One thing I, and presumably most of the post-millennial populace, have always struggled with when digesting an exorbitant amount of music in the modern age is understanding the distinction between different types of releases. Primarily, the differences between LPs, EPs, demos, mixtapes, etc. Some will tell you that this is determined by number of songs per release, or perhaps the quality in which it was recorded, but in the 21st century this is such a blurry subject. One of my favorite records of all time, Bell Witch‘s Mirror Reaper (2017), is one 83-minute track, but is considered a full-length rather than a single. Cult of Luna just released The Raging River, a fantastic 5-song, 40-minute EP, while Fange just dropped their most recent project, Pantocrator, which comprises of two 15-minute tracks, and the internet cannot decide what the release is classified as. From what I understand, originally, the distinction was made in accordance to record size, length and other factors, but due to streaming and the release of so much music, its difficult to classify a large sum of releases as any of those things.
The newest release from progressive doom metal troupe Flesh of the Stars also confused me in this matter. Classified as a full-length by some sources and an extended play by others, Mirror / Vessels is comprised of four tracks, two of which are 11 minutes each. The other tracks however, are other, significantly shorter, “realizations” of those longer tracks. Certainly an interesting artistic choice, but I was somewhat concerned to see the sheer lack of content on this release, especially after I loved their 2019 effort, Mercy, which was an additional 15 minutes longer. This is a record that seems like it should be an EP, yet may not be at the same time. This doesn’t matter in the grander scope of analyzing the music, but it is certainly interesting to think about.
In terms of the music itself, Flesh of the Stars continues to push boundaries on this release. Easily one of the most aurally interesting bands in the doom metal subgenre. Their sound can only be described as lo-fi melodic progressive doom metal, with a heavy electronic and slow-core edge (take Duster, slow it to 25% and throw a metric ton of reverb and distortion on it). The mixes here, and on their prior work, are so barren and incredibly natural, almost if one was listening to a live recording of their performances. Yet the thunderous riffs and passionate vocal performances explode into permanence, after bouts of soft, somber guitar leads and delicate atmosphere. The songs to really talk about here are the title tracks, “Mirror” and “Vessels,” both of which showcase the band’s classic style of ethereal heaviness, somber melodies, and epic soundscapes. Compared to their previous record, Mirror / Vessels is especially somber and substantially slower, and this reflects in every aspect of both of the longer songs’ performances.
“Mirror” begins the journey with a lonely guitar lead, which continues to grow as cymbal flourishes and a hushed clean vocal murmurs beneath the chordal changes. This explodes into the monolithic sound the group is known for, but with a very despondent twist. The tortured tenor part soars over the booming riffs and sparsely mixed drums (a wonderful touch as always). This track also has multiple peaks, well managing its pace by drawing the listener in again and again with near full stops and returns to the softer original riff. The “harsh” vocals here are less of a scream, and more of a throaty call to the void, wavering uncontrollably over the crushing instrumentation. Another wonderful aspect of this group’s sound is their use of female vocals to expand their sound even farther. Both primary cuts utilize these sparingly, with Victoria Butash’s soprano ominously serenading over the mix on this cut particularly.
“Vessels” is more akin to the “standard” Flesh of the Stars sound. Closer to an atmospheric version of slower Pallbearer cuts, and the quiet starter line quickly builds to a slow, angular head-banging riff. This group’s main talent is exploring all avenues of their guitar’s sound; often switching from a low chordal riff to a much higher (tonally), quick chugging melody that gives the drums and bass a chance to wander as well. This track also features a wonderful piano section to compliment the main riff of the song, and brilliantly leads into the second half of the cut. Which picks up into the best climax of the record and maybe my favorite by the group.
We cannot forget the other tracks on this release, however. “Mirrors (Electronic Realization)” follows the premier cut, and serves as a nice conclusion to it. The wubbing synth lines beneath the very bright electronics provide a nice break after the intensity of the track before it. As well as exploring interesting sonic ground, with a fading melodic line dancing up and down a scale as it continues to build into a fuller and more involved track. It is certainly its own cut, but stands much better as a follow-up to the previous song. “Vessels (Sinking Realization)” is immediately interesting, merely on the basis of it’s name, and the fact that it comes before “Vessels” in the track list. Another electronic cut, this one builds up layers of feedback and noise until a subtle synth tone solely takes over the track, only to bring us into the final cut slowly and quietly as the first song did. This format is rather interesting, and I can’t think of another group who have done anything similar to this.
Flesh of the Stars finds their uniqueness primarily in their use of sound play, classic conventions and varied influences, but we can add song formatting to that list after this record. Mirror / Vessels is a record that can only be listened to fully, or with each primary cut and their corresponding realization. While sure, 15-minute tracks might not be your jam, I guarantee that these will impress. There is not a bad song on this album either, taking into account that the realizations are meant to be listened to with their master track. Now, these songs aren’t perfect, but they are extremely emotive, wonderfully produced (thanks Harris Newman), and masterfully written. Engaging throughout, this newest effort (which is disputed online as an EP and an LP) from the Chicago group is easily one of, if not my favorite from them; and I cannot wait for them to really blow up so I can see them in my area. It is yet another wonderfully solid release from the quartet, and I recommend you check this out if you’re feeling completely dejected, searching for a harder side of post-rock or wanting to bath in soupy reverb.
Final Rating: Matt Ciani’s falsetto sounds exactly like Chris Martin’s normal voice
Favorite Tacks: “Mirror”/”Mirror (Electronic Realization), “Vessels (Sinking Realization)”/”Vessels”
FFO: Pallbearer, Warning, Duster