We all have a holy grail to which we compare everything. For some of us, those of us who are food-obsessed, that holy grail could be that perfect bite you had in that back alley Yakitori bar outside Kyoto. For the love-obsessed it might be your first love. And, for those of us who are music-obsessed, it’s likely an album, feeling or song that struck that perfect chord. When discussing melodic death metal tinged with gothic and doom influences, featuring the late Aleah Stanbridge and Juha Raivio, that album, for me, is Trees of Eternity’s 2016 release Song of the Nightingale (which I reviewed/gushed about here). Thus, Hallatar, billed as an extension of Trees of Eternity, will inevitably be compared to the holy grail of albums in the micro-genre. And, unfortunately for those involved, their debut release No Stars Upon the Bridge doesn’t hold a candle to the precursor.
This is an emotional thing for me to say. Following the passing of South African born Aleah Liane Stanbridge, it’s difficult to feel comfortable criticizing anything in which she was involved. Further, to negatively analyze what is essentially an open book about the grieving process of losing your beloved feels icky. In no way does the outcome impact the importance behind the healing that this meant to Juha. But, let’s let him speak for himself:
After the death of my beloved and my life partner Aleah Starbridge on April 18th a year ago, I have been gathering writings, lyrics, and the poems of Aleah to keep them safe and close to my heart. About one month after the world came down on the blackest day of my life, I knew I needed to pick up the guitar and try to create something or I would be truly destroyed. And something did arrive out of the darkness, and I wrote the music for the Hallatar album in a week’s time. I don’t have much memory of this week, not a memory of a single day of writing the music. But all I remember when going into this abyss of the writing process was a promise to myself that whatever music would come out, I would not touch or change anything of it afterwards. What mattered was that the music would stay forever as an absolute truth of those moments as they came out. I asked my good friends – and amazing musicians – Tomi Joutsen and Gas Lipstick if they would want to record this music with me, and both of them said yes without even hearing a note of it. I am forever grateful to both of them for sharing this road with me; even the weight of the process has not been easy to carry, or will be.
Most telling is the line, “I wrote the music for the Hallatar album in a week’s time.” Unfortunately, it shows. What was so successful about Juha’s composition on Hour of the Nightingale was the near orgasmic balance between tension and release. There was minimalism, tinged with soft vocals and there were climactic peaks of layered melody rounded out by expert support from the rhythm section and the use of tasteful orchestral accompaniment. Each track contained multitudes of tension, release and landscape-like beauty. The album felt as if years had been put into the perfection of each moment and each note. Each effect, each tone and each word was placed perfectly and gently. But, enough about how great that album is.
Label: Svart Records.
Let’s talk vocals. Between the three, Juha, Aleah and Tomi Jutsen (Amorphis) there is no lack of extreme talent. Prior success was focused on soft, melodic vocal lines and there are certainly instances of that brilliance across No Stars Upon the Bridge. But, primarily, there is an excess of harsh vocals. While the vocals themselves are delivered with more than competent talent, they tend to take away from the melodies. What results when the harsh vocals overtake the melody is a relatively puerile take on funeral doom.
Further adding to the distraction from the positives are spoken word poems scattered haphazardly throughout the album. Where one track could flow effortlessly into the next, there is rather a harsh, almost audiobook quality to the poems. The most successful poetic interlude is “Pieces” as it’s accompanied by a mournful keyboard. It’s astounding that all the poetic interludes wouldn’t have some sort of orchestral accompaniment considering how effective that type of accompaniment has been on prior works composed by Juha.
By far the biggest success of this album is the track “My Mistake.” Heike Langhans (Draconian) steps in to provide breathy, impassioned vocals over a minimalist canvas of keys, guitar and rhythm section. Her perfect vocals are balanced by the harsh vocals of Tomi. Here, Tomi bumps it up a notch repeating lines in rousing, fiery delivery. It’s on this track that the best example of the tension vs. release is achieved. There are still flaws, like the soundscape interlude that interrupts Heike and then marches into an outro dominated by harsh vocals. Overall, “My Mistake” is the best example of success on No Stars Upon the Bridge.
For the most part, the failures on No Stars Upon the Bridge outweigh the successes. It’s unfortunate, given the expectations coming off what was arguably one of the best albums of 2016. While likely nothing could measure up to the success of Hour of the Nightingale it’s completely plausible to expect this stellar group of musicians to produce something better, less rushed and more focused. There was simply no need for this album to be released so close to the heels of Hour of the Nightingale and it’s clear that more time, restraint and focus would have benefited the final product which is, at its best, dull.
What we recorded was a raw moment in time honoring the memory, lyrics, and poems of Aleah Starbridge with all its pain, beauty and darkness. There are no stars left upon the bridge to light the way anymore, but the music will always be a dim light, even in the darkest of the night. – Juha Raivio