Heylel - Nebulae
Release Date: June 30, 2014
Record Label: Self-Released
For the first two minutes of its runtime, Nebulae, a new record from Portuguese prog alt-rockers Heylel, is a fascinating showcase of musical skill. The album’s first track, a spacey instrumental piece called “Hope,” is built mostly from the duet of a scorching electric guitar line and a tinkling piano. The tune is dark and foreboding the best way, splitting the difference between 1980s and early 1990s film scores and the ponderous guitar solo that John Mayer contributed at the end of Frank Ocean’s ambitious “Pyramids” two years ago. Needless to say, that’s not a bad handful of comparisons. The talent of guitarist Narciso Monteiro carries the track, obviously, but the dark ambience of the arrangement is strong and all-encompassing enough to truly get listeners pumped for the album to come. If this is what Heylel comes up with on an intro track, then there must be amazing things to come, right?
Unfortunately, Nebulae never again reaches the heights of that intro track. Where “Hope” feels driven, melodic, and involving, most of the full-length tracks on this disk are meandering, directionless, and dull. The problem is that the spotlight repeatedly falls upon frontwoman Ana Batista rather than on Monteiro’s guitar. Batista’s voice is fine, even beautiful at certain points, but it’s clear that her more classically trained tone is at odds with the style of music that this band should be making. Both of the first two proper tracks – the sludgy “The Prophet” and the sleepy “Watcher of the Light” – feel more like excerpts from post-modern opera productions than tunes cut from the core of a prog-rock album. There are redeeming factors here – such as the haunting back-up vocals on “The Prophet” – but overall, the two songs fall flat and squander most of the promise that was evident on "Hope."
The same issues remain dominant throughout the disc. Batista’s voice is repeatedly left so high in the mix that it overpowers the rest of the arrangements, leaving the singer’s bandmates to play dull supporting roles rather than allowing them to really cut loose. Take the boringly simplistic piano arpeggios on “Alter Ego,” or the generic distorted guitar chords that Monteiro plays on nearly every track where an electric guitar appears. As for the rhythm section, everything feels weirdly airbrushed and boilerplate, like the focus was so obviously on Batista and Monteiro that the other players didn’t get the time to polish their parts.
I spent this entire disc waiting for something akin to the incendiary electric guitar/piano ballet of “Hope,” but it never came. Instead, the best moments occur when the band decides to unplug the instruments, like on “The Sage,” which is all acoustic guitar and vocals. The bulk of the tune is a free-style acoustic guitar solo from Monteiro, which offers much better display for his top-level skills and classical playing style than most of the “rock” tracks on Nebulae. The song also provides a much more fitting showcase for Batista’s voice, which here sounds elegant and exotic instead of overproduced and overblown.
Other tracks, such as “Deeper” and “Wings of Eternity,” try to replicate the fragile beauty of “The Sage,” but neither can recapture the magic. Penultimate track “Sometimes” is the closest, with a surprisingly infectious acoustic groove that finds the band almost approaching jazz territory. And unfortunately, with the closer, we’re right back to bombast, with walls of organ and colorless choral chant dispelling the charm of the record’s more interesting moments. It's clear that Heylel has talent, but unfortunately, Nebulae just isn't the best showcase for it.