It’s staggering to realise that Finnish sextet Shape of Despair have been travelling their heart-rending road for twenty years. New album Monotony Fields (Season of Mist), the band’s fourth, is their first in eleven years and first without their noted growler Pasi Koskinen. The good news is that Koskinen didn’t take the magic with him.
This is poignant stuff: from the atmospheric synth work building the form of opener ‘Reaching the Innermost’, the immense dirge ‘The Blank Journey’ and devastating closer ‘Written in My Scars’; to the sparing piano intermittently puncturing subtle yet powerful riffs, dropping tears into the soul. With piercing, vertiginous lead chords, and the moving intonations of Natalie Koskinen stopping the guttural growls of Henri Koivula, there’s more than a smattering of the symphonic here. The funeral march pace, however, lends more than enough real gravitas to ensure that the passion is not diluted.
At over 70 minutes’ duration, this is a long trek so the lighter touches serve to enhance and tickle the brain: the evocative, cosmic synth of the title track underpinning the mournful growl and ramping up the emotion rather than urinating on it. The tempo also, hardly relenting, rarely moves above a respectful coffin retinue. The nebulae of ‘Descending Inner Night’, augmented by lead pedal effects, are stellar and supremely emotive – the Anathema-like cleans here chilling the bones, the whole a premier example of an outfit atop their game and as moving as the Liverpudlians to whom they perhaps invoke most comparison. The swell of ‘In Longing’ and the slightly more up-tempo ‘The Distant Dream of Life’ is chest-filling, the contrast of the harsh vocal a delicious melding of tastes, the latter an incredibly touching track and the embodiment of this album’s seeming intent to enlighten and give hope as it simultaneously crushes all resolve.
Often nearing the borders of Cheeseville without ever setting foot inside, Monotony Fields adds a touch of light to the overwhelming darkness of Funeral Doom yet, far from trivialising it, only increases its power to move and intrigue. This is as refreshing as it is heartfelt and affecting.