After the tragic passing of Aleah Stanbridge in 2016 and the subsequent release of her solo debut with Trees of Eternity, it seemed to the outside observer that one of the more depressing moments in recent metal history had come to a close. Not so for her grieving partner, Juha Raivio of Swallow the Sun. Opting to forgo his band’s recent tour of North America, he immersed himself instead in the creation of a new project named Hallatar, which would use Aleah’s poems and writings as a foundation for one last tribute to a departed love. To aid in this very personal project, Juha recruited Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis) to handle vocals and Gas Lipstick (ex-H.I.M.) to man the kit. The resulting No Stars Upon the Bridge is a massive and emotionally raw slab of soul killing doom death – as much a vehicle for its creator to work through his grief as an opportunity to share a bit more of Aleah with the world. This is the kind of album you know going in will be a heavy, harrowing listen, but even so, I didn’t expect it to hit as hard nor resonate as deeply. Simply put, this is a profoundly depressing yet beautiful and nakedly vulnerable work of art, the likes of which doesn’t come along often.
Composed of 6 main tracks, No Stars Upon the Bridge is broken up by a series of short spoken word interludes using recordings of Aleah. This gives the already downcast music a very haunted feeling, as if Aleah is speaking to us from beyond even as we share in her partner’s disabling grief. Opener “Mirrors” comes to life with a simple but huge doom riff accented by sweetly sad trilling similar to vintage Paradise Lost, though My Dying Bride and Swallow the Sun‘s sound is present as well. When Tomi comes in, he sounds nothing like what you’d expect. To say he goes all in would be to understate his performance. His unsettling suicidal-depressive blackened crackles and croaking are offset by deep funeral doom groans and growls, with only occasional moments of plaintive clean singing to break up the unrelenting grimness. “Melt” is darker still, with a desperation in Tomi’s voice akin to that of a man sobbing and howling over the fresh grave of a loved one. The riffs feel oppressive and bruising, but are broken up regularly by calm, soothing strumming. The funerary doom is always just a breath away though.
As if things weren’t already bleak enough, “My Mistake” features Aleah’s vocals in a ghostly duet with Tomi over the top of post-metal and Agalloch‘s inflected riffwork sure to tear your heart out [correction: “My Mistake” features Heike Langhans from Draconian, not Aleah. h/t Gage Love. – Ed].1 “Severed Eyes” features Tomi’s soft clean vocals prominently and is all the more despairing for it. Closer “Dreams Burn Down” is the highlight, again using Aleah’s vocals, this time dropping them in at the perfect moment to totally annihilate whatever sense of hope and joy is left in the dark corners of your consciousness. It’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece of music.
The production is quite good with a big, powerful guitar tone, and though it does tend to dominate the proceedings much like on Die Healing by Saint Vitus, there’s plenty of room made for Tomi’s vocals and the drum sound which is solid and organic. At just over 40 minutes it’s the near perfect length for such emotionally challenging music, and by keeping the songs under 8-minutes, it has a good flow with no track bogging the progression down.
With Juhu providing guitar, bass and keyboards, there’s no doubt this is his child, and from that dark place he’s found himself comes a strength of writing and composition to rival anything he’s done with Swallow the Sun.2 The depressive riffing is straightforward, but when teamed with the melancholic trilling, it takes on the form of a psyche hammer and smashes the happiness out of the listener. Of special note is Tomi’s tour de force vocal performance. He goes well beyond what we’ve heard him do with Amorphis, borrowing and at times surpassing his time in Corpse Molester Cult for sheer extremity. Had it not been for the promo sheet, I’m not sure I would have realized he was involved. His tortured delivery is a suitable proxy for what Juhu has likely been feeling and that pain comes across all too clearly.
No Stars Upon the Bridge is both a memorial and a vessel in which one man’s despair is interred forevermore. This is the sound of someone raging at the dying of the light, and while that isn’t something you want to hear often, it should be heard. Few albums will ever be this honest and real, and reality isn’t always what we wish it was.