Descend Into Despair’s Melancholic “Opium” Seeks the Epic Sublime
There’s a special feeling when bands that initially sparked interest with a debut really come into their own with later material. So it is for me with Romanian funeral doom outfit Descend Into Despair.
I first discovered them with 2014's debut The Bearer of All Storms. Funeral doom has always been hit or miss to these ears, but Descend into Despair was a definite hit: it beckoned me with a welcoming organ-heavy atmosphere and a sharp fusion of depressive and uplifting auras. Having a distinctly Medieval flair about it, my mind's eye bore witness to the band performing in a massive 16th Century cathedral. Opium, their third full-length outing released last week, really feels like the most full-fledged realization of this vision yet.
This womb of mine
Let all the blood within sour into new flesh
Like must to wine
This sultry sky of skin was smeared by sullen hands
Contort your spine
Unsheathe yourself from me and stare sun in the eyes
Come forth and shine
And trade fetters of bone for radiant chains of light
The guest vocals of Tara Vanflower (of Arizona band Lycia) set the opening mood for Opium -- as with past Descend Into Despair releases, we are immediately plunged into a pensive state of ethereal instrumentation evoking grief and ecstasy simultaneously. As the Vanflower contribution unveils, there is a strong theme of birth at the heart of Opium, but not necessarily in the traditional and often more celebratory manner; instead, thoughts of loss, parental neglect, and the various pains of child rearing are added to the equation.
Between viewing life's whole process as something of both a holy blessing and an arduous personal trial, the mood of Opium maintains a sense of melancholy throughout, one that is nonetheless eerily beautiful. This is, of course, a longtime crucial element to the particular aesthetic conjured by funeral doom. What made early funeral doom in the mid-to-late 1990s so memorable was its sense of ambiance combined with riff-based and compositional oppressiveness. Over time, bands shifted and have compromised the former for the latter, but this is not at all the case with Descend Into Despair.
If anything, Opium represents the band's deepest dive into their atmospheric element yet: the song “ensh(r)ine” sees the increased presence of those spaciously luxurious synths that create a mood between both somber and uplifting. This vibe maintains consistently throughout the album and is integral to its gradually cascading songwriting. Importantly, it is one that Descend Into Despair never forsake for a more abrasive, brutally driven approach.
That said, the band hasn't forgotten the antithesis to this approach either. Opium drives forward with considerable emotional “weight,” both sorrowful and cathartic. For the latter, Descend Into Despair resort to their heavier, riff-driven attack, incorporating more elements of sludge, death, and even black metal in the process. But in doing so, they still manage to strike a commendable balance between this increased heaviness and the pervasive dreaminess of the keyboard.
Mid-point track “Antumbra” is perhaps the best example of this, beginning with waves of caressing melody that escalate into punchier riffage and growls from frontman Xander Coza, before once again descending back into airer melodies. It’s a stimulating and transcendentally-driven journey throughout: whether Descend Into Despair are focusing more on the more formless, ambient-driven aspect of their sound or the more doomy realm of greater structure and gravity.
Opium calls forth feelings of sadness and joy in conjunction with each other, as paradoxical as this union seems. Building on the childbirth theme, the point of the album begins to resolve: the moment and gift of the creation of life is an opportunity for an individual to mature and come into their own, but also it's an occasion that inevitably precedes much darkness and many growing pains. Embellishing this idea, the music of Descend Into Despair here never dwells on either side of this meditation, allowing room for each perspective to grow and develop in parallel.
Aside from being impressively well written, Opium’s relatable nature is what really drives home the package. Whether a parent or not, the ideas conveyed here are capable of striking a significant personal chord with an audience, likely getting the introspective listeners musing themselves about their own lives and various successes, tribulations, and future goals. It is probably the first album in quite a long while that has genuinely made me want to cry while listening, and if that isn’t testament enough to the magnificently composed, heart-grabbing songwriting at the core of it, I don’t know what is.
-- Sahar Alzilu
Opium released May 31st via Funere.