28 December, 2018
Do you ever see something that’s so beautiful, it overwhelms you? Something so wildly gorgeous that it’s too much, too much for you to just sit there and take in… You can feel it just exploding out of you, as you long to be a part of its creation – which, of course, you can’t, because there’s nothing you could improve or contribute, because everything that’s broken or slightly out of place just adds to the overwhelming Beauty?
I first wrote these words during one of my visits to my home country, Canada, after a particularly potent experience of the awe-inspiring Beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. But over the years, it has remained a particularly salient and applicable description of my experience of overwhelming Beauty in many forms – a type of Beauty that the music produced by symphonic deathcore band Shadow of Intent frequently captures in a potent and powerful way.
Shadow of Intent is perhaps one of the most quickly growing bands in the subgenre of deathcore, with their 2019 B minor album Melancholy scoring a 10/10 rating on MetalSucks, and most recently announcing tour dates alongside (relative) giants such as Cannibal Corpse and Whitechapel (and have already sold out multiple shows). So clearly I’m not the only one who thinks the potent combination of rich symphonic texture with the powerful vocals of Ben Duerr pack an emotional gut-punch – not to mention their lyrical poeticism, and the rhythmic dexterity of a meerkat on steroids (shoutout to their new drummer, Bryce Butler, for killing the game on that). While Shadow of Intent originated as a Halo-themed band, as their sound – and their members – have matured they’ve moved away from this theme, citing that they wanted to focus more on real world issues: according a Q&A session on r/deathcore “[Ben Duerr hasn’t] played Halo in years”.
Anyway, on 14 January Shadow of Intent released Elegy, their fourth complete studio album, and it is profoundly Beautiful – though without really making use of pretty – in a way that I’m definitely going to be digesting for a while. Its process of creation is documented in a set of YouTube videos where the members discuss their motivation and experience: in Ben’s words, the album is meant to “shine a light on … real events that people don’t normally think about”, and to remind us that while we go about our everyday lives and have whatever trivial problems, “there are some people out there who are going through hell”. The album is set in E flat minor, like their previous album Reclaimer that included hit song (and Duerr’s least favorite apparently): The Heretic Prevails, and it includes a song featuring frontman Phil Bozeman of the canonical deathcore band Whitechapel (who actually also recently released a killer album: Kin).
The album opens – somewhat ironically – with the grandiose and majestic Farewell, which introduces some of the key themes of the album: death, war, and Hell – each song is apparently based on a real historical event. They also namedrop the Saurian King (one of the seven great demon kings from the Chinese novel ‘The Journey to the West’), foreshadowing the second track, which is named after him. The lyrical foreshadowing is one instantiation of a Romantic-era musical device called thematic continuation, which I will discuss in more detail in a subsequent section.
Saurian King, in a dramatic continuation of the epic Farewell, carries our emotions in a slow but impactful 6/8, leaning more heavily on the deathcore end of the symphonic deathcore duality than its predecessor. The rhythmic counterpoint is really amazing throughout the album, but particularly on this song. Saurian King is followed by The Coming Fire, which is definitely circle pit material, and features one of my favorite symphonic deathcore tropes: blast beats with growled vocals backed up by a symphonic chorus – there’s also a beautiful cello solo at the end that adds the most elegant touch of melancholic depth.
The names of the last three songs: Elegy I (Adapt), II (Devise), and III (Overcome) contain clear references to the US Marines. In another echo of Reclaimer, they also make heavy usage of the aforementioned musical device called thematic continuation. Thematic continuation was popularized in the West by Beethoven in the 1800s: Beethoven was the first to write symphonies where the movements contained harmonic tropes that told an overarching story. This contrasts sharply with the Classical era, wherein movements of a symphony were discrete, self-contained elements (take, for example, a Mozart symphony). The trope gained traction throughout the Romantic and Post-Romantic, being taken to such extremes that lines between movements were often blurred, like for example in the work of Dmitri Shostakovich (incidentally, this was also about when applause between movements in Classical concerts was phased out, but I digress). In Romantic/Post-romantic music, thematic continuation is often accompanied by a technique called developing variation, wherein a musical motive or trope is subtly changed throughout the work: take, for example Beethoven’s infamous 5th symphony, which progresses from C minor to C major throughout the work. Anyway, Shadow of Intent has employed thematic continuation with great success in the past: the aforementioned hit song The Heretic Prevails is really just one long dominant preparation of The Prophet’s Beckoning, heavily featuring B flat (the dominant: V) and F (the dominant of the dominant, aka secondary dominant: V/V). But we don’t get the resolution to E flat (tonic) until the first note of The Prophet’s Beckoning – where we get it in what’s called an inversion: that is, the note that’s most prominently emphasized is the minor 3 above tonic, not tonic itself. The inversion serves to carry the momentum throughout the song, avoiding the finality of a root-position (non-inverted) E flat minor chord until later.
In Elegy I-III, Shadow of Intent employ both thematic continuation and developing variation once again, and in my opinion they have really perfected its usage on this album. Elegy I provides a slow, eery introduction in E flat with more choral vocals and symphonic elements than Duerr’s awesomely filthy gutturals. By contrast, Elegy II develops variation by accompanying the symphonic elements with a right hook consisting of blast beats and gutturals. Harmonically it’s entirely a dominant preparation of E flat just like The Heretic Prevails, even ending right on the leading tone (raised 7th), D – in light of the functional similarity between the two songs, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elegy II similarly turns out to be the biggest hit of the album.
Once again in reminiscence of Reclaimer, Elegy III doesn’t give us the tonic we’ve been waiting for right away: however, this time instead of using harmonic inversion they accomplish this by kicking off with a percussive exchange between drums and gutturals (which actually serves two purposes here, both developing variation via progression towards the deathcore end of symphonic deathcore, as well as carrying the momentum of thematic continuation). Then, right before the ear lets go of the harmonic tension from the previous song, we get a splash of colour (harmony) that resolves us briefly to tonic.
But instead of giving us the glorious satisfaction of resolve like in The Prophet’s Beckoning, Elegy III retains a hue of hauntingly Beautiful melancholy and despair, tempering the resolution to tonic with non-harmonic deathcore sections and, in the final few seconds, ending the entire album not on E flat but on the flat seven: D flat. I’m sure there are countless nuances like the above throughout the album that I’m not picking up on right away, but in the interests of both time and constraining this article to an appropriate length, once again I digress.
The significance of Shadow’s usage of (post-)romantic tropes is underscored by the album’s motivation: according to the first “behind the scenes” video, Duerr’s great-grandfather was a World War II veteran, which fueled his interest in the historical events the album describes. Similarly, post-romanticism was deeply influenced by the devastation of both World Wars and the political atmosphere of the 1900s: consider, for example, one of my favorite symphonies – Shostakovich’s 11th – which is often subtitled “The Year 1905”. This heart wrenchingly powerful piece describes, with the same flavor of Beauty as Elegy, the Russian Revolution of that year (which was the prelude to the Russian Civil War).
Three of the songs on Elegy have associated music videos: Intensified Genocide, From Ruin we Rise, and Of Fury. In my opinion, these three songs (which were also all pre-released) are also the best ones on the album: there’s not much out there that compares to Intensified Genocide’s unadultered deathcore gut-punch augmented by moments of pure, dark symphonic exhilaration, and the awe-inspiring experience that is From Ruin We Rise, complete with an epic, fire-filled music video. In contrast to the other two music videos, the video for Of Fury (just released on Friday at noon) has a military-themed story, and also makes powerful usage of the same color schema and artistic style from the album art. Of Fury also has one of my favorite breakdowns on the album, and was an exception for a friend I have who (in an act of completely disgraceful heresy) doesn’t generally enjoy Shadow of Intent.
The entire album is exactly one hour long – an intentional choice, perhaps? In any case, we can definitely hear the depth of Shadow of Intent’s potential blossoming in Elegy: in each of their albums so far, the sound mixing – and balance between non-harmonic deathcore and symphony – has been getting richer and more powerful, and Elegy is no exception. Elegy is an absolute masterpiece, and quite possibly may become my favorite album of all time.
Release date: January 14th 2022
Label: self released
01. Farewell (04:54)
02. Saurian King (05:24)
03. The Coming Fire (04:09)
04. Of Fury (04:47)
05. Intensified Genocide (04:00)
06. Life of Exile (04:53)
07. Where Millions Have Come to Die (feat. Phil Bozeman of Whitechapel) (04:23)
08. From Ruin… We Rise (04:50)
09. Blood in the Sands of Time (feat. Chuck Billy of Testament) (05:22)
10. Reconquest (04:50)
11. Elegy I: Adapt (02:28)
12. Elegy II: Devise (04:25)
13. Elegy III: Overcome (06:01)