Swallows: In the Shadow of the Seven Stars (2020)
About the album
In 2013, Swallows met in their practice space to discuss a follow-up to 2012’s Witching & Divining. After a spirited discussion, the group decided to write a collection of songs for a Victorian ghost story. Of course, the story had yet to be written, so the band members started writing the new material and comparing notes as the songwriting process got off and running. Not wanting to simply lay out a plot in the song lyrics, the band agreed to write a group of songs that were representative of specific moments in a mutually agreed upon story line.
By the end of 2013, at least two dozen new songs had been written for the album. Demo recordings were made by various members of the band and the list of potential songs was vetted by the group. From that list, fifteen songs were selected to try out in the studio. By early 2014, recording had begun at Full Circle Studios with engineer Steve Murray.
In the Shadow of the Seven Stars takes its name from a public house in London called “The Crown and Seven Stars,” which was located on Royal Mint Street in the Whitechapel District of London in 1891. The Seven Stars story begins with the murder of a 26-year-old prostitute named Frances Coles on Friday, February 13, 1891 by a killer that many believed to be Jack the Ripper. The band’s fictional story introduces a witness to the murder who is subsequently haunted by Frances’ ghost, who is desperately seeking an accomplice to revenge her murder.
Fast forward six years…. The concept for and the recording In the Shadow of the Seven Stars turned out to be more involved than anyone realized at the beginning of the project. Because the band was telling such a fantastical story, the songs had a cinematic quality about them that begged for more elaborate production than the band had attempted on previous albums.
For the project to succeed, the songs needed to convey a sense of the era the band was writing about without losing the rock and roll spirit of the songwriting. There was also a theatrical and performative aspect to the songs that the band had only dabbled in previously and a fine line had to be drawn with the arrangements to make sure that nothing got too kitschy or falsely dramatic. The band’s ultimate goal for the recording was to create something akin to a sonic graphic novel.
The initial takes for several of the songs were recorded in 2014. Many of the first attempts at tracking the songs were rejected by the band for one reason or another. The added weight of a democratic process for making the album was beginning to take a toll. Several songs were ultimately re-recorded, incorporating additional studio spaces to capture grand and upright pianos to create moods and textures that felt right for the pieces. The songwriting itself also created the additional challenge of working with a variety of musical styles that referenced different eras of music. Fusing the different styles and eras into cohesive and listenable whole was definitely going to be a tall order.
At different times during the recording process, additional musician were brought in to add specific points of realism and color to the arrangements. Bassist Chris Bates was asked to lend his talents to the title song, “In the Shadow of the Seven Stars.” After attempting an electric bass part on the song, the band agreed that a double bass part would be a better fit for the the tango-inspired piece. Asking Chris to come up with a part for the piece was an easy choice for the band; there is a good reason Chris is such a sought-after player in the Twin Cities. His inspired performance and superb bass tones provided the missing glue that was needed to pull the song together.
Former Swallows’ member Toni Tinetti was asked back by the band to perform several vocal parts that had originally been written for her when she was in the band. Toni appears on several songs on the album as the voice of the ghost who is haunting the story’s main character. Her vocal credits on the album include “The Boneyard,” “In the Shadow of the Seven Stars,” “Grace,” “Bring Your Dead Back Home” and “Round About Me.”
Recording engineer Randy Gildersleeve also lent his musical chops to the album, including a sweet mandolin part on “Gravediggers” and a Stones-like slide guitar part on the rocker “Dead and Gone”; violinist Laura Harada joined cellist Aaron Kerr to create the gypsy-inspired string section that kicks off the album on “The Boneyard”; and finally, multi-instrumentalist Ben Valine added a compelling banjo part to “Gravediggers” and viola parts to the string arrangement on the album’s final song “Round About Me.”
In the middle of tracking, the original studio space where the band was recording closed down and the project needed to be moved to another studio. This left tracking in limbo for several months. In the end, the band decided to move the recording to their old stomping grounds at GilderSound in Forest Lake, Minnesota, where most of the tracking for both Songs for Strippers (and other professions) and Witching & Divining had been completed. But this was not before a lightning storm struck Full Circle, knocking the power out completely and damaging the building. For some days, it wasn’t known if the computer that stored the tracking for the album had been damaged in the storm or not.
In the meantime, as multiple delays plagued the Seven Stars sessions, other albums were written, recorded and released by band members, including Aaron Kerr’s Union County Forever (2016), J. Briozo’s Deep in the Waves (2017) and Tyson Allison and Aaron Kerr’s To Combat Loneliness: Compositions Based on the Works of David Foster Wallace (2019), which was nominated in 2020 for an Independent Music Award for Best Concept Album.
In 2014, Tyson Allison decided to leave Swallows as a regular member after several years of long-distance collaboration. Cellist and vocalist Toni Tinetti had already decided to limit her playing to one band (Aaron Kerr’s Dissonant Creatures), so Swallows’ line-up was changing during the course of recording the album. Shortly after Tyson and Toni left the band, lead guitarist Brett Hansen joined the band as a regular member. Brett joined Swallows just in time to add his distinctive guitar playing to both Seven Stars and J. Briozo’s Deep in the Waves.
The mixing for the In the Shadow of the Seven Stars was completed at GilderSound in January 2020; however, this wasn’t before another equipment failure once again put the album in peril. Both the primary hard drive and back-up drive that the album was stored on appeared to fail completely about 3/4 of the way through the mixing process. Both drives had to be sent back to the manufacturer where the data was ultimately salvaged and the drives replaced. After several days of panic, another crisis had been averted.
By the beginning of 2020, plans for the album release were finally in the works and the band was getting their live set together for the album release. Toni Tinetti had agreed to temporarily rejoin the group to sing her parts for the album launch and everything finally appeared to be in full swing to get the album out to the world…
Then the pandemic hit. And everyone’s plans were being scuttled, including Swallows. Nevertheless, the band is determined to release the album in 2020.