It’s been over four years since Aleah Stanbridge lost her battle with cancer. She made an incredible mark on the music industry in her time, from being a featured vocalist on albums by Amorphis, Antimatter, and, of course, Swallow the Sun, to being a solo artist and a member of That Which Remains and Trees of Eternity along with Swallow the Sun’s Juha Raivio. She was an artist, photographer, poet, musician, and an all-around great person, and as a tribute to her, Raivio spearheaded posthumously releasing an album of her solo material, simply called Aleah.
“This day April 18th will always stay as the blackest and saddest day of my life. But I want to remember this day also from something positive and good from now on,” says Raivio of the bittersweet task of finalizing all the unreleased songs recorded by Stanbridge, who was as much his life partner as she was his musical partner. Their relationship was deep and profound, far more than just a domestic partnership, and Raivio’s grief is made especially apparent on Swallow the Sun’s latest (and possibly greatest) album When a Shadow is Forced into the Light. In the wake of her untimely passing, Raivio found solace in work, specifically working to make sure as many people could hear Aleah’s music as possible. From releasing Trees of Eternity’s debut in her memory, to performing on Hallatar’s No Stars Upon the Bridge (a supergroup made up of people who worked with Aleah and featuring her poems and writings set to music), it seems he hasn’t ever stopped his mission to bring her light to every corner of the earth. Most recently, he took over the task of organizing, finalizing and releasing the debut solo album she always wanted to put into the world.
Aleah is a massive double album, released on what would have been the singer’s 44th birthday, features a full six tracks making up the meat of the album as well as more than a handful of acoustic cuts of album tracks and other unreleased songs. Appropriately at center stage are Aleah’s vocals, which run dreamlike and wistful over gentle and subtle acoustic guitars, strings, piano and synths. Stylistically, the album proper features a range of influences, from dream pop to neofolk to gothic rock to straight up ballads. Her vocals rightfully shine but there is so much depth and so many layers that perfectly compliment them and deepen the emotional experience of listening to her. The acoustic side is much more stripped down, as expected. It’s not more than an acoustic guitar and one vocal track, with minimal overdubs and reverb to round it out. It shows a more subdued side of her, but it also lets her poetry take the spotlight for a bit, and it really does hammer home how incredibly talented of an artist she was. No matter which side you’re currently listening to, Aleah is an album drenched in emotion, by virtue of the circumstances surrounding its creation as well as the evocative way her voice weaves in and out of the tracks.
“My Will” was released this year as a single on the anniversary of Aleah’s death, and it’s a perfect way to begin encapsulating Aleah as a songwriter. Starting with slow, gentle piano and Stanbridge’s singular whispy, spiderweb-thin vocals, the song builds layer upon layer by adding bass synth, strings and lush guitar until the full weight of the song presses on you after a full seven minutes. “Sacrifice” features more neofolk influences with pounding drums, dulcimer and violin. The production quality on the “electric” tracks is astoundingly good, with each layer serving only to uplift the star of the show. Even on the stripped-down acoustic side, the only things present serve to highlight Aleah. Her voice reminds me a ton of Elliott Smith when it’s sat in front of an acoustic guitar, with the gentle almost-whispery way she sings. Still, she can let her voice soar when it needs to, especially on tracks like “Closing Under Pressure” and “Touch My Face.” There is an inescapable heaviness to this album despite its beauty and ethereal qualities. Particularly, you feel the full depth of her love for Juha. It’s a running theme throughout, from acoustic ballads like “Touch My Face” and “Open Sky,” but nowhere is it more apparent than on “Breathe,” a song I still have not managed to get all the way through either version without losing it. It’s a love letter written from her to Juha, it’s equal parts “goodbye” and “see you soon” and it’s the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful song I’ve heard in a long time.
It’s a strange thing to be able to hear a voice that is no longer with us. Aleah Stanbridge left a gaping hole in the music world when she passed, and there was a lot unfinished that she left behind. I don’t honestly know that I would have the emotional strength to take on the tasks that Juha Raivio has taken on, but I’m sure glad he did. He leaves us with this desire for those who listen to Aleah: “I hope you will support, share and carry this album like a golden torch of Aleah and tell the world about this healer and her music she left behind for us. Carry the flame!”