Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vessels - White Fields and Open Devices CD Review

I think someone spilled some vocals in my post-rock… oh wait, you can have vocals in a post-rock band? Seriously? Because it’s pretty damn annoying. Knowing that White Fields and Open Devices was produced by John Congleton, who also did some production work for a little known band that goes by the name of Explosions in the Sky, the expectation was that Vessels would fall much into the same realm, and they do to a certain extent, but you'll catch them trying to branch out in certain directions that don’t always succeed 100% of the time.

For example, the aforementioned vocals. They pop up in a few tracks, most notably on “A Hundred Times in Every Direction” where they are so low in the mix it is hard to decipher what is being sung. The vocals aren’t bad, but they aren’t amazing either, so maybe that’s why they are mixed in so low compared to the rest of the band. In this particular example, it pains me to say it, but I think the song would have benefited strongly from the removal of the vocal track. At their core, Vessels are an instrumental band and they really shouldn’t try to stretch too far away from that because when they stick to their Caspian meets Isis approach, they’re extremely bad ass.

“An Idle Brain and the Devil’s Workshop” is the perfect encapsulation of the band. Establishing the track from the get-go is a crashing riff that is then let go of to focus on some intense guitar noodling which is followed by more and more layers of heavy riffing and driving drum work. As it builds, it grows in decibels and scope until it hits you hard with some intense riffage, only to collapse back to a slow, nuanced, mellow, exploratory soundscape that eventually fades out to finish the track. This is stellar stuff for sure, but unfortunately there are too many odds and ends tossed in on other areas of the album that detract from some of this greatness.

If you listen to “Happy Accident” you’ll find an odd distorted sound effect cluttering the song and distracting you from what the rest of the band is doing. Similarly “Walking Through Walls” has some odd sound effects at times, which aren’t quite as distracting as on “Happy Accident”, and also show a return of the use of vocals. Since the song itself is mellow through and through, the vocals are able to be heard a little easier and actually add to the composition. But, again, the band seem to be losing focus on what they're truly good at when they go down these experimental paths. Kudos for trying to take baby steps in different directions, but they don't necessarily add a lot to the album.

With these few negatives pointed out, it should be noted that Vessels are a tremendously talented band and they have all the makings of a phenomenal album in them. You can hear it hiding under the surface as you listen to White Fields and Open Devices. Their ability to take the heavily mined post-rock template, work with it and stretch it to encompass many of the sub-genres included under the post-rock banner, and come out sounding interesting is something few bands possess. In the hour plus runtime of the album, there are some amazing mellow moments as well as some pummeling, heavy hitting, sledgehammer riffs, all augmented by the well placed piano pieces and (occasionally) well used sound effects.

Vessels’ debut album is best viewed as a building block for future endeavors. With a plethora of ideas on the table and out of their system, they can now focus on choosing which ones are their best ideas and putting their efforts into doing what they do well, leaving behind what serves merely as a distraction from their good ideas. Vessels are on the cusp of doing something great and I can’t wait to eventually hear it… but until then, White Fields and Open Devices will definitely keep people tided over.

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