It’s been over ten years since Vessels released the single ‘Yuki’ and ended up on the radar of BBC national radio. A session with Huw Stephens followed, as did the recording of their debut album ‘White Fields and Open Devices’ with respected studio boffin John Congleton. Subsequent years saw Glastonbury appearances, another album ‘Helioscope’ recorded with the aforementioned Congleton, and impressive reviews from the likes of tastemaker blog Pitchfork. ‘Dilate’, recorded in 2015, signaled a decisive break from their more post-rock origins and, with the release of ‘The Great Distraction’, the band are now cementing their position in the sphere of live electronic music.
From the opening bars of ‘Mobilise’ it’s obvious Vessels aren’t intent on messing around, cutting straight to the chase with hypnotic percussive loops that drag the listener straight into the groove, whilst electronic sounds pan and swirl in gradually. This is a firmly entrancing and more than satisfying opener.
Anyone who listens to this album on a hunch without knowing who features on it will then be bowled over by the opening vocal stanza of ‘Deflect The Light’. Yes. You’re not mistaken. That’s Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips. The underlying musical backing is complex enough to please the music snobs but understated enough to allow Coyne’s vocal line to do its job without being cluttered out. The way this track bobs along and washes so easily over the listener might lead to the false impression marrying something this poppy with the type of music Vessels make is easy. No. Vessels and Coyne are just making it seem easy. There’s a world of difference.
After the radio friendly unit shifter moment it’s back to the domain of the underground dance floor with ‘Position’. Easing into it slowly, this is over 6 minutes of synth, high pitched samples and increasingly distorted drums. Pace yourself and stay hydrated. Especially as next comes ‘Radiart’, totaling near 7 minutes. Whilst ‘Position’ more noticeably hints at Vessels’ post-rock past, occasionally coming across as a little Mogwai in parts, with ‘Radiart’ it’s still there but perhaps less evident, the more straightforward dance elements coming to the fore, still tapping into club floor euphoria but shrouded at the fringes in dark uneasiness suiting the times.
With its notably high profile collaborations, less has been made of the fact Harkin also appears on this LP. This is perhaps fitting as Harkin is often prone to playing a more background role in many of her occupations, playing in the live line-ups of the soon to be disbanded Wild Beasts and also Sleater-Kinney for example. Katie Harkin, to use her full name, first came to be noticed fronting the highly rated Sky Larkin and has recently worked with Tom Evans from Vessels in the group Living Body, a project started by Jeff T Smith (formerly Juffage) and also including Alice Rowan from Mayshe-Mayshe and Sarah Statham from Esper Scout. The track ‘Deeper In A Sky’ making the final album cut encapsulates how Harkin is a more than formidable artist in her own right to stand tall in such esteemed company, and here’s hoping this does more to bring her output to wider attention as, in terms of the beat and the overall catchiness partly emanating from a simple little synth hook, it’s arguably one of the standout tracks on the record.
With ‘Glower’ we have a fluttering psychedelia-tinged intro which gives way to an almost 80s vibe, be it with a much more modern feel. It’s all percolating nicely before it bursts, somewhat predictably, into life on two and a half minutes. It’s no less enjoyable for its obviousness though and when it drops back down around a minute later, the musicality increases and proves hard to resist, all mutating dynamics underpinned, yet again, by a killer synth line.
‘Trust Me’ brings forth another collaboration, this time with Vincent Neff from Django Django. It’s a more than proficient offering which lends necessary cohesion to the album without perhaps raising its head enough over the parapet to be massively memorable. We’ll see. Maybe it’s a grower. What’s this cued up next – a track coming in under three minutes? Well I never. ‘Everyone is Falling’ fades in, woozily entering the fray. Perhaps the appropriate lull in proceedings before one last push towards the final crescendos. In addition, it’s an eerily reflective moment contrasting with the pace of what has come before.
‘Radio Decay’ goes back into familiar six minutes plus territory, skittering and jittering to life before the bass is afforded the space to usher in one of the more interesting rhythmic patterns on the LP. Those who are feeling worse for wear might find this one tricky to dance to at the outset but they’ll hopefully get to grips with it as it progresses. As a pure listening experience in the headphones, it’s a real delight.
As if this album hadn’t already paid back its bargain basement Bandcamp price, we finish up with a guest slot for John utter bleeding genius Grant on ‘Erase the Tapes’. Not only does this prove the perfect means of rounding the record off but also hammers home the point this isn’t just the act of churning out a track and bunging a vocal sample on top of it. As Tom from the group recently alluded to in his Q&A with TSOFD, it is a painstaking process just to filter through the huge amount of material the band can potentially opt to work with for a record. That which is chosen must then be honed and refined, before, where collaborations are concerned, it is redeveloped even further to combine well with vocal offerings from the kind of established names that must also bring with them a significant amount of pressure. To state Vessels have more than risen to this challenge is something of an understatement. Particularly when they are deliberately limiting themselves to working with an audio palette they can replicate truthfully in a live setting.
When an album as mesmeric as ‘The Great Distraction’, bafflingly, only gets two stars from The Irish Times and doesn’t even get written about in The Guardian, then you begin to wonder whether the broadsheets are employing the right people to review music. Vessels are no flash in the pan. This is a group that has worked tirelessly at their craft to arrive at a point in time where the likes of Wayne Coyne and John Grant are eager to collaborate with them. In a challenging climate that makes it hard just for people with jobs to survive without food banks, let alone musicians, it is heartening to see a group get their heads down, stay true to their art and come out the other side. Whatever fate has in store for Vessels, they can be immensely proud of where their journey has so far taken them. This is the sort of story that should be celebrated and championed across the music media.
But at least The Guardian is covering Shania Twain.
Photos by Imogen Love.
‘The Great Distraction’ is out now on Different Recordings.
Buy it on Bandcamp here.