When I first started writing this piece, I thought I would end up writing a review where I would discuss how Moonflowers, Swallow the Sun’s newest release, was a departure from the grief we saw and heard previously. However, the more I listened, the more this evolved into something that needed to be discussed within the context of going through the stages of grief. I also felt that it was appropriate to make a call back to a piece I wrote many years ago that also dealt with doom metal and loss, but in a translated context. After all, being constantly surrounded by pain, grief, and loss makes someone introspective and reflective of where they are in this current time. This is the case with Moonflowers, an album that shows that hope and acceptance can bloom from the darkest of places.
This concept started taking root in my mind when I was writing about doom metal for my own column. At the time, I mentioned Hallatar’s No Stars Upon the Bridge as one of the three recommended albums to start someone off if they were interested in the genre. What I didn’t expect was that I would be tracking the story behind No Stars Upon the Bridge for a while, which would conclude with the release of the haunting and grief-stricken When A Shadow Is Forced into the Light (When A Shadow…). For context, When A Shadow… is about moving on after the death of a loved one, hoping that their memory is immortalized within the art they loved and strived to create. When A Shadow… was also the third album in what I have named the “Starbridge Triptych,” as this was the third album that dealt with Juha Raivio’s feelings about the death of his life partner and artistic collaborator, Aleah Starbridge. The first two albums in the triptych, Trees of Eternity’s Hour of the Nightingale and the aforementioned No Stars Upon the Bridge, were the celebration of her legacy as a musician and artist and the anger and despair left behind after her passing, respectively. With When A Shadow…, the triptych ends with a sense of coming to terms with her death and how he and his creative output would continue forward, even when her death affected him so badly.
How does one move on from something as traumatic as the death of a loved one you considered to be your equal, your true significant other? Moonflowers seems to provide an answer to that question.
In a sense, the Starbridge Triptych is simultaneously one of the most romantic and heartbreaking homages to a person I have known about. It’s hard to contextualize and discuss how significant someone can be to you, how important their presence was when they are no longer part of your life. The void left by their departure hurts, especially when all you feel within that moment is nothing. All you have left is their memory, the physical items they left behind, and the sound of their voice if it was recorded while they were present. Death is permanent, and it takes a while to realize that the deceased will no longer be around, that their essence will no longer be felt. While the overarching concept of the triptych is the inherent sadness and depression for those left behind, each album can be allocated to a specific stage of grief.
- Hour of the Nightingale is denial – Aleah is alive, her voice and presence immortalized within the confines of an album. She’s present and lauded for her contributions, for her creative output, for being a muse to Juha’s own creative output. Within that moment, she’s near and you can almost touch her memory.
- No Stars Upon the Bridge is anger – the immediate knowledge that she is gone and the inability to do anything, including bringing her back, makes you hollow and angry. It’s evident in how heavy the music is, where it drags its feet at times, the intensity pulsates underneath the grief. The memory hurts.
- When A Shadow… is bargaining – the pain has lessened but it still hurts. You are temporally removed – it has been years now – but the grief is there. The memory persists and the music reflects that: her lyrics, her words, her symbol remain embedded and she’s there again, giving you her blessing to move on.
Using this analogy, Moonflowers, as a separate album from the Triptych, is acceptance, and you can hear it as soon as the music starts. Gone is the overt grief and funerary tone that permeated in When A Shadow… and made it so hard-hitting. Here, the tracks show more levity, given the added melody, the emphasis on the cleaner vocals, and the superb orchestral accompaniment. The melancholy and introspective gloom exists, but it’s more palpable, like specific memories that no longer affect you the same way they used to. They no longer have the weight and the calamity of grief that made the album resonate with everyone who listened to it. However, Moonflowers still showcases that grief brilliantly, especially in the latter half of the album; just because you are temporally removed in time doesn’t mean that those same thoughts and feelings you had will not affect you again. Accepting the fact that someone you considered to be one of the most important people in your life is gone and will no longer return to your life is growth. You have come to terms with their death and now, you can pick the pieces left behind and stitch them in gold.
Getting to accept that something is final is difficult. When you are surrounded by constant memories or by physical objects sitting in a box to the left, you never get a moment to just sit in your pain. Some days will be easier than others, especially when there is something that can distract you. However, there is a point where the pain can no longer be ignored, and then you must deal with it. Letting it haunt you like a ghost does nothing for you except make you less likely to come back to the land of the living. Grief can be haunting, but we are resilient, and we cannot let it consume us whole.
Grief is part of the human experience, only we can control how much it affects us.
Even without the context of the Starbridge Triptych, Moonflowers is a triumphant and beautiful record, one that speaks to those who have gone through events like these. Acceptance allows for finality. Coming to terms with the need to accept what happened and move on means we can use them as experiences to learn from. What Moonflowers teaches us is that we cannot mire in our grief and disappointment forever. To come to terms with that, we must give up a pound of our metaphorical flesh and blood and let it go. The weight cannot keep us rooted forever, we must heal.
The house may have no home, but you are healing, and you are still breathing this fire that keeps you alive.