The Gleaming Sword
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The Gleaming Sword

Review: Shores of Null’s Beyond the Shores (2020)

A doom metal band takes a psychological approach to death

Charon’s Boat (1932) by José Benlliure y Gil. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his Letters that death both precedes and follows us. Thus the Shores of Null are where we arrive and where we depart. The band’s album Beyond the Shores (On Death and Dying) is a single track, one long meditation on psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, and it was released last year at a time when many thousands were dying each day because of a novel coronavirus. Ultimately, nothing can make sense of death, but we try through science and art, and that includes the art of heavy metal.

Shores of Null is from Rome, Italy. Formed in 2013, the five-piece band has since released three full-length albums with a penchant for big concepts like eudaimonia, big words like quiescence, and a big sound that, in the words of its website, blends doom, gothic and black metal. Ruins Alive (2014) and Black Drapes for Tomorrow (2017) present this mixture with an emphasis on moderate to fast tempos and, while there’s plenty of growls, rich and soaring cleans. Davide Straccione’s melodies are beautiful and uplifting, a perfect balance for the often dark lyrical themes. On Beyond the Shores, the band bends this sound deeper into doom for an overall funereal experience.

Anyone who has taken an Intro to Psych course is familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Swiss-American psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross proposed this model in her book On Death and Dying (1969). Many have criticized the theory, while others embrace it and use it to interpret our reactions to all manner of grief, not just grief over death. Grief expert David Kessler has even proposed a sixth stage: finding meaning. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, he applies the expanded model to the pandemic, first addressing the other stages, then meaning:

“Even now people are realizing they can connect through technology. They are not as remote as they thought. They are realizing they can use their phones for long conversations. They’re appreciating walks. I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”

One point my teachers always stressed was that the stages don’t go in order from beginning to end, denial through acceptance. Instead, grievers shift among the stages, mixing and repeating them, so Shores of Null wisely avoids breaking the album’s over 38-minute track into clearly discernible portions each representing a stage. Instead, the album reiterates the five stages throughout its runtime, albeit within a broader arc running roughly from the “earlier” stages to the “later” stages. That makes Beyond the Shores a single integrated composition.

The album begins with the sound of a cold wind. Then comes elegiac doom featuring violin reminiscent of My Dying Bride and lyrics expressing acceptance. Soon, however, the lyrics shift to the anger (“Look for no allies but yourself”), denial (“From this fear I run away”) and bargaining (“Will you give me some more time?”) that dominate the first half of the album. As emotions change, clean vocals turn to growls, harmony to dissonance, simplicity to syncopation, slow tempos to fast, darkness to light and back again. Then depression sets in (“Keep on seeing my world through tears”). The interweaving is intricate.

Charon’s Boat (1917) by Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Toward the end, acceptance returns. The lyrics make this clear (“I’ve come to terms with my own fate”), preceding a beautiful male and female vocal duet and another appearance of the album’s opening elegiac theme. This is abruptly cut short by the sound of a thunderstorm and waves crashing on the shore. In a gorgeous black-and-white music video covering the entire album, this is when a woman in mourning garb, having traversed a changing landscape, reaches the sea and stands with an inscrutable expression on her face, followed by a quote from Kübler-Ross:

“Would we know the comfort of peace without the distress of war?”

In his Letters, Seneca also says death could arrive at any moment, so he advises thinking upon our mortality to arrive at acceptance now, the better to enjoy life. Most of us find that hard to do, but if art can be any solace in harrowing times, then a fine slice of metal like Shores of Null’s latest, as an extended rumination on death, can serve as an aid in confronting the end with composure.

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