CD Review: ‘The Crystal Ceiling’ by Bella D

Written by Danielle Boise

When I first started to listening to Bella D’s, who happens to be is a steampunk-infused symphonic rock songstress, debut LP, The Crystal Ceiling, due out on May 13, the first thing that came to mind was a vision that if Sarah Brightman had a baby with Emilie Autumn and the badass that is Lzzy Hale, that it would be Bella D. Her voice is one to be reckoned with –  it is fiery, fierce and full of inspiration.

What is so fascinating about The Crystal Ceiling is it is a conceptual album, which, let’s face it, doesn’t happen that much anymore. It’s a trend that I’m happy to see resurface. To have an entire album tell a story, any story, and allow us as the listener to take an active journey with the artist is fascinating, because you truly never know where you will end up by the time you reach the conclusion of the story. What wounds the songs will bring out in you while going along with the ride of the album? The idea of whether or not you will survive, what sacrifices you will make in the process of feeling the entire album from start to finish is an intriguing concept to me. That’s why I love them so much. It takes you out of your own reality, and places you somewhere else for an hour or so.  Another intriguing fact is that in conjunction with the release of the album on May 13, Bella D will also include the first installment of a comic book series that brings this conceptual album to a whole new realm by incorporating the musical story into a visual realm.

With The Crystal Ceiling we get to go on this intriguing journey, a mystical journey, where you may be thwarted at every turn. There is a sense of doom lurking around you at all times, which comes from Bella D’s love of dystopian novels and video games and translates very well into the creation of The Crystal Ceiling with a sense that the circumstance in which you find yourself in is beyond overwhelming, but you don’t give up. You battle your way through the layers of demons (real and imagined) in your life for your survival. Not just for your existence, but to keep your soul intact. In the process of fighting your way through this dominion, you realize that love, as grand as it is, it won’t necessarily save you in the way you think it will and YOU are your OWN White Knight and don’t need anyone else to save you, which is perfectly illuminated with the song “Save Me,” the lyric “my morbid curiosity drew me to you, but you left me alone in anguish and fear” is the perfect representation of this.

The Crystal Ceiling is a powerful 12-track album that starts off with the otherworldly “Breaking Free,” and when Bella D hits the note for “Free” all you can think is Damn!, because you realize you are listening to magic. “The Shatter Mirror” is truly reflective in nature. It makes you think about one’s mortality and lifespan in a different perspective. The concept of realizing the life you have always envisioned or may want is no longer an option, that it’s shattering around you, and in that moment you have a choice. You can choose to live in that moment of sorrow forever or you can collect the pieces and make something new out of it. “Battle On” is hauntingly sublime. “Invincible” is filled with turmoil and chaos, but empowering because of the unwillingness to give up, which really is the thesis statement that runs throughout the entire album and that survival is the only option. “Dio Solitario Della Notte” is heartbreaking gorgeous. It’s like going to the opera and listening to beauty and awe of being enraptured by a voice that is heavenly. “Starlight” is the conclusion of the album, filled with questioning, angst and a need for answers from the unknown.

This is an ambitious project, one that Bella D undertook and did it exceedingly well with grace, especially considering amidst the recording process, she found out that she was fighting for her life, literally, as she was diagnosed with BRCA positive aggressive Breast Cancer and had to undergo not only terrible rounds of chemo, but go the route that Angelina Jolie did by having a double mastectomy and the removal of her ovaries. The album took on a whole new meaning for her; it was her real life battle and struggle to live that you hear from the first note to the last. “I cannot live in fear,” sums up the album perfectly.

This is not a Disney fairy-tale, rather a Brother’s Grimm sort of yarn; so for fans of artists like, Sarah Brightman or Emilie Autumn or films like, The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival, The Crystal Ceiling is right up your alley. It infuses a sense of a defying nature of stubbornness by not giving in with the power and substance of life, even a hard life with hints of dramatic elements interlaced. It’s the perfect eargasm.

Interview: The Gin Rebellion

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the trio of musicians collectively known as The Gin Rebellion can often be found performing at Dragon Con and different Steampunk conventions around the United States. The band is made up of H.M. and Ophelia Baptista on vocal and guitar duties and Renfield on banjo, accordion and mandolin.

To attend a Gin Rebellion performance is like stepping back in time to a dustier, more devilish era of American lore and the stories they sing are filled with a mixture of intrigue, darkness and romance. Getting caught up in a Gin Rebellion performance is akin to sitting in an old-west saloon or theater, being regaled with tales told by traveling musicians working their way from town to town.

Last year the band recorded and released their first full length album entitled, The Uprising of The Gin Rebellion. The album can be purchased on Bandcamp and is filled with well produced renditions of the band’s original songs. Target Audience Magazine caught up with The Gin Rebellion in Decatur, Georgia to talk about the band, their history and The Uprising.

 

The Gin Rebellion (Renfield, Ophelia and H.M.)

The Gin Rebellion is: Renfield, Ophelia Baptista and H.M.

 

How did Gin Rebellion come together as a band?

Renfield: I guess H.M. and I had been playing for two years together before the band really became the band it is today.

H.M.: We started as a two-man band with Renfield and myself and we performed a few years at Steampunk World’s Fair in New Jersey. We met Ophelia through a mutual friend and we all ended up having similar musical sensibilities.

Ophelia: It really was a happy little accident. I was playing a song for a friend of mine and wanted to demonstrate how I was working with lyrics and music. His roommates [H.M. and Renfield] ran upstairs, brought down an accordion and a guitar and I thought: “Okay, I guess I’m in a band now!”

 

What is your normal writing process?

H.M.: We write in our own mental spaces and when we feel comfortable enough, we will bring it to the rest of the band and present what we have. If we’re having trouble trying to figure out another verse, we will work together to find an idea. Or, sometime we have everything figured out lyrically and the tune is there, but we need to figure out what chords go with it.

Ophelia: I’ve found that we all add a little bit of something to everything we write. One song is not entirely one person’s or the others. The song that I had been playing the night we met went through many changes with my band-mates before it actually came to the “Freak Show” that you hear today… literally and figuratively.

Or, if there is a song that is great but we don’t feel there is enough dynamic change to it, we try and determine what can we do to add those dynamics. While old-time music is fun, classic and familiar, it is still very traditional and can be the same from verse to verse unless you add little changes to make it more interesting throughout.

 

How long (individually) had you been doing music before you came together?

Renfield: I’d been playing music in some form or another since my junior year of high school. I started off playing in punk and grindcore bands and slowly started to get into bluegrass and more of the origins of what we think of today as popular music. That kind of drew me into the Steampunk scene, with the old-time music mixed with an edge of punk music.

I started out with a two-instrument set for $100.00, a mandolin and a guitar. It was an acoustic guitar that I could play with anything and then get an electric when I got better. But I had this mandolin as well, and so I began incorporating that into these punk bands. We did “Dropkick Murphys” inspired stuff, like Celtic Punk. I wanted to do more of a Bluegrass Punk since we were all Americans… that American folk edge with punk music. The accordion I picked up really recently, like four years ago.

Ophelia: When I was about six, my mom started noticing that I was able to recognize pitches, so she started me in music instruction pretty early. I want to say I was about 8 years old when I joined my next door neighbor’s children’s chorus and the vocal training really began. It wasn’t just bringing a bunch of cute kids together to have them sing a song… no, we were learning full on vocal technique.

Singing was easy, but then I realized that I needed to learn other things to get your songs written. It wasn’t until I started to go to renaissance festivals that I wanted to really bring this music together, and Celtic style music really clicked with me. It gave me a reason to pick up an instrument and learn to play, so I ended up teaching myself how to play the guitar.

H.M.: I started singing, as a lot of people do, in a church choir and doing children’s productions at the church. I started in band at middle school and it was there that I really learned how to read and understand sheet music. I tried doing chorus in 9th grade, but I didn’t feel it fit my expressions of 14-15 year old angsty teenager, so I shifted over to art where I had a greater passion at the time. I first really started to play guitar a few years ago when I was in a theatrical production of “Evita,” playing Agustín Magaldi. Playing him was the cheesiest cheese ball that I ever cheesed, and the hammiest ham that I have ever hammed. It really was a ham and cheese situation.

I tried writing songs before, inspired by my interest of Japanese Rock at the time. Before Renfield and I met, I thought that there really was no good American music anymore. When he and I started going over our musical interests and I listened to what he was listening to, I realized that “oh, there’s actual people making music that you don’t hear on the radio ever, and it’s really good!” So that is when I shifted where I was with music from this rock style to more into the storytelling style that we prefer.

 

Music Video for 'The Vagabond'

 

“Steampunk” is such a nebulous term, open to interpretation. If you were forced to label your music, what would you call it?

Ophelia: The shortest description that I could possibly give is “Retro Folk Fusion.”

H.M.: Without staying “Steampunk Music,” that’s a fairly good summarization.

Ophelia: Part of the thing with Steampunk style music is that it blends influences from all around the world during a specific era. Going from the 1880’s – 1940’s or so, that music is so good.

 

Are there any specific musical influences that you as artists have?

H.M.: I sort of realize that while I like a few musicians, one of the few people that I look forward to and want to write like is Rufus Wainwright. He is dynamic in his music, passionate in his sound and diverse in his story.

Ophelia: I have a few influences, but one of my favorites would have to be Unwoman, because we kind of come from a similar vein of songwriting. I also really love the songwriting of Robin Jackson from Vagabond Opera. His lyrics are so complex in meaning and wording. The sounds of his words match and click against each other and become instruments in themselves. That’s sort of what I try to aim for with the wording of my poetry. I try to write like him, without writing too much like him.

Renfield: I’d say that my current favorites are probably The Dirt Daubers or the Legendary Shack Shakers. Both are based around the same core group. They are kind of rockabilly or bluegrass, depending how they feel. They really inspire me with the wide range of music they do.

 

How did the actual recording of your album come together?

H.M.: We had the assistance of Dimitri of The Extraordinary Contraptions. We recorded in his recording space and he was our sound engineer and contributed bass tracks to it.

Ophelia: We also had our friend Nathaniel Johnstone of the Nathaniel Johnstone Band and previously of Abney Park record violin tracks for the album. A close friend of mine, Andrew McKee of The Brobdingnagian Bards did all the mixing and mastering for us. He did a fantastic job and was very patient through the process. Renfield designed the CD cover art and did all the layout for that.

As far as the songs, we put together all of the ones that were original and we believed were performance and recording ready. From there, we did our normal stage setup with the core instruments from the shows, but recording added a whole new level of creativity.

H.M.: Being able to play more than one instrument on a track was wonderful. On “Freak Show,” Renfield was playing both the mandolin and accordion.

Renfield: We played “Freak Show” live at The Steampunk World’s Fair a couple years back and one of my friends, Painless Parker, was in the audience. He had his mandolin and I had him join us on the song. I gave him the chords, he played along and it sounded fantastic. So, on the album I really wanted to bring the mandolin into it. Just for fun, there’s this little breakdown towards the end and right when it kicks back in I thought I would do an 80’s metal pick slide on the mandolin.

Ophelia: That really confused our music mix master. I remember during “Vagabond” when he was mixing, he said “It’s really weird… the banjo actually sounds a bit like a steel drum. Is it supposed to be like that?” We had to tell him “yes, Renfield is playing like that on purpose.”

Renfield: I can be a bit percussive.

 

As an independent, self published band, what valuable lessons have you learned for the next time you head into the studio?

H.M.: Figuring out and writing down all of the tempos that you are going to use beforehand so that you solidly know how fast or slow you want the song to be performed. That recording is going to be around a long time.

Ophelia: Test with the mics first and make sure that you have the right equipment available. I remember we had to re-record vocals at one point because the headphones I was using actually bled out sound on to the track. Also, make sure everyone is on the same level as far as compatibility, especially software. We ran into some conversion issues as well.

H.M.: Where maybe our best takes didn’t make it, but our sound engineer was able to blend it into a cohesive and clean sound.

Renfield: Make sure to practice playing the songs on all the instruments that you are considering using during the recording. As I mentioned before, with the recording of “Freak Show,” that was the first time I had played it on mandolin. Next time I am going to make sure to play through all of the songs on all of my instruments in order to be a bit more prepared. I am hoping to add few newer and smaller instruments to my repertoire for next time as well.

 

The Gin Rebellion can be seen performing at TeslaCon in Middleton, Wisconsin in November and Anachrocon in Atlanta, Georgia in February.

Visit The Gin Rebellion’s website and Facebook page for more information on the band and their activities.