I’ll be completely honest, I’ve done a fair few album reviews over the years on here and on other platforms and few albums have been as difficult to begin to write about as this one, Hallatar’s debut album No Stars Upon the Bridge. This is partly down to the circumstances surrounding the formation of Hallatar, and partly down to the sheer emotional weight of the music here and what it represents. It’s not something I can sit here and review in a conventional sense, it is however something I can gladly simply write about and just tell you about and hopefully draw your attention to and share with you all the same.
If you aren’t already aware, Hallatar is a band formed by Juha Raivio, guitarist from Swallow the Sun and Trees of Eternity, and began after the tragic death of Aleah Starbridge, Raivio’s partner and vocalist for Trees of Eternity who passed away from cancer in April last year. Raivio had collected together Aleah’s writings and poetry, and having gone to a very dark place spent a week writing the music which, combined with Aleah’s writings would then form Halllatar’s debut album. He invited Amorphis vocalist Tomi Joutsen and former HIM drummer Gas Lipstick to record this music with him, who both immediately agreed to do so without hearing so much as a note of it, and so Hallatar was born.
Slow, melancholic doom makes up the core of Hallatar’s sound here, tipped with a rawness that really hits home the raw emotion laid bare on this album. Opener song “Mirrors” showcases this from the off, with sorrowful guitars setting the tone early on but it’s when they drop out and Tomi Joutsen’s vocals kick that this really hits home. His vocals literally scream pain here, offset by cleanly sung lamenting segments which add to the overall effect of this opening song, which goes through many different phases and contrasting elements flooding the listener with mixed yet powerful emotions. This devastating opener is followed by “Raven’s Song”, one of the spoken word tracks on here, with Draconian vocalist Heike Langhans lending her voice to these parts as well as singing alongside Joutsen on the haunting “My Mistake” later on. In places we see that Hallatar can and do adopt a more accessible and conventional approach, third song “Melt” is a classic gothic death / doom song, subtle keys enhancing the overall effect of this one, while “The Maze”, later on is quite the opposite, a very bleak and desolate piece which has to be one of the darker moments on the album.
One thing you notice about Hallatar is the synergy and chemistry between the musicians involved, the line-up is impressive on paper alone with the calibre of the musicians involved but in practice it’s literally poetry in motion. Aleah’s words brought out and set to the music of Raivio, Joutsen capturing his pain and raw emotion with one of the most powerful vocal performances I’ve ever heard him deliver, and Gas Lipstick’s drumming which, while restrained, adds drama and emphasis to Hallatar’s sound in just the right way. Heike Langhans does her part brilliantly too, her voice being naturally suited to the music here as well as to reciting Aleah’s poetry, and bearing a close resemblance to the voice of Aleah herself. Chemistry is important for any band, but here everybody has come together for this unified purpose and they give it absolutely everything they have.
The closing song, “Dreams Burn Down”, deserves special mention and has to be the one which really shows the essence of what No Stars Upon the Bridge is about, and it features the ethereal vocals of Aleah Starbridge herself. It’s a much calmer and more subdued piece than most of the other songs yet no less evocative, and possesses a calming serenity which we can only hope will be found by those Aleah left behind. It’s essentially to be Aleah’s swansong, and is the perfect epitaph and closing moment on this album.
No Stars Upon the Bridge then, is an album forged from anguish and sorrow yet also from love and beauty, and you’ll hear that reflected here. It is a tough album to listen to, and it’s not really one you will sit down and put on to “enjoy” as you would most other albums, nor would you realistically expect to. It is, however, a powerful and moving epitaph which captures a very raw snapshot of a moment in time, with shared grief inspiring its creators and driving them towards the purpose of sharing Aleah’s legacy with the rest of the world. As metal fans we’re used to hearing dark music, but I’ve rarely, if ever, heard anything which sounds quite as real as this album, it’s honest, raw and lays everything wide open for all to see, and we have to admire the courage of all involved in choosing to share this with all of us. It really is something special and succeeds in its purpose admirably, and is one I’d highly recommend.
RIP Aleah Starbridge (1976 - 2016)