Desolate Shrine offer bone crushing riffs along with more graceful periods of exposition, and the polarities swirl around each other, creating a dark vortex of beautiful and expressive material.
Haunting. Atmospheric. Melodic. Devastating. These are just some adjectives to throw around while appreciating the music of Finnish death metal band Desolate Shrine’s third album, The Heart of the Netherworld, an album that unflinchingly peers into the abyss before sucking you down. This album is one with churning riffs and a grueling sound meant to be played loud. Real loud. And blackness wafts from every second of this more than hour long album. It’s brutality to the core. It’s a whirlwind, a cacophony, but it’s eminently listenable. One of the things that work in this album’s favour is that most of the songs segue into one another, creating a seamless listening experience. It really is constructed on a putrid canvas of deep, unrelenting iniquity and vice. And that’s what makes this so wholly enjoyable and base. Clearly, Desolate Shrine aren’t trying to be gimmicky and rewrite the rule book on what death metal is: it’s simply good, old fashioned style stuff, and is done so particularly well that anyone with a shine to this sort of thing will come away ravished. What’s more astounding is that this three-piece consists of two (!) vocalists and a guy playing the instruments. If you didn’t know that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a quintet or more. There’s fullness and richness to this and it’s put together so incredibly well that Desolate Shrine comes off as feeling like a full band, not just one guy handling everything.
Honestly, this is an album I keep coming back to again and again, and hearing new things, such as how the four-minute intro actually shape shifts as it goes along, making it seem as though there are multiple songs within the songs. Or how one of the vocalists on “Black Fires of God” growls as though he is trapped in a cage, before the second dude kicks in with a higher-pitched take on things. Despite the difference, the shift is so subtle that you actually have to be paying pretty close attention to note the distinction between the shared vocalists. I love how that song butt-ends into the nine-minute opus “Desolate Shrine” which boasts a mournful guitar lick before all hell is unleashed and the listening experience is akin to being sucked into an eddy of ultimate anguish. I appreciate how the final two minutes and fifty seconds of the album ending epic, the title track, is simply just a reverberating acoustic guitar plucked against moody background sounds, leading listeners down from the sonic squalor of the rest of the record gently. It’s these touches that really make The Heart of the Netherworld such a vitalizing and brisk experience. And it is an experience. The thing I like about metal is how closely the genre is tied into progressive rock and classical music, with an emphasis on virtuosity. However, this record is more than that. It actually feels as though it could be an opera of sorts. In effect, Desolate Shrine really kicks things up to the next level, not relying on Auto-Tuned vocals or much in the way of computer enhancement. This is simply as analog and honest a metal album that you’re likely to hear.
The thing about this disc is that it is delicate in its tonal shifts and yet is so full of emotion that it reaches down your throat and tears your heart out. While death metal wields a mighty hammer, The Heart of the Netherworld breathes. The last 20 odd seconds of “Death”, after a breakneck race to the finish line, end with chimes. That slowly gives way to the opening piano melody of the first passage of the 14-minute “We Dawn Anew”. It’s frightening and haunting as much as it is gorgeous. Thus, this is a record all about the pacing: it knows when to put its foot on the gas pedal, but it also knows when to slow things down and allow the listener to catch his or her breath. Plus, the fact that the music is supplied by just one person, simply known as LL – a shroud of mystery surrounds him or her – shows the breadth and ability to master all kinds of instruments: drums, guitars, piano, percussion, and so on. And the fact that the group plays at a variety of tempos and can hold things together is, again, a testament to the sheer musical abilities of the group in the studio. Or, perhaps I should just say, person.
In the end, The Heart of the Underworld is an evocative release. Discovering it is like unearthing a dark cavern that you decide to explore, using your hands as a guide on the slippery, moss covered walls – as noisy bats swirl all around you, and you’re enveloped by the darkness. There is a very gothic feel to this, too – well, death metal, duh – but it’s so finely tuned and delivered that what you’re hearing is art for the ears. The platter comes across as pure expression of wrestling with inner demons, and the lulls that that fight may bring. There’s something so compelling and sumptuous about this release, that you can come back to it time and again, and find it equally enjoyable as unveiling it for the first time was. It’s not often that a record leaves me speechless, but this one is it. Sure, it doesn’t till new soil, necessarily, but for those who enjoy the old ways and simply allow themselves to be taken by grand music, The Heart of the Netherworld might just be one of those albums that transcends genre and breaks down barriers to a wider listenership, though, truth be told, I’m not sure if this is Billboard material. The appeal is simple: Desolate Shrine offer bone crushing riffs along with more graceful periods of exposition, and the polarities swirl around each other, creating a dark vortex of beautiful and expressive material. Every piece of this mesmeric puzzle fits into the larger whole and makes for a complete and robust picture. If this is indeed the heart of the netherworld, it’s an amazing and fascinating place to get lost in.