It's been nine years since Shroud of Despondency released their debut For Eternity Brings No Hope through the great Bindrune Recordings, but those years seem to have been spent productively, with the band evolving into an interesting sound that draws upon both variation and heavy use of atmosphere, slowly drawing the listener into a realm of suicidal tension and the bliss of abandoning all hope. The cover of Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion is an interesting choice; it's primacy beckons the listener into a cervix-like cavern of darkness, and I'd certainly claim that the album does as advertised, though a few of the elements here threaten to draw the listener out, briefly, from the experience.
For one, there are a number of vocal styles being used here, not all of which are created equal. I don't particularly care for the thin, clean vocals being used over the latter half of the acoustic/folk intro "Looking Out, Seeing One Last Ray of Light", or through "Sybil". They have a Celtic folk feel to them, but they don't feel fully formed, whereas the gravelly, aggressive tone assumed in "Homo Homini Lupus" is quite good, reminding me of the vocals Nocturno Culto has been spitting over the past few Darkthrone records, if a little more brutal. They also use simpler rasps and higher pitched background screams to great effect, evoking a multi-dimensional spike of emotional pain. The acoustic guitar sequences are also not that interesting, though they seem to work more when the band add atmosphere to the back through edge of perception chanting and tiny lead guitars ("Sybil").
Otherwise, this album is fairly well composed, with an earthen, natural tone to the guitars which benefits the variation in the riffing, from somber, sluggish beauty to a frigid, repressed onslaught of more traditional melodic black fare. In particular, I truly enjoyed the sample sequence used through the last 3 minutes of "Parting of the Way", in which a survivor of suicide talks about his experience over one of the better acoustic guitar segment on the album. It absorbed me completely, and I was not expecting this. The black metal tracks "Sullen Murmur Oppressive Stillness" and "To Glisten In All the Colors of Distress" are quite good, and there's one extended acoustic track ("Flicker of the Ardent Light") which avoids the less impressive clean vocals and instead throws in some piano to great effect.
Shroud of Despondency are one of the better bands at capturing that open Midwest space in their music, coupled with bleak human emotions. They're not as experimental or dark as Blood of the Black Owl, or as caustically hopeless as Celestiial, but I feel like they might really appeal to fans of the early Agalloch album Pale Folklore. Despite my mixed reaction to the vocals and clean guitars, I feel that there's an enormous potential within this band, some but not all of which has been brought to the table here. It's a thoughtful album, though not a perfect one, and if you're looking for a lucid examination of depression, it's engrossing enough to spend an hour exploring it's cornucopia of gloom.
Verdict: Win [7.25/10]