Born out of a 2009 collaboration, Trees of Eternity began innocently enough. Juha Raivio invited Aleah Stanbridge into the studio to work on the track “Lights on the Lake” which was set to be featured on Swallow the Sun’s 2009 release, New Moon. An immediate mutual musical adoration led to the two fiddling around with other vocal lines the South African had recently composed. That fiddling led to a full blown project. Soon Fredrik Norrman (October Tide, ex-Katatonia), Mattias Norrman (October Tide, ex-Katatonia) and Kai Hahto (Wintersun, Swallow the Sun) were enrolled forming a complete and well-credentialed band.
By 2012, the band had released a four-song demo and signed with AMF Publishing at which point they began working on a debut full-length. That album, Hour of the Nightingale, would take years to complete and cost the band their most valuable asset. On April 18, 2016 Aleah Stanbridge succumbed to cancer and passed away at the age of thirty-nine. With the album sitting in post-production, the rest of the band decided to finish the recording and release it as a memorial to Aleah’s life. Their hope is that, through this work, her lyrics, vocals and spirit will live on forever.
Those are the ominous circumstances under which Hour of the Nightingale came into this world. Like so many children, the birth of the production cost the world its mother. But, even without the backstory and the emotional drain before even pressing play, Hour of the Nightingale is a harrowing work of utter beauty. Using a goth-inspired take on doom, Trees of Eternity weave compositions that are not wholly separate from their Katatonia roots. Melody, emotion and super long song arcs predominate, but it’s Aleah’s stunning vocal performance, dripping with butterscotch sweetness and syrupy emotion, that steals the show.
Her work on “A Million Tears” is subdued. The guitars are allowed to take the lead and pretend to carry the melody. But Aleah uses her lower range, in contrast to the harmonized guitar melodies, to cut through the mix. At a little over seven minutes, it’s the second longest track on the album (not surprisingly, given the style, the final track exceeds nine minutes). But at no point does “A Million Tears” feel anything but perfect. The guitars pick a lonely melody way up on the neck while Aleah pours her heart out in the most restrained, classy and least affected manner possible. As the song moves towards the chorus, the melodies flip and Aleah takes the higher register while the guitars drop into a thick, chunky, power chord-driven attack. The result is a song that tugs at the heart strings. A track that on which Aleah converses with the listener creating empathy and oneness which builds with each chorus.
Elsewhere on Hour of the Nightingale the mood is lighter and more pop-oriented. “Eye of the Night” sees Aleah using a near falsetto to softly deliver her lines, in an almost Portishead-like manner, over what are the heaviest guitar lines of the album. It’s the contrast of her soft vocals and heavy guitars that makes this album so damn encompassing. Similarly, “The Passage” (probably the best “single” on the record) takes that approach a step further affecting a near “post” or gaze sound in the vein of Dust Moth. Here, the soft guitar lines almost drop out completely leaving Aleah to serenade the listener on her own. And when the guitars punch forth she sliders her vocal range up and over the guitar lines singing a gentle, calculated melody. The harmonies that her vocal trills and slides create make for a gripping experience.
Far away from that blend are tracks like “Black Ocean” and “Hour of the Nightingale.” These tracks are as stripped down as the album allows. Leaning heavily on atmosphere, the instruments take a landscape-like approach to the background. “Black Ocean” features cymbal work that sounds like crashing waves while “Hour of the Nightingale” features the quiet stillness of the night. Both tracks are over five-minutes and both spend that time lurching and crawling away, listener’s heart in tow. “Hour of the Nightingale” even lets in a little tremolo guitar as a nod to the desert, stillness and vast emptiness.
There are plenty of Type O Negative moments as well as enough Paradise Lost moments (Nick Holmes even sings on the album’s closer) for fans of a wide range of doom. But, aside from doom and gloom, Hour of the Nightingale’s main selling point is it captivating beauty. A full three years in the making, the album shows that the band used that time to craft perfect compositions, edit appropriately and mix genres just enough to keep it interesting yet not intrusive. It’s an album to cherish because you will never hear its like again. There will be no follow up. This is it. One work that beautifully represents the career of Aleah Stanbridge tragically cut short.