The fourth album Monotony Fields from Finnish funeral doomsters has been a long time coming, with eleven years passing since 2004’s Illusion’s Play. The intervening years also saw them lose long time vocalist Pasi Koskinen, with his spot being filled by Throes of Dawn frontman Henri Koivula. But despite the decade long gap and the lineup change they’ve lost none of their ability to craft a despondent, melancholy atmosphere, and with this mammoth 75 minute effort, they’ve managed not to just live up to their previous works, but surpass them, drowning the listener in their dismal dirge with their best effort to date.
While Shape of Despair hardly abandon their trademark of long tracks of sorrowful, slow doom metal interspersed with lush ambient textures, the years have seen them make some changes to their sound. As well as the low guttural growls they’re known for, Henri also uses clean vocals at points on the album to great effect on two of the album’s tracks. They’re used well and filled with a sincere gloom, avoiding the tenancy of other bands who’s other such trepidations end up coming off as cheesy. They’ve also done away with the violins, which would be disappointing if they didn’t fill the void so well with their great use of synths and the ethereal vocalisations throughout the album from female vocalist Natalie. And while each track does follow the formula of trudging, depressing doom, they do vary the songs through the album to keep it engaging throughout its long running length.
Opening track Reaching the Innermost, is standard Shape of Despair in top firm. Gloomy tones of atmospheric synth open the album’s first few minutes before a crash of drums signals forth for the guitars to play their mournfully slow chord based riffs, with the guttural vocals, low and cavernous, with each intonation drawn out and devoid of positivity – as is the whole album. The lead guitar plays it’s higher melodies under a fog of synth and plodding drums and cymbal crashes, with the aforementioned vocals from Natalie drifting in and out through the track in an ethereal haze. It’s well paced and negative to the max, and its fade out after the ten minute mark feels like it comes too soon. Title track Monotony Fields continues down the same path, the eerie synth and delayed guitar at the start soon giving way to more of their cold doom with an atmosphere which doesn’t let up. And special mention must go to the brilliant use of synth – with it this high in the mix they could be overly saccharine, but the way they intertwine with the guitars is perfect. While each chord rings out, the keys cling to the guitars with a ghostly grip, drowning them in ever more despondency with their fragile, icy mist.
Descending Inner Night and The Distant Dream of Life are the two which make use of the aforementioned clean vocals. While neither of them completely dispense with the deep growls, the former sees Henri and Natalie harmonising at points atop of more gloomy distorted riffage. The latter sees him singing mournfully alone over the top of a track that focuses more on a lovely lead guitar melody than crushing distortion. With the shortest track length here they unfortunately don’t let you revel in it for long before they lead you into the next track, the end does seem to approach too soon.
If the album hadn’t yet enveloped you in its depressing atmosphere and hardened your heart over its first four tracks, then if Withdrawn can’t nothing will. Despite what’s already gone, it’s easily the bleakest of the bunch, plodding along with a cold despairing march. Natalie’s vocals are hauntingly beautiful over the top of the dense guitars, which change their tone little over the ten minute length, making the despondent feeling in your stomach just build and build as it doesn’t relent. Once again the growls are so drawn out and cold and the synth melodies so beautifully sad it’s hard to imagine a track much more unrelentingly depressing.
Its not an album for those of short attention span, not only for reasons of the album’s 75 minute length, but the melodies and riffs aren’t catchy, and won’t plant themselves in your brain even after multiple listens. But the trudging atmosphere of despair and melancholy is so expertly crafted that it’s an incredible effort on its own terms. It will drag you down and leave you feeling sullen long after the album ends, and when funeral doom hits you so hard you know you’re onto a genre great.