There are concept albums.
And then there are concept … bands?
Starset is apparently something of the later. This four-piece alt-rock outfit out of Columbus, Ohio, is led by Dustin Bates, a musician who also has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and more than a passing interest in science fiction, it would seem.
The release of the band's debut album, 2014's Transmissions, coincided with the launch of the group's website. Under a tab labeled Mission, we read, "We have been commissioned by The Starset Society to spread broad awareness of The Message through music and media. The Message contains the knowledge necessary to spare the future of humanity, and we will do whatever we must to inform the public. Please hold. STARSET will begin the TRANSMISSION of the Message to the public shortly."
So what is the band's message? Is it spiritual? Humanistic? Perhaps a bit of both—delivered with a soundtrack-like flair for dramatic rock flourishes that brings to mind Linkin Park and Muse. And at the heart of the band's lyrics is the notion that we're often separated by a great distance—perhaps cosmic, perhaps relational—that we often struggle to span.
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On "Satellite," we hear this plea for renewed connection: "Send your signal out, and bring me back to you/Satellite, shine on me tonight/I'll feel your gravity, I'll stay and never leave/ … Shine your light and set me free/Take the darkness out of me." Though those plaintive requests have a prayer-like feel to them, as the album progresses, it seems as if sentiments like those are aimed at an estranged former romantic partner.
"Frequency" picks up where "Satellite" leaves off. "Something blocking your reception," Bates sings. "It's distorting our connection/With the distance amplified." Then he observes, "There's something here that's broken/ … It's paralyzed/It's in your eyes/'Cause I can feel your soul fade." The song yearns for relational restoration that seems out of reach ("I tried to save you, now I'm swallowed").
"Die for You" also laments the distance between two people: "I will run alone tonight/Without you by my side." Bates suggests this person is willfully hiding ("I know inside/The walls you hide behind"), but he longs for a reconciliation nonetheless ("Taking all my will just to run alone/When are you coming home?"). Later he says he'd willingly face perdition if it meant being with the one he loves: "One day the earth will open wide/And I'll follow you inside/'Cause the only hell I know is without you." The song concludes with this dramatic, romantic vow: "When everything is overturning/There's no thing that I won't go through/Even if I have to die for you."
"Riccochet" likewise longs for wholeness and the redemption of a broken relationship ("We were one in the same/ … You'd hang on every word I'd say/but now they only ricochet"). And the grandeur of space ultimately can't fulfill this man like love can: "I'll send out my soul/To worlds more beautiful/But they won't, they won't know my heart."
"Starlight" employs cosmic units of time ("But I'm going to want you till the stars evaporate"), distance ("I'll never go, but you don't feel the same/ … Light years/Between you and me") and illumination ("Whenever stars go down and galaxies unite/I'll think of you each time they wash me in their light") to articulate a man's love. We also hear hope ("I'll soar the endless skies for only one sight of your starlight") and desperation ("Don't leave me lost here forever/Show me your starlight and pull me through/ … Bring me back to you").
Still more references to light, dark and distance fill "Into the Unknown," as well as "Last to Fall": "I wish you were here now/I miss your soul/But you lost your light/When darkness called." Another prayer-like verse says, "It's your magnetic hold/A gravity pull/I can feel you in waves/When your melody comes/It falls from above/I will not be afraid."
Significant conflict seems unavoidable in "Frequency": "You wanted war/I am the war/I alone." "Into the Unknown" finds a man struggling to discern what's real ("Suffocated/Voice has faded/Is this real or in my mind?"). Lines on "Gravity of You" hint at different kinds of hopelessness ("To fall in the star is to be nothingness/To escape is to be empty").
Meanwhile, the second half of this 15-song effort turns grim. On "Back to Earth," there's tension between an invigorated life ("Set me free/Set alive/I become satellite") and plunging back into the grip of gravity's destructive grasp ("Isolated, succumb to the weight of the world/Separated, I fall from the sky/Is this death or rebirth?/Falling back to earth"). We hear the ominous words "fall" and "falling" 46 times in the song.
"BringingIt Down" plunges further into the depths. "I saw it in your eyes," we hear. "I saw the creature deep inside/ … Your creature is inside/Devouring me alive/There's something inside you that isn't right." The next two songs, "Unbecoming" and "Monster", tell us that this betrayal has caused a monstrous metamorphosis in the narrator as well: "You're the love that I hate/You're the drug that I take," we hear in the latter. "Can you change me?/From the monster you made me?/ …I've lost the parts of me that make me whole/I am the darkness/I'm a monster."
Album closer "Everglow" includes this mildly suggestive line: "Feeling like the first time I felt you." The song—and the album—end with these decidedly ambiguous and ambivalent lyrics: "Come/I'll show every ghost in me/Take my pain into you."
Vessels traverses all manner of intergalactic imagery. But at the end of that journey, I'm not convinced this album is about anything more cosmic than the vast distance between two estranged lovers' hearts. Once we get past all the stars and planets and gravity references, what we're left with is a sad story of a man who would do anything for the one he loves. Alas, she's turned out to be something of a monster, and she's nearly turned him into one, too, by the time Vessels docks.