All music has themes but metal is a genre which wears its heart on its sleeve. Thematics color everything in metal, from audience reception and marketing to the actual composition and execution of the music itself. It can affect production, tone, scales, and much more in an effort to align everything with a perceived image or to jar that image by deviating from the norm in just the right way. Take goth metal; a sub-section of doom, it relies on the theme of autumn, death, depression and nature for its impact. We haven’t even mentioned bands yet and album art, track names and that certain goth sound has already sprung into your mind. Sometimes, these themes become even more powerful and, by some twist of fate or by a pecuilar predestination, reflect in the musicians themselves: they might reflect the ideals of the music in their actions or in the facts of their lives.
And sometimes, that reflection has a bitter edge. Aleah Starbridge is such an unfortunate mirror; the vocalist has been an influential part of the goth/doom scene for ages, flitting around the edges of projects like Katatonia, Swallow the Sun and her own solo works and collaboration project as Trees of Eternity. Tragically, she passed away in April, leaving an unfinished album and a host of themes now all too painful to contemplate. An immensely talented vocalist, her words now echo on the last piece of work to ever bear her name, Hour of the Nightingale, and they transform the album into something more. The themes of death, loss and darkness ring all that more true around her singing and the accompanying instruments. It’s almost as if her own story amplifies that of the album.
The story’s makeup should be familiar to fans of the sub-genre. After all, Trees of Eternity are a super-group made up of members that basically birthed the scene: Juha Raivio (Swallow The Sun) play guitar, given her a backing role that’s among the staples of the sub-genre. It works in the background of Aleah’s vocals, punctuating the melodies with its own slow, mounrful progressions. On these duties he is joined by Fredrik Norrman (ex-Katatonia, October Tide), as leads and chords are exchanged behind the vocals. “Condemned to Silence” (which also features Mick Moss of Antimatter) is a good example of these dynamics. The guitars are split into two parts, as is traditional, which then pick up on different parts and notes in the dual vocal lines which make the track work.
The other motivating force behind the projects are the drums, populated by none other than Kai Hahto (Nightwish, Wintersun), a truly legendary name within the metal community. His work here is more restrained than what he usually does on the two projects mentioned above, naturally fitting himself to the more fragile and ethereal compositions which make up Trees of Eternity. So too Mattias Norrman (ex-Katatonia, October Tide), the last facet of the project, whose bass work mostly enriches and envelops the rest of the music. Together with the drums, his work gives the project its shell. Such is the case on “A Million Tears” for example, as he works in tandem with Hahto to give an outer casing to the slow and thoughtful track. Here, as is true throughout the rest of the album, Aleah takes the forefront, handling most of the weight behind the track. When her voice goes soft on the outro, the song becomes its namesake, drawing forth an intense and painful sorrow.
When we say this is true for the rest of the album, we mean it. Her voice, divorced from the heartbreaking circumstances of her life as it is, completely dominates this release. She was a capable and expressive vocalist, possessed of a rich and full voice. On this release it is used as the anchor around which the other instruments spin, a maelstrom of emotion that works together to enhance the overall experience. Musically, the album won’t knock you off your feet; it utilizes all the basic tools of goth metal and doubles down on their message and themes. However, especially when coupled with the circumstances surrounding it, Hour of the Nightingale has an undeniable power which perhaps stems from that very same simplicity. It’s all about sinking deeper into the autumnal mindset, drifting further into a melancholic, faintly sylvan state. For that journey, there is no psychopomp more fitting than Aleah Starbridge. Rest in peace.
Hour of the Nightingale was released on November 11th via Svart Records. You can purchase it here.