Porto, Portugal is the birthplace of progressive rock/alternative band Heylel, whose full-length album Nebulae, released on June 30 of this year, seeks to take listeners on a journey. As a self-described alternative progressive band with a twist, the band includes the classically trained Ana Batista and orchestral instrumentation; the combination creates a relationship similar to that of Evanescence. Although the experience of listening to some of the songs on this album brought this comparison to mind, there is something about Nebulae that makes it an interesting listen that won’t be as sticky in my mind as Evanescence was.
The band enjoys creative freedom, in that it avoids connections with any particular music genre or style. Instead, the group pours their energy into creating emotional connections by reflecting on various deeper aspects of life, and so the melody becomes a vehicle of sorts. I like this approach, as music is a way to express what cannot be expressed in words. Bands that seek to go beyond words through the melodies and the arrangements are those after my heart.
Band members Ana Batista (lead vocals), Narciso Monteiro (lead guitar), Sérgio de Meneses (bass guitar) and Filipe Braga (drums) have described the album as a conceptual vision over life and death, which they represented in the form of a star’s life cycle. A nebulae is an interstellar cloud made up of various ionised gases. From the opening notes, it feels like we are travelling through such a cloud, in search of something profound that will no doubt require some elements of tension and sacrifice. This is further enhanced by the use of wind sounds, church bells, and cymbals. The concept of the album implies that Nebulae should be listened to in one sitting at a time, even if some of the songs do indeed lend themselves to unique listening. Perhaps those who combine a lot for progressive rock and meditation could make very good use of this record.
Nebulae is divided into four chapters and totals 11 tracks, charting the life cycle of a star from the moment it is born until its dies. The short opening track, “Hope”, is an instrumental piece that starts off with piano, quickly incorporates pulsating electronic elements, and is joined by guitar. The effect is one reminiscent of the soundtrack to a dark, moody movie set in space. It is followed by the equally dark “The Prophet”, which opens with the sound of church bells ringing during a storm. While it features an upbeat tempo, the track delves into the dark side of the opening track. Batista’s vocals are beautiful, almost like a portrayal of the calm eye of the storm, but I found that, with the way the song is arranged, they sometimes got drowned into the energetic guitar section of the song. Other than that, “The Prophet”’s layers add well to the song. There is a certain disjointedness to the end of the song that fits really well the concept of birth, and the sudden passing from one world into another.
The third track, “Watcher of the Light”, has two sides: a metal rock, guitar heavy, layered, angry side featured in the first few seconds which returns regularly throughout, and a softer, minimalist, drum-driven, ballad-like one. This is the first time we can truly appreciate Batista’s talented vocals, as she is not drowned. The song crescendos into its finish, leading us to the fourth track, “Alter Ego”, whose simplicity comes in refreshing, yet sharp contrast to its predecessors, hailing the beginning of the second chapter, “A Newborn Star”. The overall sound is a haunting one that closes off the first chapter of the album.
The calm continues with “The Sage”, a folk-style ballad featuring only an acoustic guitar and Batista’s vocals. There is a Latin feel to the song that reminds the listener of the Portuguese background of Nebulae’s band members. The contrast between this song and the rest of the album marks the middle of the album. The track “Deeper”, which begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm, and is the first of the chapter “Red Giant”, is a slower song that showcases Batista’s vocals. These are tracks that, although sharply contrasting with what you would expect of an album that started off with pulsating guitars, make one understand that it is a journey they have embarked on when they starting listening to this release.
In “Wings of Eternity” the band brings back the Latin-flavoured acoustic guitar, combining it with a drum-driven song that forms the best showcase for Batista’s vocals. This song seems to be the most radio-friendly one, edging at time towards a pop feel. While still in a softer place, “I Talk to the Wind” becomes more upbeat than its predecessors. This ballad, driven by a simple drum-centric melody, makes one think of a particularly insightful walk through a forest, ending in a big, sunlit meadow.
“The Great Abstinence” is the first song of the album’s final chapter, “White Dwarf/Black Dwarf”, and marks a slight return to the album’s initial darker side. The beginning is a little confusing at times. The piano and the vocals are jazz-like; the drums are rock-like; and once the electric guitar comes in, it brings a definite metal flavour. Somehow though, the different styles, however jarring at times, create an intriguing sound. The penultimate, gentle, acoustic guitar-driven “Sometimes” again embraces some jazz elements, and Batista’s vocals yet again shine.
“Embrace the Darkness” closes the album with the same dark sounds it began with. Its first minute features a droning keyboard, male voices choir singing, random percussion, organ, and even a triangle. It all combines to create an unsettling atmosphere. It seems to be working its way to a climax, with an electric guitar kicking things to the next level in the last minute of the song, but never delivers, leaving the listener vaguely unsettled.
The atmospheric Nebulae delivers on its promise of being a journey, taking us to very different places. If it was simply an album, it would have been frustratingly jarring. But as an experience of the birth, growth, and eventual death of a star, it makes sense. After all, the various parts of the life cycle of a star are very different from one another, just like the various parts of this album were. The first listen was quite difficult, in that I was researching the life cycle of a star to try to understand what was going on. But once that research was done, I was able to appreciate the album more. I would personally have enjoyed a companion document of sorts that would help me understand, throughout the album, the thought process of the band.
The music is mostly dark, atmospheric, and intriguing – a rollercoaster of sound that takes the listener in unexpected places. An exploration of birth, life, and death, the album can leave a listener reflective and even moody. While some of the songs can be listened to on their own, the album is best experienced as a whole, after a bit of reading about the life cycle of a star. More information about the band can be found on its Facebook page or its official website.