Cuckundoo Records

Music review by Richard Lewis 24/3/2011

Named after an early 17th century device used for looking indirectly at the sun, the second album by post-rock quintet Vessels proves to be almost as an intense an experience as looking at the real thing minus eye protection. Recorded (note the Steve Albini-esque lack of a ‘producer’ credit) in Texas at the height of summer by John Congleton, famed for his work with Modest Mouse and Explosions in the Sky, the album finds the band tackling vocals for the first time, a brave move for a previously instrumental band. An eagerly awaited second instalment, Helioscope is the successor to acclaimed 2008 debut album White Fields and Open Devices that saw the five-piece pay homage to Sigur Ros, noise-rockers Mogwai and post-rock icons Slint.

Building on this, the LP expands the group’s horizons, the loops that were previously on the margins of the band’s tracks more to the centre, whilst still retaining the ‘live’ feel of the tracks. Consciously designed as an ‘album’, something to be listened to from beginning to end, a radical concept in the age of the iPod, despite the band’s prog rock leanings, Helioscope proves to be concise, clocking in at less than fifty minutes.

Indeed, opener ‘Monoform’ pays homage to the ultimate ‘album band,’ peak-period Pink Floyd, the track reminiscent of a missing cut from Meddle. Second, ‘The Trap’ evokes Slint sped up, a glance off the American band who created the post-rock subgenre almost single-handedly, replacing the US act’s languid haziness with something more urgent, the track building to a drum crescendo before exploding into life.

‘Recur,’ the first track recorded by the group to feature vocals, sees guitarists Tom Evans and Lee J. Malcolm trade lyrics, underpinned by Tim Mitchell’s superlative beats, his intricate, almost jazzy drumming powering the track along with unerring precision. Whilst Mitchell’s drumming throughout the LP is superb, so to is Martin Teff’s skyscraping bass, especially on ‘Art/Choke,’ nailing the riff to the floor whilst the instrumentation builds around it. Elsewhere, ‘Later Than You Think’s’ glitchy guitar intro suggests the influence of the Warp label, the endlessly repeated motif establishing a foundation for the cutting cross guitar riffs and drum patterns that are gradually introduced.

Whilst predominantly band-as-structuralists, the change between each movement of the track a key element of their sound, Vessels do this without sacrificing the actual song itself. As evidence, lead-off single ‘Meatman, Piano Tuner, Prostitute’ despite the wilfully opaque title sounds like potential crossover material, with guest vocalist, singer-songwriter Stuart Warwick a dead ringer for Thom Yorke on one of his hushed, piano led solo tracks. Similarly, ‘All Our Ends,’ featuring sky-scraping harmonies and uncoiling guitar figures, minus the noisy coda, suggests a group who could make a dent in the charts if they so wished.

Short instrumental piece ‘Heal’ is the most similar track here to shoegazers Sigur Ros and Swedish band Jeniferever, an epically slow soundscape that glides past beatifically. Final track, the hymn-like ‘Split Infinitive,’ this time without the frenetic rhythm section, underscored by church organ, snatches of distant harmonica and slow vocal incantation brings the LP to a restful conclusion. Maintaining the same mood throughout, Vessels’ desire to re-establish the concept of an album as an artistic statement is praiseworthy, as well as giving the very strong impression of a band who if they cared to, could make inroads into the mainstream.

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