Funeral doom, from the outside at least, sometimes feels like it must be on the verge of dying out thanks to a conceptual gene pool that makes UKIP policy look broad minded. As a sub-genre within a sub-genre, its sheer plodding box-ticking mix of heaviness and mournful rapture is not so much the problem as is the variation from band to band that is to musical evolution what the geological effects of time and the elements are to landscapes – glacial, Incremental and virtually imperceptible to anyone without patience and the right frame of mind. But, once you settle in, those seismic events designed to set your hairs on end are, more often than not, there to be witnessed with appropriate awe. Yes, some funeral doom bands are committed to absolute, lightless misery. But more frequently there are soaring rushes of self-flagellating, mournful joy or even the jaw-dropping lightness of transcendence. By way of introduction to veteran Finnish doomsters Shape of Despair, there’s definitely a distinct dichotomy forming between a blackened, perhaps more psychedelic camp of funeral doom and a more purist, doomy style which provides a mixture of blissed-out early Candlemass played at half speed with death metal vocals. Shape of Despair falls very firmly in the latter camp of classic funeral doom but distinguishes itself through the use of some dreamy, mournful vocals – courtesy of Depressed Mode singer Natalie Koskinen – that provide an extra ecclesiastical edge to the existential end-of-the-line mood that the band encapsulates.
The band’s links to the mighty and unique sounds of Impaled Nazarene and Finntroll should not be overestimated. Monotony Fields is a linear journey along a path that feels a little familiar at times. But the path is filled with some very appealing scenery – all wilting and crumbling into greying dust, of course. But lush keyboards and massive slabs of guitar are everywhere to be found and superbly supported by the deep growls and clean vocals of Henri Koivula which are brought to bear into enveloping moments of monumental intensity that deliver exactly what is intended. This is classic funeral doom very well done. The final crushing blow on your lonely, emotionally bereft soul are the female vocals which drift in just as you feel like you can’t take anymore of those weighty, gravity magnifying riffs. And then, despite my occasional cynical doubts to all things funeral doom, I’m pulled into the smoothly crafted trajectory like some drifting astral body into a black hole – slowly, very very slowly, it’s too late to change course.
Over the entire 76 minutes I would guess I’d have difficulty finding any sign posts or directions if I was dropped without warning at any point into one of the 10 minute tracks. But, as with so much funeral doom, the effect of Shades of Despair is as successfully executed as it is genuine. Not a million miles away from the rest of the band’s output but then I think we addressed all that at the beginning. Twenty years in funeral doom is but a sigh of eternal resignation to a titan. Perhaps this time round there is perhaps a marginal and barely perceptible degree of refinement and restraint. If you stop for an hour or two you can almost see it. I must admit, Monotony Fields occasionally feels like chill-out music for the death metal generation but if there’s a bar somewhere in Ibiza selling Malbec in crystal glasses and playing this on rotation at full-blast as the sun sets over the Balearic Sea, then I’m in.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)