new mandatory weighing stops. The big draw is of course the USA location and for that the game is definitely worth the modest £14.99/US$19.99.

While initial impressions make one think not a whole lot has changed that idea is soon dispelled by trying a few deliveries. There’s more traffic now. The trucks and trailers you drive are much bigger. And the parking challenges have got a heck of a lot more difficult. The player may be driving on wider roads, but with this much bigger trucks 90-degree turns are a challenge.

For many of us SCS Software’s Truck Simulator franchise is more about feel than technical wizardry. The game is very attractive but can be rough around the edges, quite literally as anti-aliasing options are limited. However it’s very easy to get the game running at 60 fps thanks to good optimization.

Once again SCS has neatly sidestepped the issue of gaining lots of music licenses by allowing the game to use streaming radio. There’s something genuinely wonderful about hooing along a Nevada interstate with a country station doing its thing. I was driving towards a sunset yesterday evening when the radio station began playing the classic Convoy. A wonderful moment.

American Truck Simulator is not exactly action packed. But then it’s not meant to be. This is a relaxing game, and one for those who love to explore and take their time. In this American Truck Simulator and Elite Dangerous are kindred spirits, in fact combat aside, they are very similar games – albeit with a difference in the vehicles involved. They certainly scratch the same gaming itch.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few hours with American Truck simulator and am looking forward to further states being released and modders getting their hands on the game. It seems SCS Software has done it again – created a wonderful entertaining time-soak form the unlikeliest of source material. Highly recommended.

You can read more about the game at the SCS Software website. The game is out now on Steam or via this Amazon link – American Truck Simulator (PC DVD)

SMSL 793II DAC/Headphone Amp – Quick Review

You can pay an absolute fortune for a good headphone amp but much of this money goes into snake oil. A decent DAC chip is not expensive and amplification is not rocket science. SMSL is a Chinese company that’s making waves with good quality audio gear that means you don’t have to break the bank to get good sound. This DAC/Amp receives optical/coax digital PCM and sends it out of the headphone output at the front and via RCA line-out at the rear. The volume controls the headphone only – as it should – leaving the line-out to be a fixed volume. I’ve got this DAC set up on my desk where I feed it an optical signal from my motherboard, the line-out then goes to a hi-fi amp and speakers. The sound quality is excellent both in the phones and via the line-out. I’ve used the line-out to feed an SMSL SA-50 amp and a Marantz MR-603 hifi and in both cases the results were superb. Be aware like most headphone amps there is a little channel imbalance through headphones at the quiet end of the volume taper but this is gone at normal listening volumes.

Also as is often the case with excellent but inexpensive Chinese audio gear the power supply lets the side down with cheapness and potential electric death. My 793ii came with a two-prong switching power supply and a travel adapter. While the power supply seems fine – I didn’t like using it with the travel adapter and bought a 9v switching power supply from Maplin with a proper UK plug.

Two Weeks With The Fujifilm X-E2 Camera

Two weeks ago I sold my Sony NEX-6 and various lenses and purchased a Fujifilm X-E2. I won’t go over the reasons why again as you can read them in this post. The camera came with the 18-55mm f2.8-4 zoom lens. I also picked up the 35mm f1.4 and 27mm f2.8 thanks to Fujifilm’s current very generous cashback offer that made the 27mm almost free.

Having shot with the new camera for a couple of weeks I’ve some insight to share about the shift over to Fujifilm from the Sony NEX system. Much of my experience is positive, though there are some negative points too. Overall my experience with the X-E2 is very positive so far and my issues with the system are relatively minor. Given Fujifilm’s commitment to offer regular firmware updates for its cameras these issues are also less important than they would be on a Sony system.

The area I’ve struggled most with isn’t software related but one of handling. The NEX-6 felt great in the hand, even more so than the three different Canon DSLRs I’ve owned. The X-E2 is less comfortable due to its rangefinder layout. There’s less to get hold of in the right hand than a DSLR or NEX camera. There is an official grip available but the price is rather obscene. There are some inexpensive unofficial grips available from China on ebay and I may pick one of those up.

My other issue with the handling is the eyecup. It’s just not deep enough to block strong sunlight coming from the right hand side. Switching to using my left eye with the viewfinder solves this but that is my weaker eye so isn’t preferable. I may have to bite the bullet and wear a peaked cap when I go shooting.

Those handling issues aside I love the design and aesthetics of the X-E2 system. The camera itself is surprisingly light and with a small lens on feels as practical as a compact. The shutter speed dial and exposure compensation dial feel great to use. There are four buttons that can be customised and already I have them set to functions that I can quickly and easily change with little fuss.

Despite my issue with the eyecup the viewfinder is large and bright enough with plenty of detail. It isn’t quite as smooth as the one on the NEX-6 but Fuji will soon be releasing a firmware update that fixes this issue. The rear LCD screen is a real joy with the fastest update I’ve seen on a camera I have owned.

There are several options for controlling EVF and screen use. It’s possible to choose one only, or have the eye sensor switch between the two. One final option turns both screen and EVF off, only turning on the viewfinder when the eye is brought to it. I like that option in theory but Fujifilm could make it so much better with a simple software update – it would be great to have the EVF on only for shooting, but the screen able to come on for image review or entering the menu, switching off as the user returned to shooting mode.

Talking of menus I’ve not got to grips with them yet. Compared to the silly, childish and unorganised menus of the NEX-6 (a brilliant camera hampered with poor software) the X-E2 is fabulous. But while the menus are thankfully more reminiscent of those in Canon DSLRs I’ve owned the organisation and structure of the menus leaves a little to be desired. I still find myself hunting around for options unsure of which page or even sub-page they are on. For example there are many options for customising the screen and EVF layout but finding these options is not always easy, especially as not all the choices are on the same menu.

Sometimes the menus aren’t too clear or not easily accessible. Take for example the subject of the face detect autofocus option. This works wonderfully – especially as enabling it enables an otherwise hidden auto-exposure mode that exposes the shot for the face. But enabling the face detect autofocus involves diving into the main menu – it is not available on the Q-menu nor can it be coupled to one of the customisable buttons. It is also not clear whether the are or single focus point modes are still working when a face isn’t detected – and if they are – let us change them without having to turn the face detect on and off again.

Being an old “back button focus” user from my Canon DSLR days I’m delighted to have this functionality on the X-E2. When the camera focus switch is set to manual the rear AF-L button orders the camera to autofocus. This enables the user to meter with the shutter button but only change focus when the AF-L button is pressed. Fujifilm needs to make a very slight change to the way this works in that the green focus light and on-screen indicator do not show when focus is achieved in this mode. The camera works brilliantly, the user could just do with a little feedback.

One very pleasent surprise is how useful the on-board flash is. Usually these are terrible things. The one on the NEX-6 was particularly good and required plenty of negative flash exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the subject. The flash on the X-E2 is superb – the software doing a great job off just using enough flash to light subject naturally without blowing it out. It’s the first on-board flash I’ve been happy to use for indoor portraits rather than raising ISO or using a faster lens.

Talking of ISO the noise performance of the X-E2 is great. We need to be a little clear though as ISO isn’t really a standard as many believe it to be. The X-E2 doesn’t offer the option of ISO 100 with ISO 200 being the lowest on offer. But online tests show that the X-E2 at ISO 200 is very similar to ISO 100 performance on Canon and Nikon gear. Similarly for the higher settings Fuji’s ISO 6400 isn’t really, it’s closer to ISO 4000-5000 on rival cameras.

Ignoring the specifics of the numbers one thing is very clear with the X-E2 – the high ISO performance is very good indeed. The images are so clean and relatively noise-free at the ISO 6400 setting that I tend to dial back in-camera noise-reduction to the lowest setting to retain more sharpness. Even when their is noise present it appears like a fine film grain than the splotches of older APSC cameras I’ve owned in the past.

While we’re talking about noise reduction let’s look at RAW and JPG files. Due to the fancy none-standard layout of the latest Fuji cameras some RAW development applications struggle to render sharp images. My favourite (and now least favourite) program DXO Optics Pro refuses to support Fujifilm RAW at all. The days of poor RAW software performance for Fuji cameras is a thing of the past – the latest version of Lightroom does a great job of getting detail out of the X-E2 raw files. An update released very soon for Lightroom and ACR will even add Fujifilm’s JPG colour profiles such as Provia and Velvia.

Naming the JPG options in the camera after its famous films such as Provia, Astia and Velvia is a great marking tool for Fujifilm. Other manufactures tend to stick with names such as Landscape, Portrait and Vivid. And having shot ith real Velvia slide film the Fujifilm JPG files are good but not really exactly the same. That being said the JPG output from the X-E2 is class leading. Fujifilm does a great job of giving you shots straight out of the camera that you don’t need to edit.

I have always been a RAW shooter. But moving from Canon DSLRs to NEX and now Fujifilm has seen me shooting more RAW + JPG. I’m rarely a JPG only shooter just as I would never get my old films developed and throw the negatives away and keep the prints. I am a technology buff and enjoy fiddling and tweaking RAW files almost as much as I enjoy taking the photos. And not being great at composing in camera – always in too much of a hurry – and will often compose my shot via cropping and tweaking on the PC later. Yet since buying the X-E2 I’ve been using the JPG files more and more. Quite a few of the shots I’ve posted on Flickr have been the camera’s own JPG file merely resized. This camera really does output fantastic pictures and I’m addicted to the exaggerated contrast and colours of the Velvia setting.

Let’s talk lenses, the main reason I moved to Fujifilm’s X system. The lenses are great. To call the 18-55mm f2.8-4 a kit lens is a real disservice. It’s a fabulous lens and faster than anything usually given in a kit. It is sharp, fast, has optical stabilisation and is built like a tank. Like many X series lenses there’s a physical aperture ring and a physical stabilisation switch. This is such a good lens that for shooting outdoors there’s much less need to fill in any of the same focul lens with a fast prime other than for artistic depth-of-field reasons.

The 35mm f1.4 is a gorgeous lens and is just the sort of thing that the APSC NEX/Alpha line-up is missing. Images are silly sharp in the centre wide open, the bokeh is lovely and it’s a wonderful lens to use. Both the 18-55mm and 35mm are pretty large for mirrorless lenses though. I could put the NEX-6 and 16-50mm in my coat pocket. That’s not possible with the Fujifilm 18-55mm mounted – it’s big and heavy. And portability is one of the main reasons I moved from DSLR cameras in the first place.

So despite my caveat that one needn’t cover ranges already covered by the zoom I picked up the 27mm f2.8 in the cashback offer. I’m so glad I did. It’s already one of my favourite lenses I’ve owned. This small pancake lens allows the X-E2 to go in my coat pocket. The benefit is not merely one of size – it’s a lovely lens to shoot – giving a very natural field of view. It’s sharp, quick to focus and great for being unobtrusive when shooting on the street. The 27mm turns the X-E2 from an advanced SLR like system into an advanced compact. I was out with visiting family yesterday and mostly shot with the 27mm. Being out and about with family doesn’t give one lots of time to think about shots and in the end I had more keepers from the 27mm lens than using the zoom.

After two weeks with the Fujifilm X-E2 I am very happy with my purchase. The quality of the images coming out of the camera is superb. I also feel much more in control of the camera – something I gave up when moving from Canon DSLR to NEX. There are some idiosyncrasies both the X-E2 and I have to work out together, but right now it’s a very happy relationship that will only get better as time goes on. The only thing I feel I’m missing right now is a longer zoom. For now I’m happy to use my Minolta MD 100-200mm f4 on an adapter but I’m already saving the pennies in the hope of picking up the 55-200mm next year.

Are there things I miss from the Sony NEX-6? Yes. I miss the better eyecup and grip. I miss the many dynamic range tools such as DRO and auto-HDR. The X-E2 does have expanded 200% and 400% dynamic range modes but these are merely underexposure/curve tricks similar to Canon’s Highlight Tone Priority. Sony’s DRO is a very clever algorithm for getting the best dynamic range out of each JPG. The X-E2 can’t even bracket three shots further than a stop apart. Sony’s manual focus peaking is better too – offering colour options that the X-E2 doesn’t have. Yet the X-E2 fights back with more control and other options when shooting manual focus.

Would I swap the X-E2 back for the NEX-6? No. Not even for two of them. The X-E2 feels like a complete package and one that will only get better thanks to Fujifilm’s support. The lenses are fantastic, the image output superb and the whole system feels like a camera designed by photographers rather than the company’s accountants. I’m delighted with my new camera.

Want to see some images? So far the weather hasn’t been hugely kind so I’ve been taking more test shots than having photo adventures. But you can see some of my efforts with the Fujifilm X-E2 on my Flickr page. You’ll also find separate sets for the 18-55mm, 35mm and 27mm lenses.

The Official Grumpyrocker Best Albums of 2013

Better late than never – it’s our round-up of the very best that rock and metal had to offer in 2013. And there’s not any noodly limp Waitrose-folk arse-water in site.

Before we move onto the best records of the year it’s traditional we cover a few disappointments. First a real stinker – Megadeth’s Super Collider. I can’t fully review the album because I’ve never been able to listen to the whole thing. Yes it’s that bad. Endgame showed a band back on form and while the follow-up 13 wasn’t as good it still seemed Mustaine had something to offer. However Super Collider is so bad you wonder how it even came to be. Did no one say “Dave, these songs are shit, shall we try something else?”

Disappointing but not on the same scale as the Megaturd is Amorphis’ Circle. This is a band whose releases I look forward to eagerly and this latest album flat out disappointed me. Where’s the band that created Skyforger?

Cathedral released their final album The Last Spire. This is a pretty good album. My disappointment is a more personal issue, disappointed they are calling it a day, and disappointed they didn’t go out in a “huggy bear oh year” Midnight Mountain glitterball kinda way. But kudos to the boys for not trying crowd-pleasing nonsense and doing their own thing. I just would have liked some silliness.

The Gathering released Afterwards this year. It seems to be an experiment in how far material first revealed in 2011 could be milked. While remix albums can be good this post-rock revisit to the album Disclosure did nothing for me at all. If I wanted to play an album through some TC Electronic reverb and delay effects I could do it myself thanks. Come on folks, lets have some proper new stuff.

The biggest disappointment of the year is the continued shittiness of production and mastering across the rock and metal world. We’re still being sold crushed mixes that sound awful. One of my favourite albums of the year might have made it right to the top if it hadn’t been mastered to death. The loudness war has to end, it’s possible to be heavy and brutal without trying to destroy any musical dynamics. Hell, one of the best sounding releases of the year was the Full Dynamic Range re-release of Carcass’ Heartwork. That CD didn’t lose once ounce of heavy in getting a decent sounding release.

On the other side of the coin some bands are still peddling 24-bit 192K versions of their albums like these are a sonic orgasm. Mix and master your album properly and even a 320K MP3 will sound really good. Me, I like a good CD to be honest and a 16-bit FLAC rip for archiving purposes. More bands should join the Bandcamp revolution and sell us decent quality FLAC files – we don’t need 24-bit nonsense. Yet Amazon continues to sell some of the worst sounding MP3 files available today – some shocking low bitrates on offer.

But I digress.

Before we move on to albums of the year, let’s do song of the year. Going to surprise you with this one, especially as Carcass’ The Master Butcher’s Apron was the runner-up.

Yes really. Now let’s get on with the best albums of 2014. As usual I don’t include re-releases and live albums in my list. But we’ve had some good live releases this year – Nightwish’s Showtime Storytime featuring the phenomenal pipes of Floor Jansen is definitely a highlight of the year.

THE OFFICIAL GRUMPYROCKER
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2013

THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #10
CULT OF LUNA – VERTIKAL

Taking direct inspiration from sequences within Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis, Cult of Luna’s Vertikal offers the sprawling, beautiful, haunting sound scape of a dystopian future. The synth work often recalls Vangelis’ wonderful Blade Runner soundtrack. But it’s the rhythm section that takes things to the next level. The importance of bass guitar in post-rock/metal can’t be underestimated and the low-end rumble’s integration with the percussion gives Vertikal its momentum, preventing the slower sequences from stopping any progress. Joined by powerful guitar riffage and those very metal vocals we have an album that at times is quietly beautiful if unsettling and in parts throbbing with classic metal guitar. Cult of Luna’s great achievement in Vertikal is bringing all this work together into a cohesive whole. Like many ambient post-rock/metal albums you’ll find nods to the giants of the genre – Pink Floyd. But Vertikal isn’t a softly softly album, it retains that power and that anger you might expect from Roger Water’s finest moments, not the sleepier elegiac passages of Gilmour/Wright collaborations. Anger isn’t the only emotion featured within. The often brutal picture of the future painted by Vertikal is brought to a more human and emotional end by the last track Passing Through.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #9
FINTROLL – BLODSVEPT

No you’re not reading this wrong. Yes I know it’s not really as good as many of the records on this list, but I never said this was an objective list. We’re talking art here – as subjective a subject as there ever was. Fintroll’s latest album makes it onto this list because it is damn good fun. Sometimes you want some music that will make you smile and this is the metal album of the year for smiles. Ridiculously good fun if you like black metal versions of circus music.


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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #8
THE OCEAN – PELAGIAL

Written when it was unclear whether the band would have a vocalist well enough to sing on it the result is a concept-album that works wonderfully as an instrumental only composition. Buy the 2CD versions and you get that version. More amazingly the vocal version is just as good if not better. The concept wins the 2013 up its own arse award – but I love 70s prog excess – here The Ocean has created an album that seeks to take us on a journey into the depths of the sea but also deeper into relationships. As the depth increases so does the pressure in the lyrics and the heaviness of the music. A great concept that the band has managed to pull off.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #7
STEVEN WILSON – THE RAVEN THAT REFUSED TO SING (AND OTHER STORIES)

Let’s face it, if Steven Wilson doesn’t take any holidays he’s going to be on this list every year. The man can’t seem to do any wrong and continues to create fascinating intelligent music that’s hard to categorise. Not only are the songs fantastic, Wilson has surrounded himself with excellent musicians and pulls off one of the finest modern progressive rock records recorded. This one deserves to sit along your Pink Floyd on the shelf.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #6
BLACK SABBATH – 13

The appearance of 13 in this list is a testament to the brilliance of Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. When these two men work together magic happens. Forget all the talk of Ozzy being way over the hill, of Wilk’s drumming being flat and boring – this album works because two giants of metal are riffing together again. Would this be a better record with Dio? Undoubtedly, but we’ve still got a massive slab of classic metal here. If only the pacier bonus tracks had found their way onto the regular album we’d have had a classic on our hands. As it stands we have some old guys making better metal than most of the young guys and all power to Iommi and Butler for that. Long may they riff.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #5
QUEENSRYCHE – QUEENSRYCHE

No no no not the joke that is Geoff Tate. But even so, who would have thought the rest of the band would arise from the ridiculous legal shenanigans to create one of the best metal albums of the year? In Todd La Torre the band has found a real star – his vocals on this eponymous album are superb, what a range the man has. It is so great to hear Eddie Jackson’s bass clang away like old times. Scott Rockenfield’s drumming is his best for many a year. And in Parker Lundgren Michael Wilton has found a guitar sparring partner worthy of the band. The only downside is this album is too short and it is brickwalled, a better mix and a couple more songs and this could have been our album of the year. This is the real Queensryche, welcome back lads.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #4
OMNIUM GATHERUM – BEYOND

The gods be praised – a metal album where you can hear the bass. Omnium Gatherum had a hard act to follow with Beyond, New World Shadows was a storming record. But the progressive death metallers returned in 2013 with an equally strong album and again one that grew on me with every listen. So while I was very enthusiastic when it was released I love it even more now. Few bands combine beautiful music and heavy music as well as Omnium Gatherum – there’s so much to enjoy in the dynamics of the band’s work. Beyond sees a band at the top of their game, I only hope they can keep up such a high standard.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #3
BRUCE SOORD WITH JONAS RENKSE – WISDOM OF CROWDS

Here we have the first of three records vying for album of the year. From this point on any of these three could have won it. Pineapple Thief’s Bruce Soord created this solo record with Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse in mind for vocals. The result is a fabulous modern progressive rock record that shines with superb instrumentation, modern sounds and beats and great melancholy vocals.


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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #2
CARCASS – SURGICAL STEEL

The metal world reacted with delight – Carcass are coming back. But then the doubts set in. After all, Carcass created some of the best heavy music ever recorded, how could a return be anything other than disappointing? We needn’t have feared. Holy effing heck though what a return. Carcass’ Surgical Steel is easily the best metal comeback we’ve ever heard. It is a huge striding monster of a heavy metal record. This is a crushingly heavy record, superb death metal with plenty of melodic moments to enjoy. Riff and riff of heavy. We needn’t have feared.
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THE BEST ALBUMS OF 2013 #1
WITHERSCAPE – THE INHERITANCE

So here we have it, the official Grumpyrocker best album of 2013. Dan Swano has returned to save metal along with his guitar-playing mate Ragnar Widerberg. The Inheritance is everything a modern metal record should be – it’s, powerful, heavy, intelligent and beautifully performed. Not only that it is actually recorded sympathetically – a proper dynamic mix – we even get the vinyl mix on the CD as an extra. There’s so much in The Inheritance to enjoy – moments of 70s prog, modern death metal, very light acoustic touches, massive heavy riffs, death metal barks, big-lunged crooning. Dan has thrown the whole thing into this record and it is a glorious musical statement. You can hear older influences like Genesis alongside more modern ones such as Opeth. In many ways this is the Opeth album we wanted this year but didn’t get. Swano has one hell of a voice, he belts out these songs like a metal Elvis and to show off he wrong the songs, played the drums and produced the damn record. Meanwhile Widerberg has done a great job with the guitars offering plenty of meaty riffs, more reflective moments and melodic solos. Buy it.

Katatonia Dethroned and Uncrowned Review

How do you top a great album like 2012’s Dead End Kings? You don’t, you strip it bare and make it even better. Katatonia is spoiling us.

You may remember that I really enjoyed Katatonia’s Dead End Kings – though I readily admit I still prefer Night Is The New Day of their most recent works. So I was delighted to hear that Katatonia were re-releasing the record in a different form.

Dethroned and Uncrowned strips back Dead End Kings – removing the drums and the heavy guitars – leaving a largely acoustic and keys work that is even more melancholy and ethereal than the original. Some electric guitars do remain – for the occasional lead – and the album is by no means the clichéd “unplugged” version.

Instead Katatonia have explored the emotional and darker aspects of the music and while obviously this isn’t a heavier record than Dead End Kings it is much more sombre. The result is a resounding success. In almost every case I prefer the Dethroned version of each song to the one presented last year. Jonas’ duet with The Gathering’s Silje Wergeland on The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here is even more haunting.

If I was going to nitpick I’d say it is a shame that the vocals were not re-recorded. In many cases it sounds like the Dead End Kings vocal lines remain and this does mean that sometimes the emotional emphasis isn’t in keeping with the gentler music on offer.

That aside Dethroned and Uncrowned is a fabulous moody, haunting and progressive take on a great heavy metal record. Highly recommended. And of course it’s the second great record of the year to feature the vocal talents of Jonas Renkse.

Katatonia’s Dethroned and Uncrowned is released by KScope on September 9th 2013.