Life is inevitable in its conclusion. No matter how we battle against it, it has only one end result. It is how we meet that end that matters. Do we go gently into the night? Or do we face up to the light and ultimately face our fate with dignity and honour? It is a decision which we, as individuals, and within the confines of our own circumstances, can only make for ourselves…
And it was just such a decision which Bella D – aka singer Christie Oakes – was forced to make when, midway through recording this, her debut album, she had to confront a terrible reality: she was diagnosed with positive aggressive breast cancer. It resulted in her not only having to undergo major chemotherapy but also having to confront the most incomprehensible of surgeries imaginable to any woman (and especially one in the prime of her life): the loss of both her breasts and her ovaries. As the husband of a wonderful wife who has defeated The Big C four times, I know at first hand that such decisions are not easy to make and the consequences are not easy to face… But, fortunately, many more women are living to tell the tale… and ‘The Crystal Ceiling’ is an embodiment of that tale.
A concept based around a mythical character – Oakes’ Bella alter ego – battling against the odds in a dystopian alternate world (one, by her own admission, inspired by ‘Blade Runner’), the album charts both the personal and musical journeys of its creators: Oakes is very quick to point out that, at least in the latter aspect, it is very much a collaboration with her childhood friend, drummer Charlie ‘DRMAGDN’ Zeleny, a musician who feels at much at home in New York’s jazz and experimental environs as he does on the metal scene. Ironically, it is an album which, in some ways predicts the battle the singer was still to face – she had written all of the lyrics prior to her diagnosis – but also epitomises the struggle which it helped her find her way through.
Because, right from the outset, you can hear – nay, feel – the pain, and the furious defiance, in Oakes’ voice. Opening with a dense crunching riff – one which is reprised at key moments throughout the tale – the singer luscious soprano soars gloriously into the stratosphere, swooping majestically over the density of the music as it sets the scene of the story’s heroine desire to escape from the claustrophobic encapsulation of her circumstances. ‘End Of The World’ sees her exploring the darker end of her range, yet also shining the light of human nature’s ability to rise to the challenge which its physical and emotional aspects face every day.
‘Save Me’ is a plea to do just that. Building from a huge orchestration, Oakes strips her vocal back to its pure essence, pushing the longing and desire of the album’s heroine to the fore with an impassioned appeal to her inner self. ‘My Fate is Survival’ is one of the signature moments; its built on a staccato riff which revolves around violins rather than guitars, with the latter crunching and punching at key moments, while Oakes’ voice is filled with the realization that she can indeed break free from her bonds – be they the metaphorical ones of the album’s story or the physical ones she coincidentally had forced on her during the recording process. It is an epic song: broad and sweeping in its ambition, filled with multiple layers of carefully crafted melodies and harmonies and topped off with a beautifully angst-laden vocal.
‘There’s No Room For You’ is angry yet morose, a defiant middle-finger salute to our heroine’s circumstances, which also helps the album pick up the pace as it concludes its first act with fierce intent. The title track swings the album on its hinges, capturing both the darkness and the vitality of what has gone before while looking optimistically to the pending outcome of the storyline. ‘The Shattered Mirror’ opens the second half in truly majestic style, while still retaining the melancholia of some of the earlier refrains, with Oakes’ voice projecting pain, pathos and expectation in equal measure as she declares that she “must live for tomorrow”.
‘Battle On’ reflects the darkness which comes from the initial dawn of hope, the moments of self-doubt which challenge our desire to rise above the noise and confusion of our struggle, but which ultimately make us stronger and more determined to do what the title tells us. ‘Danger Truly Dawns’ continues this theme, and does so with the defiance which characterizes the entire album, and especially Oakes’ deeply personal performance: her vocal is almost acidic in its delivery, while the Celtic feel of the fiddle which winds around her adds an air of mystical strength, while the latter half is dominated by another guitar strut. ‘Invincible’ embodies that very strength, as Oakes’ personal victory oozes through the vibrant joyousness of both the lyric – you can feel the venom of rejoicing as she declares “I was in hell but I kept going” – while closer ‘Dio Solitario Della Notte’ is reflective yet elegiac, Oakes showing the airiness of her voice which has been prevalent throughout the album, as she lets both the words and their meaning breathe their own breaths.
‘The Crystal Ceiling’ is a beautifully crafted album, a stunning debut which appeals on every level, which evokes personal struggles and the triumph of the spirit over adversity. In that, it marks the arrival of a brilliant new talent.
Tracklist: Breaking Free / End Of The World / Save Me / My Fate Is Survival / There’s No Room For You / The Crystal Ceiling / The Shattered Mirror / Battle On / Danger Truly Dawns / Invincible / Dio Solitario Della Notte
Bonus Track: Starlight
Recommended listening: My Fate Is Survival / Invincible
‘The Crystal Ceiling’ is out now.
Subsequent to the release of the album, Bella D has released a stand alone single version of Muse’s ‘Starlight’: