STARSET: Vessels (2017)
Starset emerged onto the rock scene in late 2013 with two powerful singles, “My Demons” and “Carnivore” that were followed by their debut album, Transmissions, in the summer of 2014. I had the opportunity to meet the band after a performance at a small venue in Providence, RI right before the album’s release. They were forced to perform acoustic because of a mistake by the venue in setting up the stage for other bands, but managed to still put on an excellent show; the ability to perform acoustic is often a good indication of a band’s skill, and they did not disappoint.
The band is organized around a science fiction theme of transmitting a message of the future of humanity. This backstory was created by frontman Dustin Bates after being inspired by astronomy during his studies in electrical engineering at Ohio University, and formed The Starset Society, which received a mysterious signal from space. The concept of the band’s music is focused around this theme, in the vein of 30 Seconds to Mars’ debut album and the storyline of Coheed and Cambria. In January 2017, their sophomore album, Vessels, was released.
Vessels is a more cohesive concept album than Transmissions while building upon the themes introduced in the debut. Lacking the immediately radio-friendly standouts like “Carnivore” and “My Demons”, Vessels takes a few listens to truly appreciate, but the effort is very well worth it. The tone of the album is electronic and some of the vocals sound somewhat synthesized, making for a consistent sound that can initially feel repetitive, but once the album takes hold, it is in fact a more solid effort than its predecessor, so my recommendation is to give it time. Even more impressive than the music and melodies are the well-constructed and themed lyrics by Bates. The album is structured linearly around a common storyline, so the order of the songs matters and much care was taken in constructing the album. Common lyrical themes include “satellites”, “gravity”, “light/starlight”, and the “monster”. Through the metaphors of the movement of bodies in space, Starset tells a love story.
Following the instrumental “The Order”, the album opens with “Satellite”, which tells of the love story of satellites orbiting, pulled together by the attraction of planetary bodies’ gravity. Already, Bates is equating the satellite to light as he begs “Satellite, shine on me tonight”. This song also introduces the concept of frequency and signals, which is picked up in the eponymous song that follows. In the bridge of “Satellite”, he says: “And I won't suppose to know why you walked away/But I can feel you pushing through beyond the space/So send your energy to me and I'll push through/Send your signal home and bring me back to you”. This song segues right into “Frequency”, pining about a connection lost and “I’ve lost your frequency”.
These opening songs set up the storyline of searching for a lost love’s light and signal to find it again. “Die For You” is a more catchy melody and possible future single for the band, following a similar theme of searching for his lost love. The pre-chorus states: “Because I know you're lost when you run away/Into the same black holes and black mistakes/Taking all my will just to run alone/Until I bring you home”, and in the bridge, “I’ll search the skies for you and I’ll follow/in your afterglow.” This theme of searching for the starlight continues through the next few songs.
The album shifts direction, lyrically, with “Gravity of You” where he seems to find what he is searching for and is pulled in and broken apart by its gravity. This is also the heaviest song on the album and features Bates’ screaming vocals”. The screams are a new vocal skill Bates’ tests out here, like was done for 30 Seconds to Mars’ second album, and adds a new element to the tone. The new phase of the story continues in another melodic highlight of the album, “Back to the Earth” as his broken pieces succumb to the gravity and fall back to earth as he “becomes satellite” and questions is it is “death or rebirth”. Either way, the remaining songs tell the story of a metamorphosis, changed after being pulled into the water by the fall back to Earth by its gravity. “Bringing It Down” introduces the creation of the Monster caused by his unbecoming that moves into the next song.
“Unbecoming” is the highlight of the album both lyrically and melodically. He falls into open waters and in the waves there are monsters, his only friends, and following the metamorphosis, he lies in wait under the water. The chorus features a great series of rhymes: “Eyes in the dead still water/Tried but it pushed back harder/Cauterized and atrophied/This is my unbecoming/Knives in the backs of martyrs/Lives in the burning fodder/Cauterized and atrophied/This is my unbecoming”. In a way this series of lyrics is showing that through his lust and search he found what he was looking for but it was not what he expected: “And you laugh as I search for a harbor/As you point where your halo had been/But the light in your eyes has been squandered/There's no angel in you in the end”. This comes to a thematic climax in “Monster” as he realizes what he has become. He says he didn’t know he was under her spell because he doesn’t have a telepathic heart in “Telepathic”, while she could read his mind. This song also returns to the light and satellite theme and longing for her: “Cause you’re the sun and I’m just a moon”. She emits starlight, but he is a dark moon in orbit around her gravity.
“Everglow” ends the album with a lament. He mourns what happened to him, pulled into the land mines “inside you” and he is left frozen in time. And yet, through her glow, he still longs for her: “You’ll never know/The beauty I see when you open your shadows/ Everglow/They’ll never know/The worlds I see in the darkness you don’t show”. The nearly 8-minute song ends the album on an epic scale complete with Bates’ screaming vocals and an orchestral and choral coda.
Starset’s sophomore album delves further into their sci fi storyline and delivers a powerful concept album. There are a couple standout tracks here, but overall these songs work better as a whole than as standalone tracks, which might be seen as a negative for casual listeners. The tone of the album stays consistent, with a well-produced sound that is accentuated by synthesizers and some interesting orchestral moments. In addition to lyrical themes, there are a few musical motifs that run between songs. One of note is a melody that ends with a rising triplet, hinted at in the instrumental outro to “Last to Fall” but is heard vocally in the bridge of “Unbecoming” with the lines “This metamorphosis” and “I think you made me this”, and then is heard in the orchestral coda in “Everglow”. Such intricacies are among the numerous details that show a more mature structure in the composition and overarching nature of the album. Original and new fans will find a lot here and look forward to their next step.