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I’m not sure why people consistently refer to Shape of Despair as funeral doom. If Illusion’s Play is any indication, the band seems to be drifting into more gothic and ambient influences. While not alarming or unfortunate on its own, this fact might disappoint those looking for a more by the books doom release. All in all, Illusion’s Play contains a lot of interesting elements mired by an awkward execution.
The first thing you’ll notice about Illusion’s Play is the heavy handed use of keyboards. The key segments in the two 10 minute plus tracks literally consume half that time and is totally unnecessary. Repetitive keyboard fluff does not automatically equal hauntingly captivating atmospheres of despair. It equals ambient raw sewage. Consider, however, the fact that several of the tracks meld into one another seamlessly and in a sense create a cohesive song broken into parts, and the 8-9 minutes keyboard segments make more sense. While some may find this artistically compelling, fans hungering for more substance will not. The downside to this is that it is difficult to tell one song from the next.
Illusion’s Play thankfully delivers beautiful moments where things come together for excellent results. Pasi at times vocalizes in a subdued clean way with Natalie for some haunting harmonies. Pasi is also not afraid to show off his versatility. His unusually understandable growls make a return and sound better than ever. The drumming may be the standard fare for a doom release, but the guitars punch through everything to produce powerful riffs that stretch on for great anguished lengths. They even manage to stand out on their own at times against those annoying keys for some emotional leads.
And all those good things are part of the problem. There are not enough instances of them. ‘Entwined in Misery’ and ‘Curse Life’ have an atmosphere all their own; one of pain and sadness. And you can feel it. The keyboards and guitars harmonize remarkably well on ‘Entwined in Misery’ and the guitars burst with really engaging segments on ‘Curse Life.’ ‘Fragile Emptiness’ shows what happens when a proper balance between all these elements is achieved and no one instrument over powers another. This track is consistent and droning in all the good ways. But all this is nearly blown apart by those excruciatingly long keyboard segments. Too much fat, not enough meat.
If you want straightforward doom metal, avoid Illusion’s Play. You won’t find enough here to satisfy your palette. If you can look past the gaping holes left by over long keyboard segments and enjoy the good work left behind, you might find something to captivate you if only for a little while. Shape of Despair left us with one album definitely not meant for everyone.
This release is not what one would expect from SoD. This is a sad effort. I will currently list the myriad of things wrong with this album and explain later. Problems: tempo (too fast), too much filler, too many major chords, tempo, female and male (clean) vocal harmonies, lack of creativity, seems like they have lost their sound. The ups of this album were few, but definitely notable. First of all the guttoral vocals were superb; the words were understandable most of the time, and yet they are some of the lowest i have experienced in the metal genre as a whole. So that part about the album was quite fantastic, the production was phenominal as well. Another notable upside was surely some of the solitary guitar leads, some very nice sad melodies, however, the absence of creativity effected most of them.
Now to the criticism. First of all, who said one can use fucking 16th notes in Funeral Doom?!? Moreover, who said one can use 16th notes in SoD?!? FUCK! There was too much speed on this album! It felt like the structure of the songs were more in the vein of pop music, in terms of how they were arranged, by no means musically, mind you. Anyways, with regard to the vocals, as i said they were good, the general sound and clarity, yes. HOWEVER, vocals were used too profusely throughout the album, and throughout the course of each song. The way they were arranged was a much more "poppy" style of arrangement, especially vocal arrangement. SoD on previous albums used the vocals sparingly, and that worked to their advantage because it aided the depressive atmosphere they created - in this album, there was barely a glimpse of a depressive mood. Angels of Distress was a fantastic album, SoD tackled that perfectly. They created this atmosphere of spacy depression, a kind of ethereal alternate plane of depressive existence, if you will. This album had none of that.
TOO MUCH FILLER! Goddamn those keyboards. Take it easy on the fucking filler. There was so much of that, and so little of the actual music. It is unacceptable for SoD. 5 minutes of the same goddamn key line with little variations? Come on. 2-3, maybe 3:30 min, somewhere it has to stop. It seemed like SoD was using the keys as a way to span the songs as long as or longer that 10 mins, which is unacceptable, if you are gonna go long then doom the listener with ALL the instruments for that long. Some of the key lines were good, but they would have been better if used sparingly, and interspersed with the music more. This inclusion of filler alludes to the fact that the band did not put a lot of time into this release. Another thing that alluded to that fact was the major chords. In Funeral Doom you can't have that many major chords except if you are Monolithe. SoD does not benefit from the major chords, and it hurt this album greatly. I must say also that the use of keys on this album was comparitively futile with regards to Angels of Distress and Shades Of... The keys seemed to not be cohesive for the most part with the rest of the music, as if the keys were just more filler to give some kind of back drop (like i said, easy on the filler). Speaking of keys and filler and the like, they could have taken out the instrumental for track 1.
There seemed to be little creativity with the drumming, and little with the guitars and bass. This new style of clean vocals male and female, while it didn't work with the music (at all), it was semi-creative. It seemed like they just put that there because they could do it physically, not because it worked with the mood of the song, CD, and not to mention the band. When i first heard the harmonizing on track 2, i said to myself, SoD has gone downhill, this album will be a failure. It wasn't a failure, but it wasn't great either. If the band had taken out the m/f harmony at the beginning of track 2, and had taken out the 5+ mins of key filler at the end of the song, it easily would be the best song on the cd. However, as it stands, track 6 is the best in my oppinion (the female vox worked suprisingly well there).
All in all I think that SoD is going downhill, unless their next release is fantastic. Their sound has been watered down and bastardized by their own attempt to be "diverse." In anycase, this album gets a 67 (a fairly generous rating) because of the vocals, some of the key lines (which would have been better if they weren't drawn out), the (few good) solitary guitar leads, and the fact that it is just doomy enough to pass as some sort of semblance of Funeral Doom.
DOOM OR BE DOOMED... but for fucks sake try to do both.
I believe Pasi Koskinen is among the top 5 most versatile vocalists in metal ever. While he probably isn't even close to such single-style superlatives as "most brutal" or "best clean singer" titles, he seems to control all possible shades of male vocals from the clean singing he has displayed in Amorphis, via the extremely coarse abrasiveness of Ajattara, to the death grunts and growls on other, older Amorphis releases. Even the more grinding hardcore-tinged brutalism of To Separate The Flesh From The Bones seems to be a natural task for him, although in my ranking, Ajattara has the most throat-scraping, cheese-grater-swallowing vocals Koskinen has ever done. This band, Shape Of Despair, gives him the opportunity to display his prowess in the very opposite ends of the spectrum, from the coarse blackish to the clean "choir-boy" singing.
I've never been a really great fan of doom metal. I did listen to quite a lot of Candlemass in the late 80's and early 90's, but somehow, even they, the grand masters of doom, couldn't ignite a real interest in the genre. Ancient Dreams was a good attempt in utilizing the idea of a slow, dooming atmosphere, but it still lacked the spark that I need to really get interested in something; to me, Candlemass seemed to be trapped in its own idea of slowness, making basically good music, but ultimately unable to squeeze the last, sweetest drop of effect from the concept. Now, Shape Of Despair finally finds that spark, with a relatively obvious recipe: they give up the too restricting setup of a pure metal band, and add other instruments, several vocal styles, and outstanding keyboards to create a true atmospheric feeling of sadness and despair. I must admit I love it.
A considerable portion of the Illusion's Play consists of slow keyboard parts, even to the extent that makes me question whether they keyboards are the main instrument of the band. As can be expected in any kind of doom metal, the guitars, bass and drums never achieve any fireworks of virtuocity, but simply provide a solid foundation to build on, and the keyboards then do the building. After that, the extremely atmospheric vocals finish the whole. In addition to the basic metal line-up and keyboards, a violin and a kantele (remember Amorphis) are included, all this adding up to a magnificient total. These alien instruments aren't overused; in my very, very humble opinion, a violin used all the way through a metal album usually gets annoying and loses its novelty effect, resulting in a diminshed will to listen to the album again.
How to describe the sound and music? Well, it would be easy to say that the album consists of slow, semi-ambient doom metal with a lot of different instruments, synths and several vocal styles; layers of slow keyboards often turn music into hypnotic and ambient. That doesn't happen here, however, as the music is simply too good to remain in ambience. If you put Illusion's Play in the player, you're bound to listen to it, it refuses to stay in the background and demands attention. The things I felt were missing in the Ancient Dreams are there, the slowness and sadness of the music has been turned into a strength instead of a voluntary penalty box to remain inside. Don't use this as a background music while working or doing something important, it will fragment your concentration and make your thoughts wander.
This isn't the slowest doom metal there is, not by a long shot. At no point during the hour of music does the listener get bored. There's never a moment when it seems inevitable that the next beat on the drum might arrive next year, possibly on a sunny Wednesday sometime in June. No, the music flows on all through the album, sometimes with a viscous slowness, but never halting. The vocals have one of the greatest variances I've ever met on a metal album. Pasi Koskinen sings both very soft clean vocals and growls in the spirit of Ajattara. Nathalie Koskinen (his wife?) is possibly less of a multitalented vocalist, but her ethereal voice is excellent in it's sadness, and occasionally reminds me of Enya (as if I knew something about Enya... this just a vague recollection, as I've only heard a couple of her songs in the late Middle Ages). Both are essential to the sound of Shape Of Despair. For a stylish spice, there's a fair dash of gothic feeling mixed in, but not too much. And I mean gothic feeling, not gothic rock.
Like on most non-thrash albums I like, one of the defining characteristics of Illusion's Play is contrast. There are several elements opposing each other: vocals vary from male growling to beutiful female clean singing, the sometimes sleepy keyboards are balanced by metal guitars, and acoustic instruments counter both the synths and the metal section of the band. Contrast is a very effective concept, but requires skill to execute properly. Shape of Despair doesn't fail. While it is rewarding when a more difficult album finally lets you understand its soul after patient listening, Illusion's Play takes the listener's hand and guides him through the process. There are deeper -and even darker- undertones, but before they reveal themselves, even a scrape on the surface reveals a true musical gem, and there's no need for excessive patience. The experience simply deepens every time. This album will likely stay on my playlist for a long time to come, and I'm unable to find anything to really whine about. Illusion's Play is very close to perfection.
Summary: if you're looking for an album of very sad and atmospheric doom metal, this is a very good choice. The band conveys the feelings of sadness, despair and loss, and there's nothing you can do to stop them from afflicting you.
By the way, I think Shape Of Despair would be truly outstanding music for some kind of a movie. It would fit either something in the style of The Crow, or possibly a good, dark mainstream horror flick, along the lines of the classic Prince of Darkness, or even the magnificient Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski in it. Think about it.
Shape of Despair have always been a band that have suffered from mis-labelling. I've always heard them referred to as Funeral Doom. Now, when I think of Funeral Doom the first bands that come to mind are bands like Worship, Thergothon and Skepticism. All of these bands, and all the Funeral Doom bands I'm aware of, are endowed with a heavy sense of nihilism to their music and/or lyrics. Shape of Despair's music, while slow (what Doom isn't?) to me lacks the inherent nihilism of Funeral Doom. Their use of keyboards, flutes, clean and female vocals all contradict this.
Which brings us to their new album, Illusion's Play. To be honest, I had no
inkling this band was even working on an album and its release came as a suprise to me. Although Angel of Distress was one of my favourite albums of 2001, it has never left me yearning for a new album from these Finns. This album is very similar to their previous effort, Angel of Distress. They Keyboards carry the bulk of the melody, the guitars relegated mainly (though not always) to the background and the drumming is rather nondescript, which is the norm in Doom unfortunately. The vocals alternate between death grunts and clean vocals (both male and female). Much like Angel of Distress, one track flows into another seamlessly, without looking at the track index on my CD player I have no way of knowing what song is actually playing. Much like Angel, this album is best taken into account as a cohesive whole, rather than a series of separate songs.
The Keyboards are really what made Angel of Distress and this album stand-out. They help convey a truly ethereal atmosphere that I cannot readily compare to any band. Its like floating among the clouds on a cold, wintery night. This is a great album to just let yourself drift away to.
I recommend this album to anyone who liked any of this bands previous output (especially Angel of Distress) or for anyone looking for really drifting,