Life is fleeting, sometimes cruel and always impossible to predict. Case in point – the circumstances surrounding the Hour of the Nightingale debut by Trees of Eternity – a project formed by Juha Raivio (Swallow the Sun) and his partner Aleah Liane Stanbridge. Prior to Trees, Aleah was best known for her vocal work on Swallow the Sun‘s Songs of the North and Amorphis‘ Under the Red Cloud. Trees‘ and its melodic quasi-doom style was designed to showcase Aleah’s vocal talents and take her career to the next level. Tragically, Aleah passed away in April, leaving Juha to release Hours as a posthumous tribute to her memory and the music they created together. If ever there was a recipe for an emotionally harrowing album, this is surely it, and reviewing it is all the tougher for knowing the story behind it. But to do honor to all involved, it’s important to focus on the music itself rather than the unhappy circumstances that herald the album’s arrival.
Hour is the stylistic cousin to Disc II of Songs of the North, which isn’t surprising considering Juha was involved with both projects. The music walks between doom and goth, rarely drifting too far in either direction. Opener “My Requiem” is the heaviest cut by far, approaching the sound of Draconian or DoomVS with mournful riffs counterpointed by Aleah’s soft, enchanting voice. It’s very effective and actually gave me chills on the first spin. Aleah shines here with her voice delicately floating over the trilling guitars and it got me excited for an album full of similarly doomy chestnuts of sadness.
However, such doom-centric fare is not what Trees are about. Instead the bulk of the material clings closer to goth-metal balladry akin to the output of early Within Temptation and Unsun. “Eye of the Night” in particular reminds me of something off Unsun‘s debut. It’s melancholic but catchy and rather poppy, with Aleah’s voice doing most of the heavy lifting. This formula results in some compelling moments like her heart-wrenching duet with Mick Moss (Antimatter, Eudaimony) on “Condemned to Silence,” and the grim but gorgeous “A Million Tears,” which reminds me of recent Battlelore without the death croaks. “Broken Mirror” is another engaging example of the Trees style, leveraging understated, reflective background music against Aleah’s sullen voice. The doomier side of the band doesn’t fully reemerge until closer “Gallows Bird” where Aleah is joined by Nick Holmes (Paradise Lost) for one of the album’s most impressive and downcast moments. There’s a real Paradise Lost vibe mixed with a trace of Primordial and it really pops.
Nothing here qualifies as filler, but not every gothy ballad hits the heartstrings quite as acutely. “Black Ocean” is a good depressive cut, but it comes after 5 very similar songs and it’s around this point I start to want something different. And that’s the biggest problem with Hour of the Nightingale – the overall lack of diversity. With 8 out of 10 tracks adopting a “goth ballad” style, things feel too similar and the songs bleed together. There’s also a shortage of energy as song after song floats by in a gentle gossamer breeze. A bit more of the heavy doom style would have greatly benefited the topography of the album by giving the sad flatness some emotive peaks and valleys.
There’s no doubt the album was intended to be about Aleah’s vocals. She’s the focal point in the same way Liv was the focus in Leaves Eyes and the music takes a distant backseat. There’s no denying her talent and her voice is beautiful and soothing, with a healthy dose of sadness ever present. She has the type of voice that grabs your attention, weaving hypnotic spells regardless of what the song may be doing. While blessed with a wonderful voice, she never really shows her range or versatility, singing in the same soft, breathy style on every track. There are no elevations to express urgency or emotion, just the same whispered croon from song to song and this ultimately makes it harder for individual tracks to stand out. Juha and Fredrik Norrman (October Tide, ex-Katatonia) support her with acoustic plucking, sedate riffing and occasionally aggressive riffage, and the band’s performance overall is polished, though very understated to keep the focus on the vocals.
Issues of monochromatic songwriting aside, there’s a lot to like about Hour of the Nightingale, and endless reasons to regret Aleah’s untimely passing. This is a beautiful album overflowing with sadness, and all the more so knowing it’s Aleah’s swan song. If you liked the songs on Disc II of Songs of the North or the early days of Within Temptation, you’ll enjoy this too. Godspeed, songbird.