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I once had a conversation with a young lady that revolved around our respective preferences in music, and I declared, with a slight amount of pride, that I had an affinity for dark, depressing music. Naturally, she could not understand why I would choose to listen to something so miserable in tone and not something happier and upbeat. I suppose that, given my own experiences with depression, I would be drawn to such things in music, but I could never understand why people are so reluctant to explore the darker side of life in music. And when I want to do just that, the first album I reach for is "Angels of Distress" by Shape of Despair. I do not give out 100% scores easily, but this album is just so utterly perfect in the evoking everything funeral doom SHOULD evoke that I cannot find fault with it at all.
Quite simply, this album is "the" soundtrack to depression, loneliness, and pain. Sure, bands like Anathema, My Dying Bride or Forgotten Tomb can write depressing as hell lyrics, but Angels of Distress stands alone as the only album that truly captures the essence of depression in the music and songwriting itself. If you've ever experienced the misery of true depression, the emotions and atmosphere evoked by this album will be very familiar to you. This album is pain and misery incarnate, but not the everyday melancholy of existence, and certainly not the "oh, my girlfriend dumped me" kind of pain. No, Shape of Despair, being true to their name, have created an album from the deepest, most unbearable suffering. This is the kind of pain you feel when you have lost everything dear to you and when there is absolutely no hope, no joy, and no happiness left in life.
Angels of Distress begins with opener "Fallen," which starts out with a sinister keyboard line before a mammoth-sized riff crushes whatever hope and joy you had left into dust, yet this track is merely a taste of what is to come. From the moment the title track begins, the listener is carried away by the grinding guitars, the deeply growled vocals of Pasi Koskinen and the ethereal vocals of Natalie Koskinen, which add an almost angelic quality to the proceedings. Combining all these elements together, Angels of Distress perfectly captures the sluggish, miserable, weighted-down feeling of depression, with compositions that ebb and flow but never become boring or repetitive. There's a noticeable classical influence here as well, from the piano opening to "Quiet These Paintings Are" which sounds reminiscent of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, to the violin pieces that provide an elegant counterpoint to the crushing guitar riffs. Keyboards are used tastefully, and never overshadow the guitars or become intrusive. Every instrument is in the exact place it should be; there is no passage that feels too long, too short, or out of place.
The overall image I get when listening to Angels of Distress is being utterly alone in a dark winter's forest underneath a moonless night sky, totally separated from all sources of light, warmth, and happiness. Or when I hear "Quiet These Paintings Are" I imagine myself sitting alone in a darkened manor, looking at the paintings on the wall and imagining all the people I've loved who are now gone. It's this incredible ability to evoke images and emotions that sets Angels of Distress apart from other doom metal offerings, and no place is this more apparent than the 17-minute "...To Live For my Death." It begins with a haunting string melody which then progresses into what has to be the saddest, most despairing melody I've ever heard. Whatever feelings of hope or happiness that you have left will be utterly swept away, and when you hear the first line, "all life...will be gone...soon..." you can just FEEL the hopelessness and despair in the singer's voice, and when Pasi sings "nothing left to feel...nor to understand" he truly sounds as if he's lost the will to live entirely. The album finally comes to end with the instrumental closing track "Night's Down" that's the fastest song on the album, and the only track that provides a ray of hope in contrast to the inescapable blackness that has come before. Contrary to what one might think, when I finish listening to this album, I do not feel depressed or miserable. Rather, the whole experience is quite cathartic, and whenever I'm feeling down and depressed I know precisely what album to listen to.
In terms of production, Angels of Distress is almost flawless. The guitars have the perfect combination of crunch and heaviness, the drums have crispness and force behind them, and everything is mixed at just the right level. For a funeral doom album, I could not ask for better production than this.
If you're the sort of person who's turned off by relentlessly depressing music, than you won't enjoy this, obviously. But if you're drawn to the darker emotions of life, then I challenge you to find a more sorrowful, depressing album out there.