A strong pedigree and a compelling backstory made Trees of Eternity’s debut album an easy one to choose for review this week. Conceived of in 2009 by Swallow the Sun guitarist Juha Raivio and South African chanteuse Aleah Stanbridge, the two were joined by ex-Katatonia bandmates Fredrik and Mattiaas Norrman, as well as Kai Hahto from Swallow the Sun in time to work on Hour of the Nightingale. The project began in earnest three years ago before tragedy struck. At 39, Stanbridge passed away from cancer this year.
Thankfully, Trees of Eternity were able to complete their album, and Hour of the Nightingale serves as Stanbridge’s parting gift to us. It is a somber album featuring ten tracks of atmospheric, string-infused doom.
The album kicks off with “My Requiem,” a slow march down a stormy path. Orchestral strings enhance the guitar chords, and Stanbridge’s airy, ethereal voice somehow finds its way to the forefront. The song is all about atmosphere and succeeds through its ebbs and flows. “Eye of Night” is similarly paced (actually, every song is) but comes laden with chugging, distorted guitars countering the cleaner chords.
Album closer “Gallows Bird” is the strongest song on the album. Stanbridge’s harmony vocals opening the track (“A red sun on the horizon marks the hour of your goal.”) will send shivers up your spine, and when the band kicks in “Gallows Bird” is magnificently epic. Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes pitches in on vocals partway through and nails his part, making this a devastating song.
Production and performances are top notch. The renowned Jens Bogren (Opeth, Katatonia, Dark Tranquillity) twisted the knobs on this one and did a fantastic job. Instrumentation is dramatically mixed across the entire sound field, and Stanbridge’s vocals look down on everything with heavenly clarity without dominating the mix. While the band plays every song with great technical ability and feel, the emotional delivery of the lyrics are what stand out – sure, in part due to the tragic circumstances, but predominantly due to the quality of her voice.
There are nitpicks to be found among the treasures, though. The smallest issue is the first guest vocalist, Antimatter’s Mick Moss, who duets with Stanbridge on “Condemned to Silence.” The song itself is one of the record’s weaker tracks, and the duet feels forced and lacks chemistry.
The bigger issue, though, is the overall feeling of sameness that creeps in as Hour of the Nightingale plays on. Most of the songs stand up well on their own, but as a collection they end up blending together. The pace and arrangements don’t change up much, and Stanbridge sings each note of each lyric in the same hushed whisper, never deviating in the least. Her voice is gorgeous, but the album badly needed some variety.
Hour of the Nightingale isn’t a perfect album, but the performances are stellar, especially Stanbridge’s singing. I badly wanted to give this four stars, and with some more variety in the songs that rating would have been attainable. Under normal circumstances I would say Trees of Eternity shows immense promise as a symphonically infused doom act. As it stands, think of this as one of the best 3.5 releases of the year. Give it a listen.
(released November 11, 2016 on Svart Records)