Songs from the North was a wonderful triple album that I’ve been listening to frequently since it came out in 2015. It was difficult to imagine what Swallow the Sun could do to overcome such opera magna. In 2016 we received the sad news about the death of Aleah Stanbridge, great songwritter and life companion of the band’s main composer, Juha Raivio, so I thought that he would surely put on hold his musical projects for some years. On the contrary, it seems that Juha has found the comfort he needed after his loss in music, and after publishing posthumously Aleah’s album (Hour of the Nightingale) and starting a new project (the cryptic and dark Hallatar) he returns to his main band, Swallow the Sun, to bring us his last tribute to Aleah, When a Shadow is Forced into the Light (2019), an album about the grief, nostalgia, doubts and hope that comes after losing a loved one.
Because the band hasn’t made any effort to hide, rather the contrary, that the music of this new work has a direct inspiration in the personal tragedy lived by Juha (even the title of the album is taken from a song by Aleah and the references to her imagery constant), at first it may be a bit disquiting to approach the album, since one may come to feel that he is snooping on very personal experiences that do not belong to him. However, music and lyrics are sufficiently sublimated that this sensation disappears as soon as you start listening to it. In addition, the band has made an effort to move forward and experiment in the right way, starting from their previous album. A couple of times I have complained that their sound had been a bit “stuck” in the same formulas, but this time they’ve been able to bring us something new without giving up their characteristic style. The album also presents a strong cohesion and remains faithful to the concepts expressed in its title: when a shadow is forced into the light seems a good metaphor of how Juha has brought to light his grief through music, and the album is a continuous alternation between clean singing and gutturals, between delicate, melancholic moments and others dark and full of rage. All the lead guitar work is magnificent, as always, and seems aimed at moving your heart with its sadness and desperate solos. Percussion adds even more emotion to the moments it takes over and the inclusion of classical elements such as violins, cellos, and piano further reinforce the power of the melodies. However, we have an album that builds up slowly (no song drops below 5 minutes) and it’s necessary to listen several times to be able to capture all the shades it contains.
The album starts strong from the first second, with When a Shadow is Forced into the Light, where the band presents an unusual melodic style for its standards, since the melody here is not conclusive and never reaches a true climax due to its atmospheric nature (almost reminds of post-black), in addition to showing certain influences from the Middle East. The whole song is built in a circular way around this melody, even the part of doom metal just repeats it, with some sharp gutturals that are the best on the record. The Crimson Crown begins with a beautiful introduction and it could be a mix between the styles of Songs from the North I & II, being much more melody-centred than its predecessor and, therefore, containing a sing-along chorus. In general, it’s less dark and clean voices predominate, with a novel vocal style in which they include higher-pitched vocals than usual. So we come to Firelights, the first single, in which they return to their identity in terms of melodies and style. Here everything becomes more dramatic and desperate, highlighting the lead guitar work on the bridge.
Upon the Waters is the second single and one of the songs that have grown in me the most. It begins with a sweet and melancholic introduction and knows how to exploit the potential of the silences. In addition, the duet between gutturals and clean voices that takes place in the chorus gives the music a great intensity. Since minute 4:00, we have the first highlight of the album. The silence of the guitars when the night comes really thrills, as well as the last repetitions of the chorus. This is one of the most personal songs, whose lyrics make direct reference to the loss of Aleah and the themes of her songs (The April skies, singing songs of goodbye. Farewell tonight, leaving with the tide). After so many emotions, Stone Wings begins quieter with a dark and melancholic intro which stillness is suddenly broken by the chorus (and when you speak, you speak with silence). There is a big contrast in minute 4:00, when the song mutates into something much darker and desperate. From here, we have the second highlight where the new vocal style is exploited with much more high and emotional tones along with the gutturals.
We entered approach the end with Clouds on your Side, the only weak spot I’ve found on the album, since it hasn’t captured my attention as much as the previous ones. This time, the intro opts for a more progressive approach and the accompaniment of the piano and the cello takes center stage, in addition to including female vocals that close the track. More striking is, without a doubt, Here on the Black Earth, the most desperate song of the album. The organ constructs a funereal melody from the beginning and, starting at minute 4:00, it offers us another worthy final section that constitutes another hihglight without a doubt. And finally, if the previous songs haven’t managed to move your heart, the album keeps a final blow to soften even the hardest hearts: Never Left. Since I listened to it, it became my favorite of the album. The piano is very present and the chorus attacks you by surprise with a sadness that you cannot get out of your head and heart in hours (empty heart, empty house, but you never left). The final part is simply epic.
And this has been When a Shadow is Forced into the Light, a mature and solid album, at the height of its predecessor, which already left the bar very high. Swallow the Sun has been able to evolve and incorporate new elements such as new melodic and vocal styles, without distorting their identity and, as always, with a magnificent instrumental work that perfectly captures all the shades of melancholy and the beauty of the Nordic landscapes. They have done it again, giving us a new masterpiece as new year gift. I hope that thanks to his music, Juha has been able to purge his pain and honor the memory of Aleah and that happier times come for him.