It has come to this
Family mansion for this life
Family tomb for the next
Shroud of Despondency have done it to me again. Last November, not knowing much about the band, I decided to devote just a few minutes to their new EP, Defective Overpass, just to see what it was like. And the music promptly shoved all my other plans over the side and wouldn’t let me alone until I had gotten my thoughts about it up on this site.
I found out yesterday that the band’s final album, Family Tomb, is now available on Bandcamp. I thought I was better prepared this time, having heard the EP. But I wasn’t. And here I am again, unable to do anything else I had planned to do until I’ve spilled my thoughts all over this page.
I haven’t listened to the album as much as I should, and I haven’t spent as much time writing this review as I should — but I have to tell you about this album, and I need to do it now.
As I mentioned, it is a final album, a last hurrah before the band’s composer, lyricist, and instrumental performer Rory Heikkila turns his talents in a different direction. In his words, “It was recorded on shit equipment and was treated very much as a DIY affair…. I decided that this album just needed to be raw, dark, and imperfect.” It is indeed all those things — and it’s also brilliant.
There are three ingredients that make it so remarkable, but before turning to those let’s get one thing out of the way: The sound really is rough and raw. As Rory Heikkila explains, “it was recorded on a desk top computer using one mic, one 2 channel mixer, and very old recording programs.” “It was not mastered. All clipping, distortion, and otherwise ‘offensive’ recording practices were kept.”
It’s grimy and distorted to the point that it sounds like the music is being filtered through a haze of plutonium-235 decay, like it was recorded at Chernobyl instead of a room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
And yet that rough sound is part of the charm of this recording (and I use “charm” in a very loose sense). The music is dense to begin with — there are so many fascinating layers in the music, so much compounding of tracks, that I would like to be able to pick them out and focus on each one. The recording quality utterly defeats that mission, and yet it also seems to suit the desolate, despairing, self-destructive mood of the music.
(Even so, I’d like to register my vote for a professionally mastered and remixed version of this album with at least a somewhat sharper, more separated sound, just to hear all that’s happening more distinctly — even if, in the end, I probably wouldn’t like it as much.)
With that out of the way… I go back to those three signal ingredients.
First, there are the lyrics. I start with them, despite the fact that the words are mostly indecipherable when you listen, because they are the map to the emotional content of the music. The sound reflects the mood of the words. And the words are eloquent and powerful, despite how utterly dark, depressive, and angry they are. They reflect alienation, suffering, and resignation. They reflect a yearning for solitude and escape…
And yet they seem equally driven by an unquenchable anger fueled by a sense of betrayal — betrayal by the empty promises of religion more than anything else, a shattering of hopes and dreams that leads to a devastating kind of strength, a kind of resignation to a hopeless future in which our impermanent spirits belong only to ourselves. Here are excerpts from the lyrics to some of the songs:
Mother Earth and Father God breed only disgrace
Pray for new vacancy
Bring it to me
The kindness that stings and burns in the shade
The belief that sinks into the stomach of love
The fraud, the decay, of life
Let me imagine it can smile
Then let me poison it from beneath
Please allow me to seethe and to wallow in the thoughts of
I am no longer delicate
I am strength personified and I crave defeat
It has come to this
No longer intricate
I am an animal amongst animals awaiting retreat
Aided by spirituality
I raise my head, I clench my fists, I make a path divine
Hatred of self is reverence but too much time I’ve spent amongst the swine
I cloister myself on the coldest of mountains
I cloister myself in hellish winds
I cloister myself in enlightening shadows
Forever withdrawn within
The bread being promised has turned to mold
All promises from the sick gods, the meek, and the old
No gods, just the will to dissect
The meaninglessness of life.
If the wind took the Gods, their statues, their men
Then, without force, it too will reap me
Throw me in with the dry idols
The dry idols call my name
Arid beneath the deluge
I join them, but not to honor them
To be where I belong
Dead amongst the dead Gods
In defiance of the living ones
Here, within, lies the illusion.
The chance we’ve given to a future upon a horizon.
Chasing the sunrise and arriving as it sets,
No choice but to suffer the night.
And there’s a lot more where that came from. The words alone pack a wallop… but when you add the vocals and the music to them…
And that brings me to the second ingredient — the instrumental music on the album. It’s a match for the lyrics. This is one of the year’s bleakest, blackest, most bombastic albums — it’s emotionally wrenching, but it’s so well-executed that it’s transfixing. Rory Heikkila explained that for this final Shroud of Despondency album he purged various influences that had seeped into the project over the years since he started it:
“It needed to be unarguably a Black Metal album and it needed to do away with certain other elements that had crept in over the years. Death metal, progressive metal, and acoustic folk music were largely forsaken because black metal is still probably the most emotive form of music a person with my disposition can create.”
The music is dissonant and dire, with riffs that lash and spiral off in deranged tangents. It’s intense and dramatic. It builds tension like a ratchet torquing bolts to the breaking point. The keyboard orchestrations (at least I think synthesizers are what I’m hearing) build like thunderheads and then explode, with torrents of sound that come down like a deluge, backed by the accompanying howl of wind and the boom of thunder.
It’s piercingly forceful music, often infernally majestic, sometimes conveying the pomp and circumstance of a stately processional, yet more often harrowing, haunted, and destructive. And the atmosphere is suffused with aching melancholy and shrouded in a heavy cloak of doom and abandonment. Yet in almost every song, there are lead guitar or keyboard motifs of striking emotive power (and sometimes beauty), repeated to the point where they become branded in your head.
The album’s final track, “Blessed Suffering” is particularly transfixing in its use of Eastern melody, something like the spell cast by a snake charmer, with the distorted keys of a piano or harpsichord or something that sounds like mandolin making a riveting impact (did I mention that the sound is so distorted that I’m not even sure what I was hearing?).
The drumming is also really impressive. For an album of soul-tearing, bombastic black metal, there are surprisingly few passages of full-on blasting. There are more rocking backbeats and bone-rattling timpani booms than high-caliber machine-gun bursts, and the choice of percussive patterns is ingenious.
The third ingredient is the vocal performance of Ron Blemberg. His harsh shrieks sound like an attacking panther, and when he’s doing that he reminds me of Agalloch’s John Haughm. But he also drops into horrific, heartless roars that become even more cold and inhuman when they’re doubled in the tracking. Sometimes his acid shrieks and his horrid growls are themselves layered together, and that’s enough to congeal blood in the veins.
Those vocals bring an added intensity to the music. Even when the repeating melodic motifs could become mesmerizing if left to themselves, the vocals are a constant reminder that you’re on the edge of everything falling apart.
Okay, I guess I’ve had my say. I’ve got these thoughts out of my system now — but not the music. The music stays where it lodged the first time I heard it — riveted to the inside of my skull. I’m really sorry this is the last Shroud of Despondency album. If I hear another album this emotionally powerful in 2015, I’ll be surprised. Hope you find time to check it out.