Heylel is a Portuguese band with its own take on prog rock but with added ingredients. Vocals from Ana Batista give the quartet a folk sensibility and an extra dimension.
Formed in 2012, this release (30th June, 2014) is their debut album. Its inclusion of two covers of iconic bands of the genre tip their hat to a golden age, and in the best tradition of old-school progressive rock, its concept is ambitious, following the life-cycle of a star, no less, from birth to extinction. Its 11 tracks are divided into four chapters, each one representing a different stage. Patrick Moore wannabies, take note: Wikipedia defines ‘nebulae’ as “an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionised gases”. Thus, the first chapter is “An Interstellar Cloud”.
In the hands of some, this theme could lend itself to overblown self-indulgence, but Heylel are sufficiently disciplined to avoid this. Still, a concept such as this demands something worthy of it. Its cover art, an eye staring out from nebulae, is inviting and disturbing at the same time.
“Hope” is the very short instrumental opener, a pleasing paean to Pink Floyd, with Floyd-like guitar and gentle piano. “The Prophet” opens with an ominous church bell and a raging storm, with a sense of drama which contrasts with the calm of Batista’s vocal. After “Watcher of the Light” it’s time for chapter two – “A Newborn Star”, beginning with atmospheric piano and vocal effects on “Alter Ego”. The first cover is Greg Lake’s “The Sage” from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s celebrated album, “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Somewhat slower, I think it lacks the emotional clout of the original, and the acoustic guitar work is not quite as crisp.
“Red Giant” is the next chapter, bringing us to “Deeper”. Starting with a thunderstorm (they do like their sound effects), it builds from mournful strings and acoustic guitar into layers of sound. “Wings of Eternity” has a medieval-sounding introduction, like stumbling on a B-side to “Greensleeves”, and good harmonies marred by cheesy lyrics. “I Talk to the Wind” is the remaining cover, from those other prog rock heroes, King Crimson, and their seminal album, “In the Court of the Crimson King”. This is the better one of the covers – a gentle piano weaves its way, and plucked strings carry plaintive nostalgia, a rock guitar solo replacing the original flute.
“White Dwarf / Black Dwarf” is the final chapter, as our star sadly fades away. “The Great Abstinence” goes down a jazzy alleyway with distorted keyboards and rock guitar. “Sometimes” starts as another gentle acoustic, with Batista tapping into her soulful side. “Embrace the Darkness” is a good candidate for a Hammer horror soundtrack – monk-like choral singing, random percussion and swelling keyboards would form a great background score to some hapless virgin getting lost in the forest. Then the rock guitar and kettle drum kicks in… it ends suddenly, as if the wide-eyed beauty has met her doom. It’s all entertainingly menacing.
So, there is your astronomy lesson and your introduction to Heylel. “Nebulae” promises much, but never seems to quite take off. They need a bit more punch, like the bands that obviously influence them. Batista truly has a voice of quality, and the band can be very atmospheric, but sometimes it feels like they’re holding back. A cross between King Crimson’s wistfulness and The Gathering dancing round a bonfire, they just require a bit more oomph, to trust themselves and let go.