(Razor & Tie)
Context is important, but it’s not always everything. Vessels, the sophomore record from the sci-fi-focused Ohio group Starset, is easily the best hard rock record of the past few years. It’s miles (light years?) ahead of any other radio rock out there in the galaxy, but that’s in large part because of how laughably bad hard rock has been for a really long time. (That’s not to say you’re a bad person if you like the rock on the radio, but even this sadly fractured country might come together and agree that there’s been little to be excited about in that arena recently.) So, again, complimenting Vessels feels like it’s coming with a caveat, like an all-time great baseball hitter accused of steroid use.
However, aside from a couple minor issues, Starset’s second record is really excellent, regardless of context. With 2014’s Transmissions, the group’s creative leader and PhD candidate Dustin Bates set out to create an immersive experience, with a whole sci-fi backstory to accompany the cinematic, electronic hard rock on the album (along with cinematic music videos). The record showed the band’s aspirations were grand, but it lacked enough cohesion to make a deep impact, and the hour-long run-time made the poorer tracks drag down the overall experience.
Starset continued with their grand storytelling on Vessels, and just about every quibble was fixed. First, really, 15 songs and 70 minutes of music is just a bit too much, but it’s hard to discount the fact that just about every track on here feels necessary. Even lesser tracks like “Last to Fall” and “Ricochet”, while certainly nonessential, have truly killer hooks; the only real waste is the overly electronic penultimate track, “Telepathic”, which lacks in just about everything but a desire to hit the dance floor. Otherwise, Hell, just pick a track, and it’s impressive in some way. Even the singles, like “Monster” and “Back to Earth”, fit much better in the context of the record than on their own.
What is most impressive (aside from a movie-length hard rock concept album being constantly compelling) is how Starset tweaked their sound just enough to make it feel unique and that much more cinematic. The record was once again recorded with Rob Graves, and his work with Red makes sense, given its sound. Starset’s symphonic style takes cues from a wide range of influences: Deftones, Nine Inch Nails, TesseracT (the occasional djentrified riffing is a nice touch), Celldweller, Muse, and 30 Seconds to Mars. With all that thrown in this sonic stew, a flair for the anthemic and dramatic is to be expected, but, impressively, Vessels never feels tacky or cheesy. There’s a sincerity here that transforms even the lesser (and more by relativity) tracks into worthy additions. The cinematic and slightly progressive touches are nice flavoring agents, but don’t discount how damn poppy this gets at times. Overall, Starset has easily delivered the best hard rock record in a long time, but it’s likely to go down as a contender for the best album of the year, regardless of caveats. Genre jokes can’t diminish how impressive Vessels is.