One of the most distinct memories I have pertaining to Milwaukee black metal outfit Shroud of Despondency is as follows: the scene was February 2011, Clearwater Beach, Florida. My wife, kid and I were in the midst of our annual pilgrimage down south in order to escape the depressing, bone-chilling cold of another southern Ontario winter and because metal and deadlines never stop, even when you’re away and on vacation, I brought along a bit of work to dust off. “Work” is a bit of a misnomer though; most people wouldn’t call sitting by a hotel pool or on the beach, basking in the sun while listening to various new releases and jotting down a few hundred words on the matters at hand, work. Tough life, I know. My parents are still mystified at how I make a living. Hell, so am I! Anyhow, after spinning their then-latest release, Dark Meditations in Monastic Seclusion, and doing a bit of research into their backstory, I remember thinking to myself – and writing for the rest of the world to see – about how odd it was that this band, aside from help with PR, was still virtually independent and remained unsigned. Now, I’m not the biggest black metal fan around, but having been in this game long enough and having been exposed to as much of everything as I have been in my travels, it’s not hard to pick out who’s delivering quality goods and who’s gussied up in corpse paint and singing in Norwegian despite hailing from Topeka, if you catch my drift.
That was over three years ago and in the world of Shroud of Despondency, that was three full-lengths, two live albums, two demos and two split EPs ago. When the band’s latest album, the double-disc set, Tied to a Dying Animal turned up in my mailbox and I noticed that the band was still unsigned, well, I continued to be flabbergasted. In these bespectacled eyes, Shroud has always struck a fine balance between black metal’s esoteric and progressive bookends; in addition to the skin-searing atonality and machine gun riffing inherent to the genre, the band has made it a commonality to include tasteful strains of classical, Americana and folk, not to mention thrash, doom and death metal, in their sound. Basically, I was amazed they still hadn’t had someone’s dotted line thrust in front of their faces, especially in light of 1) the black metal genre’s historical open-armed acceptance of everyone from Emperor and Vattnet Viskar to Abruptum and Panopticon, and 2) the shitloads of crap out there that gets passed off as “essential listening.”
At first, I thought it was maybe the band themselves fiercely holding on to their independence. Maybe they didn’t want to sign their lives away and were actively attempting to avoid becoming a casualty of the business? Or maybe it was because they wanted to keep the band as an artistic, albeit extremely prolific, hobby? Or maybe they were just the types who forsook any amount of the business side of things because they’d rather smoke bowls and jam out? Or maybe they’re just lazy as fuck? I was assured by various sources that none of the above was the answer, though the assumption was that the answer lay somewhere in the middle (except for the smoking bowls and being lazy part – I made that shit up). I mean, this music thing is so subjective; there’s no accounting for taste across the board – I’m sure there’s some asshat out there somewhere who will dismissively tell you he thinks Master of Puppets is just “all right” – and I realise that just because I find merit and value in something doesn’t mean the world at large will fall in line, but I remain amazed that this band’s name isn’t on more people’s radars. So, I tracked down mainman, guitarist Rory Heikkila and asked for a little background and his assessment of the situation.
“After several years of working on other projects, some metal and some folk/indie rock, I decided in 2010 to again start recording as Shroud of Despondency. Recently, I was approached with the idea of writing about the history of the band, my dealings with labels, my work habits, and overall determination as an underground artist. This invitation is both humbling and irritating, but overall something I feel is both deserved and necessary. I’m not sure a 'typical' metal artist is something that exists and I’m sure I’m not a 'typical' anything, but I do have an everlasting love of, and obsession with, heavy metal so the idea of getting to talk about my band in the this format is kind of cool considering the overall feeling I’ve gotten from friends, fans, and family is that the project is, for whatever reason, emotive and purposeful enough to be recognized as valid by people who release music.
"Shroud of Despondency was created in the mid/late 90’s as a means of coping with the suicide of a close friend, an experience even this grumpy old nihilist wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy, and the overall feeling that being a 'metalhead' in Upper Michigan was a relatively solitary adventure (hence the initial one man band aspect of the project). After a demo, 2002 saw the release of For Eternity Brings No Hope, release on Bindrune Recordings. If asked to speak of my dealings with labels I have nothing bad to say about Bindrune. The only regret is I was probably a bit too tripped out and young to recognize how fucking cool of an opportunity it was. I get asked a lot why they didn’t release more and I really don’t know and I’m not much of a person who dwells. To this day they release some of the best music.
"I recorded two follow ups, Forced to Wander into Nothing and Fairytales from the Tunnel of Puke, that only saw the light of day through CD-R trading. Again, tripped out. Overall, today, I’m glad I didn’t care because certain aspects of the albums are just atrocious. I feel this in spite of the compliments I get from those weird enough to tolerate insanely loud yelp-y vocals on top of under-produced, and occasionally poorly written, black metal songs. The same fate existed for the split with Algol on Paragon Records, although I like those songs a lot, and sessions I recorded for two other splits. No regrets. Heavy metal is littered with DIY artists who have worked for insane amounts of time to prove their worth and passion and that is, honestly, part of the appeal of the genre. The spirit is, even with all the sheepish posturing, that of the individual and I most definitely consider myself an individual.
"Not that a person can ever truly get over the losing of friendship to mental illness, particularly a person already hardened by feelings of alienation, but after all that it was time to grow. So I moved on. I honed my guitar playing, shredded some pretty hilarious tech-death metal, and then some folk/indie rock projects to honor my mother’s wish to hear me sing. Fuck you. As rough as it sounds to you, she loves it. The tensions of everyday life have a way of building up inside a person and in 2010 I decided it was in the best interest of my psyche to record as Shroud of Despondency again. Obective:Isolation was recorded. It definitely felt great to record honest and dark music again, but I also knew that Milwaukee had a great underground scene that I was interested in being a part of. A lot of you people don’t know this yet but Milwaukee has an insane amount of good bands.
"Dark Mediations in Monastic Seclusion was the first full length with a full line-up and Pine followed a year later. There were also a ton of local shows with kick ass bands thanks, mostly, to local promoter Jason Ellis. Choosing to promote the album through Clawhammer PR turned out to be a good decision. Both albums got many favorable reviews and I’m immensely proud of them, the live EP’s and the live shows. However, I will admit that this is the time a certain amount of bitterness started to show itself. “So and so (insert shitty opinion on supposed shitty band) is on such and such label and I have no spare money because I want to release music.” Boo-fucking-hoo right?
"Staying true to my work patterns, writing for the next album began before we had even released Pine. A double album, Tied to a Dying Animal was released in 2014 and is an album I fear, try as I might, I may never top. The rest of this doesn’t read ‘I’m stopping.’ I’ll definitely try. I’ll try until I’m dead or physically incapable of writing music. It’s the most accomplished metal material under the name and the most accomplished acoustic/instrumental material. It is the most sincere, dark, personal, and expensive album I’ve ever recorded. All with the bizarre muse of Martin Scorsese films. I love it. As a bonus, I feel it’s done exceptionally well locally and beyond thanks again to Clawhammer. The list of pretty kick ass bands we got to play with is pretty big and it helped create more memories, but the recording process left everyone a bit burned out. I’m admittedly a difficult person to work with when it comes to music. There isn’t too much room for other visionaries in Shroud of Despondency and I was most definitely lucky to have worked with as many visionaries as I did, so we are kind of either on hiatus or reworking a line-up right now. Check out some live clips on YouTube though. We killed it. Then go to bandcamp and work your way back from Tied to a Dying Animal.
"I’ve touched upon the history of this project in probably too many words and hopefully did not come off as bitter. I can say I am not bitter because of my understanding of what music is. To me music/art is something that transcends the idea of culture as it represents the thoughts, feelings, repressions, and philosophy of whatever neurotic flesh oddity is creating it. There is no need to blame because there is no one to blame for supposed ‘artistic short comings’ because the feeling of satisfaction that creating gives me, no matter how imperfect the creation might be, is bigger than any praise or criticism that can be rifled at me by a species who lives to critique others. I critique myself through writing and I am a stronger man because of it. I can get up every day and attempt a normal, sometimes merry and sometimes contemplative, life because I know I have a place to put whatever horror should arise. I do my job as an artist without being a quitter in life. Fuck the rest.
"So, yes, I’d like to stop spending large amounts of money on my music, but I most definitely would not be the first artist to fail miserably at getting ‘proper’ recognition. The word ‘proper’ is in quotes because I am speaking merely of that validation that comes with having a label release ones music, not the recognition I give myself and the beneficial consequences of such smugness. In fact, now that I’ve reached the end of this I feel even weirder about what could be perceived as seeking alms. Fuck it though, I was asked to write about my baby and I did and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do so. Check out our fucking albums. Don’t hesitate to get in touch. Praise be to the adversary, or something.