Artist: Shape Of Despair
Album Title: Return To The Void
Label: Season Of Mist
Date of Release: 25 February 2022
With the release of three full-length albums in four years around the turn of the Millennium, Shape Of Despair began like a train. However, more in keeping with their funeral doom metal output, things have slowed down since, with just one further album seeing the light of day, ‘Monotony Fields’ in 2015.
Formed in Finland in 1998, the sextet can be forgiven for taking their time though, because many of them have interests elsewhere in the heavy metal world, being part of bands like Finntroll, Impaled Nazarene, and Throes Of Dawn to name just three. But now, in 2022, we are presented with album number five, ‘Return To The Void’, and by and large, it is well worth the seven-year wait. In fact, being reasonably unfamiliar with past offerings, it took about two minutes before I knew that I would like this record and had to review it. It’s just a shame that the promo came to me so late in the day, meaning that it was impossible to bring you my thoughts before its release.
‘Return To The Void’ kicks off in marvellous fashion, with the title track, the first of six epic songs on the album, all of which stretch to beyond eight minutes in length. You’d probably expect no different from a band that explores the funeral doom metal sound, and Shape Of Despair capture my interest with this first composition. From the get-go, the riffs from Jarno Salomaa and Tomi Ullgrén are heavy, lumbering beasts, whilst the drums of Samu Ruotsalainen and bass of Sami Uusitalo work in tandem to lay down a simple, yet powerful beat. Over the top, there’s a solemn melody that carries with it a real elegance and immediacy, enhanced by minimalist keys to maximise the sense of misery and melancholy. When vocalist Henri Koivula enters the fray, he only adds another intense layer to the glacially paced doom and gloom. I’ve heard some deep and threatening growls over the years, but Koivula might just be the lowest, sounding like rubble being dragged reluctantly across concrete, barely audible amongst the bass and guitars. Natalie Koskinen is the perfect foil though, with her dreamy, mellifluous approach, offering a counterpoint, and adding a touch more melodic intent to the song. It’s a beautiful song, it really is.
Unfortunately, there is a ‘but’ and it pains me to say it. But, as beautiful as the music honestly is, across the hour-long album, I just don’t feel like there is quite enough variety or, more accurately, not quite enough distinction between the songs. Shape Of Despair have a plan, and that’s to bludgeon the listener with heavy and relentless doom metal; to crush the soul and pull everyone into the exquisite darkness. And, certainly for the first three songs or so, it works an absolute treat. However, as the album plods on, I find that the music tends to start sounding very similar, leading me to check the tracklisting frequently to see which of the six songs I’m listening to. The compositions are always executed with style and professionalism, but after a while, they start to bleed into one homogenous mass of anguish and suffering.
But as I mentioned, the first half of the record cannot be ignored. ‘Dissolution’, the second track picks up where the opener left off, and it is hard not to be utterly beguiled by the fragile melodies that sit at the heart of the composition, whilst all around is brutal, stark, and about as forlorn as it’s ever going to get. Just when I thought I was pulling myself out of a period of hopeless depression, along comes Shape Of Despair to tempt me back to the enticing, intoxicating misery of human emotion. And it is enticing because in the world of these Finns, sorrow can sound so beautiful and poignant.
At just over eleven minutes, ‘Solitary Downfall’ uses every last minute to wear down every last barrier that the listener may have erected in order to stave off the claustrophobic darkness that Shape Of Despair bring forth. The band know no other pace than dead slow, as the song lumbers forth with implacable determination in the face of such woe. For me, the song comes more to life in the second half thanks to a slightly more pronounced melodic intent; in keeping with other songs, the melody is subtle, but the haunting vocals just elevate the composition to a point where it is impossible for it not to get under the skin, and break hearts in the process.
From then on, the remainder of the album, as good as it is, begins to feel a little like a war of attrition. The pace rarely varies, the overall atmosphere remains static, and a mild stagnation begins to set in. The quality of the musicianship never lowers, the melodies continue in the same subtle, understated manner, and it’s very much business as usual. I just feel like I need something a little more; something more pronounced to keep my attention fully trained on the music and to prevent my mind from wandering just a little. Again, I feel incredibly mean for suggesting such an opinion, but honesty is the best policy.
For large parts of ‘Return To The Void’, I’m captivated and held in thrall by some exquisite funeral doom that’s elegant and majestic, as well as crushingly heavy both musically and emotionally. With a smidgen more variety across the album, we’d easily be looking at a masterpiece of melodic funeral doom metal. As it is, with ‘Return To The Void’, Shape Of Depair have delivered a very good album that just falls short of legendary status. Nevertheless, if you enjoy having your word turned a darker shade of grey, this might be album that you’re searching for in order to provide succour to your blackened heart.
The Score of Much Metal: 82%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: