In much of the northern hemisphere there is a chill in the air today as the seasons shift into winter, but not solely for that reason. You probably know other reasons for the intensifying chills across our skins that have nothing to do with air temperature, rain, wind, or snow. We live in a frightening and perilous time. The conjunction of the misery and anxiety spawned by what goes on around us and the inexorable sinking into winter makes this day a nearly perfect occasion for the revelation of Shattered Hope‘s new album Vespers.
And it truly is a revelation, one of the most completely immersive and emotionally powerful albums you’re likely to encounter this year. It consists of five extensive tracks that collectively exceed an hour in length. Despite their length, each track is so brilliantly crafted, and embodies so many gripping changes, that getting lost in them is almost inescapable. The entire experience is tragic, as one might expect from this Greek band, who have become so well-known in the halls of atmospheric doom-death and funeral doom, but the album’s monumental visions of devastating moods are magnificent.
And we are thus tremendously fortunate to present a full stream of Vespers today, just days before its November 6 release through the esteemed Solitude Productions.
It might be trite to speak of Vespers as a grand tapestry of sound, but the metaphor is still a fitting one. The album is such a tremendous success because Shattered Hope are so adept at drawing together different instrumental sensations and such a wide range of voices. There are, of course, common elements among all the songs, but in each one the band reveal new surprises. You won’t know what they will be, but your eyes will open wide when they occur. And the surprises aren’t gratuitous or forced. Nothing here sounds overtly calculated. Everything simply fits together naturally, as a way of creating a particular mood or visceral experience.
Much could be written about the lyrics and recitals within the songs, which Solitude briefly describes as “a thought-provoking philosophical dialogue with eternity, expressed through deep texts hiding references to the classics.” Focusing on the well-formed words, which are not always intelligible in the music, creates another dimension of the album experience that should not be missed, but by way of further introduction, we’ll just focus on the music. At the risk of tedium, and at the risk of spoiling some of the surprises, I’ll share my own impressions. But of course, feel completely free to skip to the end of this page and begin playing the album. Just be sure you have an hour to devote to it, because this is a record that really needs to be heard straight through.
1 In Cold Blood
A warning and the crack of a gun begin “In Cold Blood”, which then shudders the senses through a deep drilling riff, pulsing bass notes, and reverberating drum booms. The riff shifts into a mix of buzzing menace and jolting jabs, joined by vicious growling vocals and eerie, gleaming filaments of sound. There’s a sudden shift into silky ambience over a slow, seductive rhythm, setting the stage for a fluid, soulful guitar solo. The feeling of celestial mystery is palpable, but the spell proves to be short-lived as the music begins to crash and thunder again, and the vocalist screams in tortured extremity.
Flickering guitar notes create tension within this avalanche of crushing menace. The chords drag, groan, and whine, deepening the mood of horrid calamity, as the drums detonate like precise and deadly munitions. From the lead guitar comes a quivering, wailing lament; from the voice come jagged growls, cold and cruel; and then the music spasms again as the riffing once more generates a drilling sensation, paving the way for an explosive drum performance, which continues to rattle the skull as the music falls into another devastating crawl.
But what draws the song to a close is a piercing guitar harmony that’s sodden with misery, and spoken words. The melody rises in a semblance of pain borne of intense grief, an accompaniment to monstrous growls and final, measured detonations of the drums
Slow and powerful, “Verge” is led by a transfixing guitar melody that seems a mixture of yearning and loss. A deep, jarring bass rhythm becomes the herald for a vocal call-and-response that mixes sad singing and those savage growls. It’s a beautiful, mesmerizing way to begin, but it’s stricken to its core. The pulse of the music does quicken, and its power ascends by an order of magnitude. The beseeching quality of the melody intensifies, and the rhythm eventually moves into a bracing gallop, further accelerated by the intensity of the whirring chords.
But that spurt of energy is snuffed out, and the pace turns into a staggering and night-dark lurch — just the right time for a new vocal element to appear, an attention-seizing Ozzie-esque high wail. Darting fretwork lends the music greater energy, propelling it even further through a flashing, swirling, screaming guitar solo — and when the growls return, they’re stretched to the breaking point by feelings of extravagant emotional pain. That sound is itself spine-tingling.
Another guitar solo shivers in gripping fashion, cycling its spectral motif over and over as the crushing power of the surrounding sounds elevates in a display of terrible grandeur. When that darting riff returns, it seems like a demonic spirit, gleefully forecasting the pile-driving obliteration that draws the song to a close.
Slow, funereal notes announce the haunting, dirge-like opening of this song. Spectral screaming tones and somber spoken words intrude, along with cascades of other sound that wash the music like waves. Without warning, the music erupts, still slow, but crushing. A tandem of sorrowful chant-like (and enchanting) singing and roaring howls help pitch the music’s bleak intensity even higher. The song creates an atmosphere of frightening eminence, but also slugs with spine-shaking vehemence.
The sound of the lead guitar occasionally worms its way through the clobbering rhythms and moaning chords, and that sound is both gripping and unnerving. The riffing turns to a dismal buzzing emanation over a thunderous percussive outburst, segmented by a mewling guitar instrumental and then accented by an exotic but disturbing surge of fretwork frenzy.
Bursts of blaring melody combine with brutish, skull-smashing percussive pounding, yet while the song’s physically arresting rhythms continue unabated, the soaring guitar melody becomes a fluid climb toward a sunburst of agony.
4 Towards The Land Of Deception
The slow pulse of organ-like tones and yet another new vocal element begin “Towards The Land Of Deception”. The vocals are crystalline and exotic, wavering and ringing like the voices of spirits lost in the ether (in fact, it’s not completely clear that these are human voices at all). The effect is stunning, and those paranormal wailing vibrations persist even after the drums begin to crack and hammer and the depth-charge might of the dragging chords vibrate your teeth. Truly abyssal growls slowly enunciate the words, and together with the glacial pace and withering low-end melody they make the song an unmistakable paragon of funeral doom — but it’s those high phantasm tones that will likely linger the longest in your memory.
The growls erupt in cries, a new guitar motif begins to flicker, and the song swells to apocalyptic proportions, only to recede again as yet another repeating guitar motif takes over, like frail hands raised in supplication, seeking succor that never comes. Heads will move when the drummer declares a back-beat and the chords grimly slash, but a blending of spoken words, crashing guitar majesty, groaning low-frequency vibrations, and febrile fretwork create a crescendo that’s both stunning and mesmerizing.
5 The Judas Tree
The bridge between “Towards the Land of Deception” and “The Judas Tree”, which closes the album, is seamless. It’s a fashioning of eerie pulsating tones that create an otherworldly chill. Shimmering celestial lights enhance the feeling that we’ve been carried away into a different dimension than the one we know, even though the drummer’s body blows and the vocalists’ harsh growls and anguished cries strike at a visceral level. The combined effect really is deeply chilling.
When those high unearthly sounds recede, they’re replaced by a grieving piano melody and a brief paroxysm of destructiveness, but they eventually return, along with the most wrenching vocal torments. The band again use the piano and subdued spoken words to create a spell of sorrow, and then lengthen that with the long reverberation of desolate notes when the drums vanish. When the drums and vocals return, it’s to announce another episode of crushing funeral doom whose devastating resonance is emotionally fracturing.
What follows is something like a slow march through blasted terrain, all the instruments joining together with terrifying snarls to plunge the soundscape into utter hopelessness. Yet solemn singing and the sound of sweeping strings elevate the song into a form of cold, alabaster beauty — a formation of tragic majesty on an exalted scale. The pace drops into a heaving stagger; the music rhythmically bellows like some great leviathan finding its way to the bone-yard of its kind. A soloist makes his instrument weep through those vast exhalations of death — one more spell of sadness from Shattered Hope before they end this magnificent album.
If you listen to the album, you will likely have different mental images and different emotional reactions, and it will undoubtedly spawn different memories, than what you might have just read above. But I’ll venture to say that if you’re any kind of fan of death-doom or funeral doom Vespers will still make a tremendously favorable impact as one of the best albums of its kind that 2020 has produced. It’s available for pre-order now: