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Vessels: Helioscope

img  Tobias Fischer

What does eclecticism mean in a time when the entire world of music is at your fingertips? On Helioscope, Vessels are digging for an answer. Already their debut White Fields And Open Devices represented a courageous attempt at allowing for everything, yet avoiding the obvious, an approach strikingly at odds with post rock's general tendency of preferring the beautiful over the bold and the proven over the progressive. On subsequent remix-opus Retreat, three out of nine re-interpretations were handled internally by the band and still today, with the ensemble enjoying extended stretches on the road, three of its five members are busy with sideprojects ranging from singer/songwriter to electronica. None of this, of course, is outright spectacular, as a high degree of multitasking is a sign of the times rather than a unique selling point. What has always made the Leeds-based formation stand out, however, was their declared will to use Vessels as a lens through which a plethora – if not all – of their different inspirations are focused into a single, burning beam of sonic energy. If White Fields And Open Devices nonetheless occasionally brushed the borderline of genre-cliches, then this was never down to complacency or a lack of will. Quite clearly, the band knew what they were looking for – they just didn't always know how express it.

On Helioscope, they've come one step closer to achieving that aim. Those who fell in love with the previous output of the band will be pleased to learn that a lot of what made their first full-length so appealing has remained intact: Again, arrangements follow composition, with each piece demanding its unique personal form. Again, John Congleton, who already signed responsible for equally distinct colleagues like This Will Destroy You and Lymbic System, was behind the mixing console. Again, vocals were part of the equation, with Stuart Warwick lending wounded words to „Meatman, Piano Tuner, Prostitute“. And again, the songwriting was grounded in democratic decision-making, as part of which every riff, drum roll and lick was subject to the agreement of the entire formation. The paradox behind the principle of equal vocal rights is apparent, yet it is at the very heart of Helioscope: Everything is questioned, yet anything is possible, resulting in an excruciatingly slow creative process and albums honed to perfection, brimming with carefully placed details and myriads of ideas.

„Monoform“, introduced by a deliciously unresolved quart-ostinato, may have been among the last songs finished before entering Congleton's very own Elmwood Studios in Dallas, yet it certainly constitutes the most striking example for this philosophy. In the first four minutes, the entire track – comprising of initially dreamy but increasingly insistent guitar arpeggios, ecstatic drumming, soft keyboard pads and indian-chant-style vocals - is held together by a ferociously crunching and plaintively descending four-note bass-line, even when the pulse of the music is slowed down to a sexy serpentine shuffle. In the second half, the rhythmical metrum of the opening seconds returns, the intervallic span however reduced to a prime tone, paving the way for a climactic untying of the knot, when the suppressed tension combusts into a triumphant anthem. It is a recognisable finale-gesture, but it comes with a condition: if you want the stadium-sized dynamics and heartfelt lyrical melodies, you'll first have to earn them. This oscillation between cleverly withholding the expected from their audience and then easily exceeding what they've been craving for is a tactic Vessels are frequently applying on Helioscope and which lends an air of excitement to it: „Meatman, Piano Turner, Prostitute“ goes from heartbreaking ballad to euphoric anthem, „Art/Choke“ sounds like a dangerous ambient space spanned up by two monolithic riffing-episodes, while closer „Spun Infinite“ is nothing but a sweet, consoling hum, which fades away into silence as delicately as it has arrived.

The ability of bridging and integrating a wild variety of styles into these exchanges and working with multitudes of different idioms at the same time is undeniably part of what makes the album so unmistakable and refreshing. At the same time, merely using their understanding of a wide array of styles in order to show off is exactly what Vessels are not about. Quite contrarily, their power is entirely spent on eradicating technique and annihilating concrete allusions in a bid of arriving at the most pure expression imaginable. Rhythm has become notably more important on Helioscope, but so, too, has texture. Similar to the processes of minimal music, the constant microscopic variations in metrum and melody are aimed at tightening the density of their tracks and of locking them into a cycle of constant re-invention. A single idea, hypnotically perpetuated, is at the foundation of most of these pieces and the way the band are setting about expounding upon it reminds one of a deadly precise machine operated by a mind on hallucinogens. On „The Trap“, Vessels are working as much with explicit explosions as with their immanent threat, keeping the music simmering, glowing and gleaming for six hallucinatory minutes. Within this personal space, old dogmas no longer apply: When you're no longer working towards the epic moments but sculpting the valleys and slopes around them, the unfolding of the piece, rather than its punch line, is turning into the main attraction.

I'm sure there are other bands out there equally capable of amalgamating their different influences into a comparably cohesive and personal style and of turning each song into a both ambitious and breathtaking roller coaster ride. But right now, at the top of my head, it's hard to think of a single one.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Vessels
Homepage: Cuckundoo Records

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