If sitting alone in a darkened room, lighting a few candles, uncorking a good claret, and settling in for an uninterrupted hour of beauteous funeral doom sounds like your idea of a fun night in, you’re probably already a fan of Shape of Despair. If this ritual appeals but you’re not familiar with the band, I suggest you book yourself some alone time at the next available opportunity so you can perform it with their second album, Angels of Distress. Actually feel free to choose any of their prior records; their standards are consistently high. When picking your preferred platter of pain, you will notice that, despite their relatively prolific early career, there are no full-lengths to choose from post-2004 (2010’s eleven minute long EP is hardly suitable for your solo ceremony). So the news that they would be releasing a new album in 2015 left me pert with anticipation.
Now, I think that pretty much anything played excruciatingly slowly can sound amazing so bear that in mind for the remainder of the review, but the opening half hour of this record – especially “Reaching the Innermost” – is some of the most pulchritudinous heavy music I’ve heard this decade. Contrary to many of their funeral doom peers, Shape of Despair eschew crushing heaviness and evil atmospheres in favor of pure, tragic beauty. Harmonically they have more in common with Swallow the Sun, Saturnus, or perhaps even Amorphis than they do with Skepticism, Thergothon or Ahab, even if speed-wise they are closer to those latter acts. The combination of simple, gorgeous chord progressions and painful slowness is wonderfully beautiful and surprisingly accessible, and the opening three tracks showcase this style at its absolute zenith.
In addition to the standard guitar, bass, and drums combination, Shape of Despair make heavy use of synths, both to add a warm, velvet texture and to accentuate particular melodies and harmonies. New vocalist Henri Koivula (also in Throes of Dawn) possesses an otherworldly deep growl that manages to conjure feelings of abject despair without any of the harsh aggression of prior singer Pasi Koskinen, and suits the underlying music perfectly. His occasional clean vocals add a bit of variety, but I would have preferred to hear more of Natalie Koskinen’s singing instead. Her simple, haunting melodies are rare highlights, fitting in perfectly alongside the luscious synths. The production is excellent – warm and dense but clear, again similar to the more commercial end of doom than the swampy mush that is often associated with the genre.
Unfortunately, Monotony Fields falls short of greatness for the same reason that plagues many doom albums: it lacks diversity. Funeral doom is one of metal’s most limited sub-genres: it’s necessarily slow, long and drawn out, so you run the risk of inducing boredom if you can’t find some creative way to keep the listener’s mind from wandering. On previous records, Shape of Despair used a greater variety of both tempos and moods, but here they simply attempt to compose music so painfully beautiful that the monotony isn’t an issue. It almost works, because after the first few tracks you feel like you’ll never want to listen to anything else ever again, such is the skill with which they craft their gorgeous tragedies. But naturally a few less-inspired riffs creep in, the relentlessly similar tempos and harmonies start to drag, and you begin to yearn for a change in mood or pace. That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful moments later in the album – the end of “The Blank Journey,” the dying moments of album closer “Written in my Scars,” and all of “In Longing” in particular are equal to any moment in the leading few songs – but the record is definitely front-loaded, which emphasizes the music’s repetitiveness later on.
Despite this, Monotony Fields is a fine addition to Shape of Despair‘s excellent discography. I can confirm it is an entirely suitable accompaniment to a solitary candles-n-wine night even if it does drag on a little. Think of it this way – it’s so long, you can possibly fit in two bottles before it ends. Now that is thoughtful album writing.