Shroud of Despondency // Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion
Rating: 4.0/5.0 —Simultaneously beautiful and ugly
Websites: BandCamp | MySpace
Release Dates Digitally: Available Now | Physical: Feb. 12th, 2011 – Worldwide
Some say that the album is dead. And no, by this I don’t mean vinyl, because for all but the biggest audiophiles vinyl really is dead. I mean the album; a set of interconnected songs that form a whole, that induce you to sit and listen to them all and enjoy. Every truly monumental record is one of those kinds of records, one that should make you want to sit down and listen and just feel that swelling in the chest, or whatever you feel when you find something that really hits home. Few live up to this these days and I think there are several reasons for this, though, I’ll save those for another time. But Shroud of Despondency‘s Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion is one such record, a cohesive whole and a supremely honest offering which, for all its warts, is a tremendous piece of work.
Shroud of Despondency is the brainchild of the upper peninsula of Michigan’s finest Rory Heikkila, and it’s a project that has been solo for years now. While the Shroud discography contains a lot of demos and splits, Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion is the third full-length from the band and the first with a full lineup, from near this Angry Metal Guy’s old stomping grounds in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since the early material, Shroud has been about a combination of melodic black metal and acoustics in a way that I think is kind of similar to Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch, of course, to the acoustic approach of Empyrium, Ulver and Shining, that is to say beautiful (the former) and largely tracked and harmonized (the latter two).
It is this very atmosphere and the use of acoustic music that holds Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion together and makes it a cohesive whole. The record opens with an acoustic track, “Seeing One Last Ray of Light” and the tracks “Sybil” and “Flicker of the Ardent Light” very much work as glue to piece together the riffy, melodic heavy tracks and make them flow and fit together. What this does, in my opinion, is it also adds an emotional aspect to the record that one just does not find on a lot of death and black metal records. The use of alternative instrumentation as well, from the sound of it a cello, pianos, accordion, flute and some keyboards, in both the heavy parts and acoustic parts helps with the atmosphereâ€”making this material moving, as well as showing off the eclectic tastes of the creators.
The rest of this album is what I would call melodic, depressive black metal. It is highly atmospheric, with sort of a foggy production and with vocals that are wrenching screams, reminiscent of Lifelover or Shining at times. The whole record has a very organic sound to it and while, for some, this might not be something they’re really into, this really appeals to me. That atmosphere, combined with the pure riffing genius that Shroud of Despondency is known for, makes the heavy tracks on here great. Normally I go through my favorite songs on an album and talk about what it is that makes them great, but there isn’t a song on here that I don’t think has at least one fantastic riff in it, and they all have great solos, fantastic guitar harmonies and memorable melodies. My favorite track on the whole record is probably “Parting of the Way,” and I think it showcases what the band does best.
All of that said, however, I need to warn you that there are some things that might hold people back from my levels of enthusiasm about this album. Firstly, I’ve heard more than one comment about the extreme vocals, and I admit that they’re unusual but I think they’re unique and after a couple of listens they grew on me. I, personally, had some pretty serious complaints about the clean vocals on here. Not only are they stylistically not exactly my thing, they are simply off in a few places. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who heard that and cringed. But that attitude towards the vocals, that is to say the “well, I sing flat, so be it,” is also part of what makes this material great. Depression, despair and isolation are horrible, ugly, imperfect things, and this record for all its imperfections also showcases exactly that and is successful for it. Give it your time and see if it grips you like it gripped me.