To address the elephant in the room right away: Hallatar’s No Stars Upon The Bridge is a project reflecting, both in music and title, the untimely death of South Africa-born vocalist Aleah Starbridge (Trees of Eternity), girlfriend and musical partner of Juha Raivio (Swallow The Sun). The lyrics to the nine songs are taken from her personal writing and poetry, and she even has a vocal feature on one of them. Knowing that these are words from a person who has passed on over a year ago, and hearing her voice from beyond the eternal cold embrace of death makes these 40 minutes of atmospheric doom metal even more gut-wrenchingly beautiful and sad. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Even though it is ultimately Raivio’s outlet, the line-up he has rallied around himself for this burdensome undertaking is quite impressive. Gas Lipstick (ex-HIM) handles the drum duties, while one of my favorite metal vocalists ever, Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis), lends his wistful cleans and earth-shattering growls to the music. Heike Langhans (Draconian), personal friend and compatriot of Aleah, is featured on track number four, “My Mistake”.
‘Let me be what I am / I am all, I am none‘
It features a post rock-ish main motif, which, being played on a hollow-body electric guitar, creates an unsettling feeling of distant warmth. The sparse percussion leaves a lot of room for the riffs and melodies to swirl around and resound in layers of reverb. Langhans’ unexpectedly understated performance fits the intimate tone of personal grief this song portrays very well, her somewhat calm and deep vocals sitting comfortably with the bright tone of the guitars. A crescendo marks the arrival of Joutsen’s powerful growling in a genuinely heavy, doomy passage in what is an otherwise restrained track. He returns later on to deliver both whispered and clean vocals, adding yet another layer of emotionality “My Mistake”, before it ends with the same crushing doom part I mentioned earlier.
Me saying that Aleah herself would only be featured on one song of the album earlier was only half true. Recordings of her reciting fragments of her own poetry are captured on three short interludes, namely “Raven’s Song”, “Pieces”, and “Spiral Gate”; none of them hits the two-minute mark. Usually, I’m not a fan of including tracks that are only spoken word pieces on your records (they tend to add quite a lot of pretence to the music), but these are actually tastefully arranged and integrated into No Stars Upon The Bridge as a whole. Underpinned by either the sound of wind or a forlorn piano, Aleah’s words come across harrowingly clear, and for a moment you might even forget that she’s not around anymore to hear these songs. But when you finally do remember, man does the realization hit you hard.
‘It breaks your heart to free you‘
“Severed Eyes” is by far the album’s shortest ‘actual’ song, but it’s haunting nonetheless. Played only with clean guitars and vocals, it boasts the album’s most memorable moment: the chorus, in which the sentence ‘Severed eyes saw it all/Severed eyes’ is repeated multiple times, Joutsen harmonizing with himself later on in the runtime, eventually building up to a three-part harmony in the final occurrence of the chorus. His elegiac portrayal is what really makes this song stand out, although the extremely sparse instrumentation holds its special charm in the album’s context as well.
Church bells and a choir pave the way for No Stars Upon The Bridge’s final song, “Dreams Burn Down”. Raivio employs his own raw, bristly gutturals over the first verse, before we eventually hit the album’s final high point when Aleah’s voice comes on in the chorus. Oppressive and devastating in its beauty, it drives home ten times over the feelings, circumstances and intentions behind Hallatar. Joutsen also has one final appearance on this track, placing his growls over a mixture of crunchy guitars and keyboard strokes. And in the end, there is only Aleah, singing bittersweetly into the void as the track rings out.
‘I Will Break The Silence‘
Releasing an album like this, with all the meanings and messages attached to it, at this particular time of the year sends a poignant message of itself; whether that was intentional or not is debatable. In having No Stars Upon The Bridge come out in autumn, Raivio appears to say that, even though everything living must invariably come to an end as part of nature, and even though our bodies will wither away and fail us at one point, the memories and love we shared in life will never leave this world for good as long as there are people to remember us. A gripping and somewhat tragically romantic thought, if you ask me. The music reflects this sentiment in a way as well, seeing that there is a solemn quality to it amidst the mournful overtones. With this album, hopefully, the memory of Aleah and her work will be passed on to the generations to come, never to be lost completely.
You will find below that I did not specify a score for this album. The reason for this is as simple as it is deeply ingrained in me: I’m not at all comfortable with putting an arbitrary numeric value on the commemoration of a deceased loved one. Frankly, I’d be disgusted with myself if I did. Instead, let me say this much: if you’re gonna listen to only one more doom metal album this year, let it be No Stars Upon The Bridge by Hallatar.
Notable Tracks: “Melt”; “Severed Eyes”; “Dreams Burn Down”
FFO: Swallow the Sun, Trees of Eternity, Amorphis