In conversations recorded in the months up to their new album release, Vessels talk about transitions, techno and taking their time.
In 2008, Vessels’ confrontational mix of heavy guitars and twisted dance beats characterised their feisty debut album ‘Over White Fields and Open Devices’. Almost a decade on, the Leeds-based quintet (Tom Evans, Tim Mitchell, Martin Teff, Lee J. Malcolm and Peter Wright) have powered through the guitar-heavy, percussion-driven dynamics of second album ‘Helioscope’ and emerged with the blown-out techno ambition of third album, ‘Dilate’.
In the aftermath of that second album, Vessels were a band at a fork in the road. The lively intricacy of their first two albums was gradually pushing the band beyond complex post-rock and into a new world of expansive, electronic intent. Dabbles with techno covers—their version of James Holden’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’ or the excellent take on Moderat’s ‘Blue Clouds’—didn’t quite translate into a longer-term direction before the creation behind ‘Dilate’ helped them find a balance between the band-driven bedrock and a bigger, brighter BPM-led future.
Their latest album, ‘The Great Distraction’ takes that intent and pushes it past a base desire to go four-to-the-floor. Anchored in the hypnotic intensity of tracks like ‘Radiart’ and the fragmented ‘Radio Decay’, it’s an album that picks up on the understated ceaselessness of its predecessor but throws up some surprises with the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, Django Django’s Vincent Neff, and John Grant adding their vocal weight and depth to Vessels’ slow-burning march forward.
Rooted in life, death and the strange, strained state of the world, it’s an album that also sees Vessels take on some heavy, philosophical themes, but always breaks the bleakness with a pulsating euphoria. After almost 10 years, three albums and being perennially on the fringe of wider success, they’re a band asking deeper questions of themselves, too. From dealing with creaking, old equipment to reflecting on their own mortality, there’s a dichotomy between the new album’s title and the fact that Vessels are more focused than ever.
Patience, persistence and constant creation has propelled the band to this point, and while ‘The Great Distraction’ might not make or break Vessels, they’re at a point where ‘Deflect the Light’ is featured on the FIFA18 soundtrack and those late-night set invites are rolling in with more frequency. Momentum is a beautiful thing.
Let’s talk about the transition between ‘Helioscope’ and ‘Dilate’—it was a pretty dramatic shift in style. Looking back now, how much of a risk do you think it was for you?
Lee: We made quite a departure from the last record. I was quite nervous about how it would be received or if it was too much of a jump but it was great that so many people came through with us and got on board with it. We’ve played a lot of interesting shows we wouldn’t previously have been able to play and we’ve always thought wanted to do something with nice lights and a banging techno set at 2 o’clock in the morning — ‘Dilate’ really helped us get to that point.
Was there a point or a discussion where you all decided that this was the way forward?
Pete: It was quite a gradual process but the ‘Elliptic EP’ we released was closer related to the rockier music we were playing. As we were writing and recording the music, we decided to not include it on the album, to draw a line and just release it. I think that was the point at which ‘Dilate’ was going to be made in more dance-orientated way. ‘Miopic Biopic’ and ‘Come out of the Sky and Fight This’ were going to be on it but it became clear there were two different types of record emerging and we could see a dividing line.”
Martin: I tend to think of all the music we’ve ever done as a kind of progression but there’ve been points along the way where, for example, we learned to cover (James Holden’s) ‘The Sky Was Pink’ and that was a bit of a pivotal moment. I think ‘Dilate’ was the point at which we were entering the electronic world and this album is the point we’re experimenting with it.
So the process of creating ‘Dilate’ helped provide you with more of singular focus when you started making ‘The Great Distraction’?
Lee: In terms of what got brought through to this album was a tried and tested infrastructure we’ve just kept refining. This record’s been nowhere near as unhinged in terms of not knowing whether it was possible to do things. There are some things that are almost impossible to do live, so with this record we were very much writing with that in mind, trying to think about who would play what and how they’d do it, and trying to limit the palette somewhat. In the same breath that that’s liberating, it can also be quite marginalising or debilitating. You have all the sounds and just don’t know which route to choose. We’ve all been to those gigs where a geezer’s just stood there and you’re asking yourself “Why are we all facing this guy?! Let’s just have a dance!” There’s definitely that element in the back of our minds where it has to be visually interesting; we are fundamentally a band and one of the basic prerequisites of that is that we play fucking music!