Friday, February 3, 2017

album review: 'vessels' by starset

Space rock. Perhaps one of the oddest subgenres of rock I've ever covered, it's never amassed huge popularity or become widely recognized... mostly because unlike the majority of musical subgenres, the term is based on subject matter rather than sound. Well, okay, that's not quite entirely true - musical tropes like huge waves of synth, muted electronic touches to distort human presence, and a commitment to gigantic expansive mixes do tend to crop up, but it's generally used as a catch-all term for music that focuses on science fiction and space. And it's included a surprising breadth of artists, from 70s acts from David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Hawkwind to the 90s resurgence among acts like Failure, Flying Saucer Attack, and some records from The Flaming Lips, to the growth and success of acts like Star One, Angels & Airwaves, and Muse at one end of quality and Thirty Seconds to Mars at the far other end - and that's before you factor in the huge number of progressive acts who have helped develop and expand the sound into a recognizable aesthetic.

In other words, it should be no surprise that I'm a fan of this genre - not just because I'm a sci-fi nerd, but also because the commitment to bombast and big ideas can be pretty compelling if well-executed. So enter into that scene Starset, an Ohio rock band that wanted to tell those big sci-fi stories with the sort of midi-touched cinematic swell that could make for potent space rock - hell, the frontman had a PhD in engineering, this should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the more listens I gave to their debut album Transmissions the less I liked it, mostly because the band was a lot less Ayreon and a lot closer to Thirty Seconds To Mars and Breaking Benjamin of all people, who they described as their primary influences. And that definitely shows through in underwritten songs, underwhelming lyrics, and a lot of space rock touches and textures that didn't really have the compositional strength in the melodies and performances to be more memorable - I appreciate spacey bombast, but there needed to be more heft in the writing and storytelling for it to really stick with me or rise to the best of the genre. And when Starset announced that their sophomore album Vessels was going towards pop instead of heavier metal... well, okay, that wasn't precisely bad, it'd certainly be defining its own unique lane. Hell, it could even work with their more basic lyrical construction and delivery, so how does Vessels turn out?

Well folks... look, I wish I could say I could get more into this, but with every listen through the 70+ minutes of this album, I kept coming back to the fact that this record should be so much more memorable or interesting than it is. Seriously, I'm a little at a loss for words here - this sort of space-themed rock music should be right in my wheelhouse, and yet like their debut none of it is sticking with me, a lumbering, overlong, painfully underwritten and underwhelming behemoth that doesn't have the character or charisma to do more. It's literally groaning under the weight of its cinematic bombast, and yet the more I dig into the content the more all that bombast almost seems like a parody... and yet I'm not laughing here.

Now that's a pretty harsh indictment to make, especially coming from a guy who has willingly embraced metal that's far more openly cheesy than this is, but my case starts with the instrumentation and production. Much was made of this record embraces more pop tendencies in the production, and while you can definitely see it in some of the buzzier synths and obviously electronic drum machines and beats, this is also an album that wants to incorporate more djent-inspired riffing and growled or screamed vocals. Okay, I'm not going to fault them for diversity, but not only does it make for some whiplash transitions, especially when you factor in the orchestral bombast that seems to be integrated behind the perpetual buzz of the mix or in interludes that add up to a lot less than you'd otherwise thing, but none of it leads to dramatic or interesting focus on the melodies. It's actually a little alarming how consistently the melodic basis of these hooks feels forgotten - it's not like djent riffing is ever going to pick up much actual tune, but you'd think that on the hooks they'd see fit to give one of the omnipresent synths or thicker riffs more of an actual tune, or an interestingly progressive shift, or a guitar solo anywhere! And for me, the immediate aftermath is that outside of the vocals, I can barely remember any of these songs having any distinctive character at all, not helped by a record that goes a lot longer than it can really sustain, with many songs having extended outros that have more tune than the actual songs! You'd think that with more of a pop focus, there'd be more of a focus on making these hooks more memorable, but all they seemed to get from that category is the gurgling bubble of synth that's more texture than tone, simplified lyrics, and autotune! 

So take one of the opening tracks, 'Frequency' - does anyone think that sort of djent-esque riffing that has the grind and impact of a dentist drill balances well with a programmed and more stiff beat like that, none of which compliments any sort of groove, especially when there's actually a decent synth melody there that could be used - similar case for 'Bringing It Down', which if anything feels even more choppy. If anything, it feels like songs like 'Die For You' or 'Telepathic' just decided to pick up certain popular modern elements for accents and little more, like pitch-shifted vocals and certain synth tones and then pile them into a mix that doesn't know how to highlight them well at all. The best is probably the lead-off single 'Monster' with the blubbery synth fuzz and clunky beat bleeding over a good keyboard line and strings and an actual groove, but even then, that's not saying much when you consider the rest of the song.

That said, if I'm going to find tones or hooks that actually worked for me... well, the buzzy pop grind of 'Ricochet' was decent and I dug the tonal balance balance on 'Last To Fall', even if I had the sneaking feeling I could be listening to a mid-period Linkin Park record and getting something better. And I guess I didn't mind the atmospherics of a song like 'Starlight' or 'Everglow', and again, there are some interesting fast-paced synth cascades that could be a solid foundational melody if the production didn't feel the drive to bury them in a pileup of tones with little actual dynamics - the song that probably comes most together is 'Back To Earth', and again, I wouldn't put that song beyond passable. A big part of this for me is the vocals from Dustin Bates... and look, I get why some people like his more expressive tones and he is showing more versatility, but his brand of loud-soft scream singing cribbed from the Three Days Grace and Breaking Benjamin school doesn't work for me at all, especially when you can tell that it's piling on the autotune and vocal layers and overdubs to give him any kind of presence. When he's in his softer range he reminds me of Owl City - which does not fit with the heavier instrumentation at all - and when he's trying to go harder... look, maybe this is me coming from space metal acts with more firepower, but square him against the majority of singers on Ayreon and he's just falling short. 

And yet the vocals are often emphasized more than any actual melody, presumably to help emphasize the lyrics - which is a really bad idea, because a lot of these lyrics are beyond help. It blows my mind that for as much as Bates references science and astronomy, he chooses to completely neuter the wonder and scope of such big ideas and technological wonders to have them reference toxic relationships, failures of communication, and especially on the back half a whole load of self-loathing cribbed from your average nu-metal song. And while I think this is a total waste of the space rock aesthetic, I guess I can see the appeal of taking human drama and inflating it to giant size - which of course would be better achieved with a real sense of crescendo and instrumental dynamics, but whatever. The problem is that the writing feels so much smaller in its ideas and thematic throughline than it really should - the metaphors are the most thuddingly obvious when it comes to relating space to modern rock radio, and the thematic arc doesn't even touch the big ideas it could. From what I can glean - any narrative on this record is thin at best - despite miscommunications the protagonist launches himself after this satellite in the distance, ventures into an enticing unknown, and then after getting lost circles back to come crashing down when, filled with a deeper darkness that is now consuming him... and I'm sorry, didn't Vektor and In The Woods... do something like this better last year? I think it's trying to make a point about obsession, but I have a hard time taking it seriously considering how broadly sketched and basic the writing feels, and it really feels like they're squandering a sound that could aim for something so much bigger.

But the more I thought about this album, the more I came to the sharp realization that this is not for me - I mean, it's space rock, it should be up my alley, but this is for modern mainstream rock fans who are looking for something less cerebral or alien, only really using the synths and modern pop touches as garnish to an otherwise conventional approach. And if you can't tell, it's a style of rock music that here either feels clumsily mixed, lacking in dynamics or progressive musicianship, and really feels spread too thin to back it all up. I get that Starset has an audience, and hey, good for them - but for me, it's a light 5/10 and I can't really recommend it. Between the lack of consistent melodies, an underwhelming frontman, and the lingering sense of disappointment that cool ideas didn't pay off more... eh, again, probably just not for me. It happens.

1 comment:

  1. I actually really enjoyed this album. I've been looking forward to this album ever since the album Transmissions came out. I was not dissappointed. I'm not saying you're right or wrong by any means. I'm open to opinions. See, I am a huge fan of Breaking Benjamin. They're one of the reasons how I came across this band. I felt like this album took me on a musical journey. Even though I'm not really that much into pop music, I feel like Starset has managed to execute that. A lot of it made me think of a Breaking Benjamin/RED. So I was getting vibes from those bands mainly. Rob Graves, their producer, has produced every RED album, except for Release the Panic. I love how this album had a mix of electronics mixed in with these heavy guitars and programming and the screaming from Dustin Bates. This album definitely surprised me. I was not expecting a lot of the sounds that they were going for on this album. And personally, I'm okay with a change in sound. Starset has managed to pull that off and still sound like Starset. When I first heard the song "Monster" I never really noticed a "change in sound," if you wil. I thought Starset was just doing more stuff with their sound but still feel like a Starset song. Honestly, I can't find myself skipping over a single track on this album. I was really peeved when I found out the Pretty Reckless bribed the Razor and tie record label. And let me tell you this...I AM NOT A FAN OF THE PRETTY RECKLESS AT ALL. And do they deserve the hype they've been receiving? In my opinion, yes. But, I'm not against people who don't really "get" Starset. I may be overhyping this, but personally I give this album a 10/10. Well, I did listen to the album about 10 times. So there's my opinion. I stated mine and you stated yours and I am okay with that.

    Great review, by the way. Keep it up!