No Stars Upon the Bridge is a memorial; a tribute by Swallow the Sun guitarist Juha Raivio to his late partner and bandmate in Trees of Eternity, vocalist Aleah Stanbridge, who tragically passed away in April 2016 from cancer, aged just 39.
Written over the course of a week around a month after Aleah’s death, Raivio claims to have little memory of the creation process of this album, so consumed was he by the process of working through his deep emotional trauma in musical form – and it shows.
Trees of Eternity released their one full album, Hour of the Nightingale, shortly after Stanbridge’s passing, her vocal tracks echoing as a haunting final statement from a youthful voice who knew not what was before her. Hallatar (completed by Amorphis vocalist Tomi Joutsen and ex-HIM drummer Gas Lipstick) continue both the spirit and the general style of Trees of Eternity, and No Stars Upon the Bridge is once again imbued with an inescapable, truthful melancholy, this time coming from a surviving, devoted lover. The music here remains in the Swallow the Sun region of the doom metal spectrum; Raivio dealing in gothic, death-doom riffs, borrowing elements of forefathers Paradise Lost’s mournful melodies and even hinting at Type O Negative’s despondency at times.
However, these tracks get a lot dirtier and sonically heavier than those on the Trees of Eternity album – perhaps an unsurprising direction given the obvious emotional weight – though there is still a consistently clear and polished production, which brings the welcome sheen of modern metal to the tempo of often muddy-sounding, funereal death-doom. Occasional menacing clean guitar lines, and the higher of Tomi’s shrieks, even call to mind Sweden’s controversial lords of depravity, Shining.
It is, in fact, Tomi Joutsen’s vocals which really add a new element of power to this release, with the Finn putting in arguably the performance of his career to date and maintaining the variety and interest required for such slow-paced music. His range is simply staggering, delivering crushing low growls, vulnerable and emotive clean vocals, and everything in between.
The changes between heavy and soft musical passages are somewhat expected in this dramatic form of doom – but Joutsen’s voice leads the charge as Raivio’s riffs combine these textural shifts with gorgeous harmonic changes, in tracks like ‘Melt’ and ‘My Mistake’. It feels like a perfect match, as these kinds of moments have always been the best parts of Swallow the Sun as well as Tomi-era Amorphis. Just to add to the emotional depth of proceedings, spoken female vocals from Heike Langhans (of the band Draconian) are interspersed betwixt the heaviest tracks, and are simply spine-tingling in their delivery.
Importantly, these long and slow tracks do not generally outstay their welcomes. By the time ‘The Maze’s truly lethargic pace has settled in, the release as a whole may feel slightly overburdened, especially as an act of drawn-out catharsis, but that doesn’t do much to dampen this largely stunning album. Keyboard and strings are used subtly and with good taste and the whole work comes across entirely without cliché – once again, this is not surprising.
No Stars Upon the Bridge cannot be divorced from its heart-breaking context and as such, feels more genuine than most recent ‘big’ metal releases, to the extent that it can take you a little by surprise. This is a real outpouring of sorrow, delivered in a deeply affecting way by using the tools of an occasionally cartoonish sound to craft something beautifully sad.
Aleah’s vocal appearance on closing track ‘Dreams Burn Down’ is suitably and powerfully handled in Raivio’s music; her voice remaining gentle over the most tear-inducing musical textures and stacked against Joutsen’s tortured cries. The track is ultimately driven forward to its conclusion by the most chugging, grooving riff yet, as if to signify the struggling effort of moving on, and then the catharsis is over, leaving a deep impact and a meaningful epitaph.