Immersed in loss,
Despair is a powerful force. It has a gravity that when experienced acutely can be felt as though your insides are being inexplicably drawn through your feet towards some terrible attractor miles below you. It is a fugue state that most of us at some point have found ourselves trapped in, whether through some personally cataclysmic event or the weariness of accumulated disappointments over a lifetime. Indeed, the lack of hope makes an incredibly adept vehicle for artistic expression. Funeral doom by its very nature makes an ideal canvas for an artist to paint their disconsolation, stroke by lamenting stroke. The slowed meter and focus on minor keys mirror the despondent crush of every aching detail by stretching out those moments into infinity. Finland’s Shape of Despair understand this deeply. Now, over 25 years into their existence, they’ve crafted their finest collection of songs with Return To The Void.
Immediately noticeable is the progression in the vocals. Both Henri and Natalie have completely upped their game in delivering enunciated bowel-growls and glorious choral pirouettes, respectively. Natalie is allowed to come into the spotlight more frequently and her layered musings supplement the slow churn below in an act of beautiful surrender. Her placement of these airs is impeccable, and the melodies are immediately affecting; they channel a woe so terrible that the earth itself weeps in response. Listen to the second layer she adds above the line “Feel the distance” that starts at 2:55 in “Return To The Void” to witness a perfect moment of despairing evocation. Her range is solidly contralto, and while the highs are beautifully affecting, the lows are an absolute punch to the gut. Her work on “Dissolution” shows off this range to magnificent effect.
The guitars are also compelling. The palette for tone and color has widened considerably in the seven-year gap between this and Monotony Fields. Both Jarno Salomaa and Tomi Ullgren (both formerly of depression dealers Rapture) play off each other in a despondent synergy that manifests some of the most gorgeous and forlorn landscapes of this band’s career. They frequently use a somber little upper-string descant to lead the slowly marching riffs that form the skeleton of every world-weary composition here, but the way these melodies bleed into the bigger picture is so clever and arresting. Take the instance at 3:51 in “Return To The Void”, where the lead motif starts to slowly manifest at the end of the choral section, or about a minute into “Dissolution”, where it only seems to be half-interested in interacting with the rest of the actors in this aural tragedy.
Furthermore, the disconsolate duo introduce some near post-metal elements to their sound for the first time. This more adventurous spirit in both tone and playstyle has been missing from all albums prior. Listen to the end of “Dissolution” and you will hear beautiful down-tuned minor chords stretched out and sloppily plucked with sustain that gloomily recalls some of the Jesu animus that defined J.K. Broadrick’s earlier releases.
Lyrically, there is so much to grasp onto despite so little being said. The genius lies in the ambiguity, leaving just enough to interface with the listener. When crafting something with this much sheer pathos, overly specific lyrics tend to deaden their own effect. Return To The Void makes no such missteps here, leaving the content completely open to interpretation. All one can intuit is that there is an overwhelming feeling of loss, pained longing, and a desire to be dissolved into nothingness.
Shape of Despair at this late point in their career have created a masterwork with Return To The Void, and one that is sure to be recognized as one of the pillars of this long established subgenre. While the sadness does indeed crush and overwhelm, there’s also a beautiful affirmation that exists here. In that sense, music of this emotional severity acts as an exorcism, forcing us to confront these buried doubts and fears lest they cripple us. It all ends in aching resignation but also opens the door to resolute acceptance of whatever comes. Let go of all that binds you and allow yourself to return to the void.