Album: No Stars Upon the Bridge
Label: Svart Records
As some of you likely know already, the tragic origin of Hallatar is far from usual. After the untimely passing of singer-songwriter Aleah Starbridge last year, her partner Juha Raivio [Swallow the Sun, Trees of Eternity] gathered poems and lyrics she had written, and during one week’s time wrote music that would become Hallatar’s debut album. The band’s line-up was completed with former HIM drummer Gas Lipstick and Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis on vocals, both of them saying yes to the project before hearing a single note of the music. Without any changes made to its songs after they were written, No Stars Upon the Bridge stands as an unfiltered, harrowing journey into bereavement.
I thought for a long time about how to even begin this review, because casual doesn’t feel like the right way to go. I seem to have a pattern forming in reviewing a doom album every fall, with Trees of Eternity’s The Hour of the Nightingale last year, and now this year with Hallatar. Both of these are albums that evoke a wide array of thoughts, but only a little in actual words, and finding the right words is my job here.
In the same way I looked for a way to start this text, I also looked for opportune moments to listen and really focus on the album, but as it turned out, it’s rarely a perfect time for anything like that. That in turn led into thinking of an analogy to describe the sound on No Stars Upon the Bridge; if The Hour of the Nightingale was like mentally preparing yourself to face something ahead, Hallatar’s debut sounds like when the actual blow hits you. That is present especially on the first track, “Mirrors”, and peaks from time-to-time throughout the album. Musically, it’s not Swallow the Sun nor Trees of Eternity – Hallatar dives deeper into the voids of doom, and while you can easily recognize Raivio’s hand in the music, the trademark sound is a touch subtler than in the aforementioned two bands, giving way for the needed approach.
When it comes to the completing pieces of the lineup, Tomi Joutsen is clearly a perfect match for the music, along with visiting vocalist Heike Langhans [Draconian], whose calming, whispering voice is heard in the upcoming video track, “My Mistake”, and in spoken tracks “Raven’s Song”, “Pieces”, and “Spiral Gate.” Those who are used to Joutsen’s singing in Amorphis might be in for a bit of surprise, as on No Stars Upon the Bridge, the vocalist covers a wider range of harsh styles, from outright cries and rattles to the more familiar growl. His vocals channel raw emotions in a way that is teetering on the edge between disturbing and purging, shaking out the listener’s own frailties with ease. On the other hand, his soothing clean vocals are the highlight of tracks like “Severed Eyes”, complemented by acoustic guitars, and in their lamenting softness is something one doesn’t get to hear too often with Amorphis.
Still on the topic of vocals, I didn’t really expect to hear Aleah’s voice on this album, and was extremely happy to hear her in the closing track, “Dreams Burn Down”, which has become one of my favorite songs that have been released this year. Her lyrics are again poignant and beautiful, with a touch of the kind of personal that resonates in others, wonderfully complementing the different sort of moving that is presented in the music on this album. While the poems and writings have as otherworldly an air as her singing, they tread through thoughts that are deeply humane and recognizable, and by that, unexpectedly comforting. Aside from that, reading them and listening to the last track made me want to put The Hour of the Nightingale on for a few spins after some time.
There’s one thing that this album makes painfully clear and worth remembering: grief is hardly ever beautiful in the usual sense of the word, nor is there anything to glorify about it. When you lay it out in the open, it’s not like something out of a romantic movie or book – it might look ugly on the surface, but conventional beauty is not exactly written in grief’s description. As such, No Stars Upon the Bridge is like a black hole of sorrow; but despite their name, black holes and the space around them are not completely devoid of light, and neither is this album. It may be small and it may be fleeting, but that light is still present in what would otherwise be a crushing whorl of darkness.
As a final thought, this is an album that gets to you little-by-little – even though the delivery is heavy-handed, it’s not aggressive or demanding attention to itself. It will get that anyway, and while it doesn’t demand, it does need attention – or at least a bit of non-rushed time – to thrive. That being said, it’s not an album for everyone. It doesn’t try to be easy to approach or process (as it shouldn’t try) and some won’t find anything appealing in it no matter how hard they try. From another point of view, it can and will become extremely personal at times – essentially, this is what losing a loved one sounds like, to the letter.
It’s not the first time I’ve said, and likely will not be the last, but I hate having to give a numeral rating or stars to an album like this. For one, I don’t see much point in it because I don’t have a clear base to refer to (as my more active doom listening days are long past), and secondly, I simply don’t want to. From my opinion, with or without rating, here’s a piece I wish people will find and experience.
Rating: 9/10, 4.5 stars
2. Raven’s Song
4. My Mistake (feat. Heike Langhans)
6. Severed Eyes
7. The Maze
8. Spiral Gate
9. Dreams Burn Down (feat. Aleah Starbridge)