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Friday 25 February 2022

Reviews: Shape Of Despair, Embryonic Devourment, Volcanova, Dawnrider (Reviews By Paul Scoble, Matt Cook, Rich P & David Karpel)

Shape Of Despair - Return To The Void (Season Of Mist) [Paul Scoble]

The last few years have been very good if you are a fan of funeral doom, some exceptional huge, slow and very melancholy albums have been released by established masters of the genre. Now, those lucky funeral doom fans have something to weep over again as another funeral doom heavyweight returns with a new album. This time it’s Shape Of Despair. The band formed in Helsinki, Finland in 1998. In the twenty four years they have been making music together Shape Of Despair have made four albums before Return To The Void

The bands debut came out in the year 2000, and quickly followed it up with second album Angels Of Distress, in 2001. Shape Of Despair’s third album, Illusion’s Plaything was released in 2004, before taking a whole eleven years to release 2015’s incredibly well received comeback album Monotony Fields. After a mere seven years Shape Of Despair are back, have the band, which is made up of Tomi Ullgrén on Guitar, Janrno Salomaa on guitar and keyboards, Natalie Koskinen on vocals, Samu Ruotsalainen on drums, Sami Uuitalo on bass and Henri Koivula on vocals, kept the standard as high as they did on Monotony Fields

The album opens with the title track Return To The Void, which is a huge and deeply melancholy track. The tempo is slow and gentle, nothing jarring, big riffs from both guitar and keyboards with mournful melody leads over the top. The vocals are split between harsh vocals that are performed in a smooth non aggressive way, and beautiful clean vocals that is some places are layered, and when they are they are beautiful, ethereal and hypnotic. In a strange way I’m reminded of the band Clannad in the way these layered vocals are used, and they are just as affecting as Clannad’s choral vocals. The track stays at the same relaxed tempo throughout, the main changes are in intensity and the layering of instruments and vocals. 

Second track Dissolution is heavier and more purposeful than the the track that preceded it, until about a third of the way through when the song slows, and gets more minimal with just drums and keyboards, and those staggeringly beautiful layered vocals come in giving the track a feel that is similar to religious music, this part sounds as if it should be played in a cathedral. The heavy guitar parts and harsh vocals return for a while before a mournful melody lead brings the song to its end. Solitary Downfall opens with heavy guitar and keyboards, and a melody lead. The beautiful ethereal layered vocals return and we are back in liturgical territory again. This song is much more about the softer and other-worldly feel we glimpse on the previous song. The song has a very minimal section that is very quiet, before slowly building everything back up to the religious music feel, and then builds the heavy and harsh feel for a huge, multi layered end. 

Next song Reflexions In Slow Time, has a more open and simple arrangement. The song opens with soft, clean vocals before a minimal guitar riff and some lush harmonised guitars. The track gets a bit bigger and harsh vocals join in, before everything drops down for a minimal section that slowly builds, harsh and clean vocals are added for a very effective juxtaposition, layers are included until it is big enough to come to an end. Forfeit is a fairly soft and ethereal track in the main. It opens with heavy guitar and clean vocals, the tempo is drifting and dreamlike. Most of the rest of the track is all about soft, minimal music and beautiful layered vocals that is again reminding me of Clannad. The riffs and heaviness does return for the culmination of the song, but this is mainly about beautiful vocals and drifting, dreamlike ethereality. 

Final track The Inner Desolation is a mix of some of the heaviest material on this album and the softest, quietest sections. The riffs are huge and very heavy, with a sombre edge, and have clean and Harsh vocals bringing that very effective juxtaposition back. The song then goes into a very quiet and soft part that practically reaches silence, before the song builds back up to very purposeful and driving section. A melody lead is added, and then the layered, ethereal vocals return bringing more and more musical veneers to create a staggeringly huge and beautiful whole. The song drops into another very quiet section before ethereal vocal bring the song and the album to a very beautiful ending. Several hundred words ago I asked if Return To The Void is as high a standard as its predecessor, Monotony Fields

The answer is a very definite YES, in fact if anything this album is better! The huge and heavy music and harsh vocals mixed with the exquisite softer section with the layered ethereal vocals works so well, it gives the song a huge amount of dynamics. The difference allows the band to build to huge, mountainous guitar and keyboard riffs, and then to drop down to practically silence before slowly building back up. The tunes they play as they are creating this ebb and flow are pretty special as well, achingly melancholic and mournful, and possessed with so much beauty. 

I mentioned that some of this feels like religious music, and this album should really be played in a setting that fits in with this, I would love to see this played live in a cathedral, or church, the ambience of the setting would fit perfectly with how the music feels. Yes, it’s huge and heavy in places, but it’s also beautiful, ethereal and deeply cathartic, in fact this would be a fitting soundtrack for a funeral, an apt environment for an exceptional Funeral Doom album. 9/10              

Embryonic Devourment - Heresy Of The Highest Order (Unique Leader Records) [Matt Cook]

Eight years removed from 2014’s Reptilian Agenda, political-conspiracists-leaning technical death metal powerhouse Embryonic Devourment unleash ever more brutal music surrounded by ever-present anti-establishment filth. Two thirds of the original lineup remain - Austin Spence and Luke Boutiette - and with the addition of Donnie Small, the California trio hardly missed a beat. Heresy Of The Highest Order is bombastic and calculated. It leans more towards brutal than technical, and when they do introduce complex parts, it’s not comically overdone (I’m looking at you, Rings Of Saturn). The opening track Kathy O’Brian deals with the conspiracy theorist who alleged she was a victim of government mind control, and is chock full of different sections, riffs and parts to smash your head against a wall. 

The song begins with Cathy O’Brien (intentionally different spelling) speaking about her claims, which sets a grim-yet-enthralling tone for what’s next in store. Followed up by the titular track, a distorted and anonymous voice opens before it devolves into damn heavy and hard grunting, though it curiously ends with an extended amount of absolute silence. Whether on purpose or not, it’s not exactly something you’d want or expect. Either way, High Clearance Code Access features a smattering of technical guitar fills and It Began With Lizards shows off a ripping guitar solo that accompanies the introduction. These guys clearly know how to play, but don’t feel the need to show off or fill the time with unnecessary virtuosic playing. 

The eight tracks burst at the seams with banging riffs, chuggy rides of muck and intriguing but not overplayed sound bytes and clips to help bolster the overarching theme. Take away the government conspiracies and Embryonic Devourment still put together a monstrous effort that any fan of the genre should pound their fists to. You would never guess it’s been nearly a decade since their last full-length. 7/10

Volcanova - Cosmic Bullshit (The Sign Records) [Rich P]

If you like the desert/stoner rock, you will like this. I could stop there for my review of the new EP from Iceland’s Volcanova and most of you reading this who love the genre would go check this out. It’s kind of how we roll. While being an accurate assessment, there is a lot more going on throughout the six tracks on the wonderfully named Cosmic Bullshit. The EP kicks off with some killer riffs from the first track, Salem, and sets the stage for what you will hear throughout Cosmic Bullshit. I love the call and respond background vocals and “oohs” on this track that gives it something extra from the throngs of bands playing this style. These boys can for sure bring it musically as well with a killer solo, amazing bass work and some sweet, sweet cowbell. Gold Coast again prominently displays the musical chops of Volcanova (and more cowbell) and for some reason I am hearing hints of Fireball Ministry in this track, which is a very good thing. 

Again, the background vocals play a role which brings up the fun meter for Cosmic Bullshit. Desolation has a killer opening riff and to me calls back to some of the later period COC stuff that we all know and love. End Of Time slows it down a bit to start, then let it rip after an instrumental intro, harkening back to a time where Kyuss ruled the desert (there are no deserts in Iceland, right?). Once again, these guys can rip. No Wheels opens with my beloved cowbell and continues the ripping, this time channeling Fu Manchu without ripping them off in any way. Cosmic Bullshit ends with another killer riff from my favorite track, Lost Spot, which is the perfect closer for this EP, bringing all the elements to round out this killer offering with the addition of a nice psych/spacey jam midway through. 

Look, I know, I mentioned Fireball Ministry, COC, Kyuss, Fu Manchu…how can someone who digs those bands not dig this. But don’t sleep on Volcanova as a rip off. These guys can really bring it. The killer riffs, the amazing bass work, and vocals that work perfectly for these six tracks. So, to end like I began: if you like the desert/stoner rock, you will like this. Recommended for sure. 8/10

Dawnrider - Fourth Dawn (Alma Mater) [David Karpel]

In these times, when war has broken out in Eastern Europe, it seems like darker music may provide the most accurate reflection of the international mood right now. With that in mind, Portuguese proto-metal doomers Dawnrider, down with the darkness, are back for their fourth album, appropriately titled The Fourth Dawn, mixed and mastered by the ever prolific Tony Reed (Mos Generator, Stone Axe). With Hugo “Rattlesnake” Conim on guitars, Filipe Relêgo, bass and vocals, João Ventura, drums, and Diogo Simões, keyboards, the band rips power metal riffs with smoky organ passages rooted in the heavy crunching plod and power vocals of Sabbath, Pentagram, and Candlemass. 

The classic metal cinematic dramatics are fully realized in the opening track, a spooky acoustic intro to the tenor that includes howling wolves that get the fullest attention of Finn and Logan, our goofy metalhead dogs. The tracks that follow traverse familiar ground, but this does not fail to pull you along. The gothy Peter Murphy meets Bruce Dickinson (on the low end) vocals are way up in the production, clear, powerful, often soaring. The choruses are often sudsy, with all the raising-fists-to-the-heavens feels that can be mustered out of the horrors of the world. Gleaming guitar solos appear like summer lightning displays over a dark and storm churned ocean deep into the night. Readers, this is pints-served-in- pewter-steins metal and it bangs like ghouls at the gates. 

Order Of Dawn is a mid tempo tune with driven chugga chugga chords. A minute in, Relego’s vocals take over, expansive, soaring, subsuming everything under his power. The sing along chorus is infectious and when the guitar solo cuts out, the plodding end leaves our shoulders weighted. Meanwhile, Reaching Glory starts off down tempo. But the chorus is a sweaty, fist pumping affair, and when the tempo picks up, a dirty solo leads to organs that increase the sense of the Dio-like fantastical. This sense is maintained through Unwanted Sorrows. A down tempo start emphasizes the prevailing Sabbathian gloom, but at five minutes in, the tempo picks up Uriah Heep like organs that then drop for a nice, clean solo until the song returns to the opening plod and closes. 

Relego sings of being trapped in these sorrows, of never feeling “free to get rid of them." Those Who Parted mourns ever more so in a showcase for Relego’s powerhouse vocals on top of a solid lumber through the muck of loss. The last two songs, The Final Call and Lord don’t bring any surprises after the previous offerings, but maintain an intense consistency of energy and earnestness. Lord may be the standout track, though, as the longest, where the guitars shine and the organs fill in the bottom as the bass and drums drive the song forward through the dark marshes while Relego sends his voice into the looming fog. Dawnrider have come through the night and have seen that the coming day isn’t any brighter. 7/10

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