Shape of Despair’s place within the whole of Finnish funeral doom has long been as third fiddle, never releasing an album with the influence and stature of Skepticism’s Stormcrowfleet or Thergothon’s Stream from the Heavens. This is not to say that they have been without their gems; their 2001 opus Angels of Distress is a majestic and harrowing exercise in symphonic funeral doom, with as much beauty as anything in the genre. 2004’s Illusion’s Play, however, fell a bit off the mark. It kept with the general sound of its predecessor, but lacked its peaks and general sense of focus.
This inconsistency in quality might explain the band’s relatively low profile, but a likelier suspect is their general lack of activity over the past 11 years. During that time, the band has only released scattered new material on a compilation, split, and brief EP. Long time death growler Pasi Koskinen (ex-Amorphis) also left the fold, with Henri Koivula (Throes of Dawn) taking his place. And even since this event it has taken the band ample time to write and record their long-awaited fourth full length, Monotony Fields.
Well, if that is the magic number of years it takes Shape of Despair to fully utilize their talents, so be it, because Monotony Fields finally finds them again performing at the level of Angels of Distress. At first glance, if feels as if the general formula is still the same: seemingly simplistic, heavily orchestrated (via keys and synths), and deeply atmospheric doom metal that spends about half its time in the funeral territory, utilizing deep death growls and Natalie Koskinen’s vocals for a dualistic emotional effect. But dig deeper, and one finds the most varied, and possibly most complete album of the band’s career.
It begins with the changes in the vocals. From her first appearance during opener “Reaching the Innermost,” it is clear that Natalie Koskinen is no longer doing a purely operatic delivery. Rather, she has adapted her talent to what is best described as a half wail. She isn’t quite tortured, but she also isn’t quite fully settling, bringing a wonderful ambiguity that even Angels of Distress lacked, and often without saying a word.
Koivula brings a similar variety. His death growls are not quite as deep or punctuated as were those of Pasi Koskinen, but retain the bottom-feeding nature typical of funeral doom. Where he truly separates himself, however, is through his somber cleans. During the chorus (yes, chorus) of “Descending Inner Night,” his duet with Natalie Koskinen offers something particularly special. They aren’t foreshadowing doom, or even expressing fear of it, but rather showing acceptance that the spirals of the end have already begun to turn. It’s a magical effect that only gains weight with further listens, and one of the more obvious ways in which Monotony Fields sees Shape of Despair reaching new heights.
Key to these types of moments is that not one member of the band is ever truly the focus. Sure, sometimes the clean or guttural vocals are in the forefront, and sometimes all you hear is piano or spacy synths, but never do you perceive even the slightest bit of ego or self-indulgence. Koskinen’s chants and wails are no less crucial than each monolithic riff or a simple keyboard countermelody, allowing the fullness of each song and phrase to come across. The whole of the music often conjures the image of a pendulum struggling to get past its mid-point, finding solace in the edges but each time returning to that same point of difficulty. As songs build to climaxes, such as during “Withdrawn,” they do so on this foundation, gradually piling on the layers rather than bringing a sudden burst of intensity. The big moments are as restrained as the small because they must be; anything else would take away from the album’s immersive experience.
This may have been a lesson learned from Angels of Distress, which is greatly elevated by but at the same time never fully recovers from the cathartic brilliance of its title track. While nothing on Monotony Fields quite reaches that same all-the-sins-of-the-world-are-being-washed-away-by-the-blood-of-the-wicked feeling, it is more complete throughout, spicing all of its 75 minutes with memorable passages of wondrous melancholy. Of course, the disclaimer here is that 75 minutes of minimal, largely (you knew it was coming) monotonous funeral-ish doom metal will be far too much for many a listener, but that is fairly par for the course with all but the genre’s most brutal of purveyors (and far shorter than what some of said purveyors typically offer).
For those with an ear for this, album length is rarely an issue. After all, this isn’t something you throw on during rush hour traffic or at a party, but rather during times or sorrow or when immersed in a great, mysterious novel. Monotony Fields is as nightmarishly haunting as it is deeply soothing, and as lost within the abyss as it is soaring among the stars. You might have a hard time convincing a large number of folks of its virtues, but this type of music rarely gets better.