Desolate Shrine-The Sanctum of Human Darkness
By this point, Dark Descent has become a label that has well established itself as a flagship of darkly evocative and powerful underground black and death metal. The latest Desolate Shrine album, the Sanctum of Human Darkness, is no exception to this tradition, containing eight tracks of monolithic Finnish death metal that will not fail to have ground your bones to powdered ash at the end of a full sitting. A noticeable improvement over the unfulfilled potential of its predecessor, Tenebrous Towers, Desolate Shrine’s sophomore effort manages to collect the former album’s expansive, yet meandering atmospheric approach into a more focused attack, ultimately creating an album that leaves a greater impression due to the sheer momentum generated by the coupling of muscular riffwork and stark, obsidian atmosphere.
What is particularly impressive about The Sanctum of Human Darkness was its inability to conjure comparisons to the usual troupe of enfranchised death metal legends that every “old-school” revival act and their 5th cousin claims to be the inheritor of. While glimpses of regional Finnish patriarchs Demigod and Convulse flashed by, coupled with a bombastic, infernal delivery that more than slightly hinted at Immolation and Morbid Angel, and topped off with a filthy layer of Incantation-esque soot, nowhere in the middle of digesting the album was I ever given any inclination to pinpoint specific riffs and passages to any entity other than the tormented muses of Desolate Shrine themselves. In a death metal scene that has in recent years filled with acts whose sole claim to note was to do a particularly “legitimate,” undeviating rendition of an older template, it is refreshing to find a band that, while clearly “old-school” in their approach to the craft, interprets their influences in a way that accentuates their own identity as opposed to subsuming it behind a revivalist banner.
While on a song to song basis, the album is hard to analyze, as every track more or less meshes together into a single cacophony of whirring, choking black miasma, the album never truly becomes tiresome due to the monolithic relentlessness of its chaotic attack. Occasionally acoustic guitars and piano pieces break the mayhem, acting as a somber eye-of-the-storm, a calm that becomes all the more nerve-wracking knowing that the hurricane of guitar riffs and nocturnal ambiances will inevitably return. Yet even in its most violent moments, The Sanctum of Human Darkness never loses its more morose tendencies, and as a whole there is a feeling of tenderness and sorrow contrasted with your usual old-school sensibilities that is more characteristic of Peaceville-style melodic death/doom efforts, including early Katatonia, Paradise Lost, and more contemporary acts such as Daylight Dies.
Don’t be fooled though, this is not an album that strives to approach accessibility in any shape or form. Almost nonexistent are the hooks and overarching melodies that serve to anchor many other records to a backbone, and Desolate Shrine never seem to settle down into comfortable, headbang-conducive groove. Instead, this opus works its way into the mind of the listener through the layering of musical textures in a way tasteful enough to paint evocative images of desolation and despair. At certain points, it almost feels as if you are staring at the smoldering pillars of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the fragments of human civilization (analogous to the moments of extremely human pathos that emerge through the aforementioned tenderness) stand as stark supplicants to the majesty of destruction, heightening the sense of loss as you ponder the futility of humanity in its struggle against the forces of inevitable entropy. Indeed, the greatest strength of The Sanctum of Human Darkness is, more than anything, as a holistic work working through a wall of slightly-melodic ambiance to generate its desired effect. The songs themselves serve as individual variations of a shared theme, as opposed to distinct entities with their own artistic identity. However, the album truly comes together when listened to in one sitting, taking the listener through an entire obsidian mountain range of emotional peaks and valleys.
The Sanctum of Human Darkness’s role as atmospheric, impressionist music ultimately fails to place it in the upper echelon of death metal albums, as its ambitious yet monotonous approach towards composition renders its movements largely devoid of individual standout moments. The band mostly plods along heavily at the same tempo throughout the album, reinforcing the idea of The Sanctum of Human Darkness as more of a deliberate, unmovable hellforged machine than a musical album, and unfortunately the album eventually begins running out of steam to propel it forward in any attention-grabbing manner. However, when all is said and done, you could do far worse than to give this unique, yet wholly traditional piece of death metal a spin or two in your passing hours.