Artist: twenty | one | pilots
Genre: ‘Schizoid pop’
Label: Fueled By Ramen
Schizoid pop is one way of putting it. Vessel is a baptism of fire if, like me, you weren’t heretofore familiar with twenty | one | pilots, but it’s a gloriously rewarding one. Mangling genres in this manner can go one of two ways – it can all become a cacophonous mess that makes you want to rip your headphones into shreds, or it can become an eclectic, eccentric marriage of invention and ingenuity. Vessel, needless to say, belongs in the latter category. The band’s approach is perplexing – they have that industrialised, murky air that goes with old-school British rock bands, combined with the sleek and grating thump of dance music, and then the quick-fire vocals of rap or hip hop. It’s rhythmic and intense and constantly surprising, the songs rarely sticking to the opening blueprint. More often than not, they unveil a dark and ominous heart that belies the oddball, even goofy nature of the vocals. It’s downright peculiar to have something so effects-heavy and synthetic sound so human, but such is the effect this has – of very real and genuine emotion and difficulty grappled with through a prism of hyperactivity.
There’s very little on here that doesn’t work. Even when flip-flopping through genres, the band finds a way to make each sound their own and use it to tell a story. Most of it is dressed up in synthesizers but when using more organic sounds, such as on “House of Gold,” the album becomes almost poignant – the naturalism bringing heart and pathos. It can be boyish and plain and idealistic, as underlined by the low-key music and sweet vocals on “House of Gold”, or something much bleaker. The persistent, repetitious piano on “Car Radio” creates a greying, wilting dynamic. The addition of synthetic tones enhances this, bringing out an industrial harshness that underlines how despondent and afflicted the lyrics are. It escalates quickly but even with whip-sharp vocals and more rhythmic sounds, it remains disconsolate at heart. “Trees” is equally despondent. A languid key refrain hints at the barest sense of inner turmoil, and yet the effect seems to engulf the song like a wave. It becomes more intensive as it plays out, once again seeming to flee the anguish at its centre, but it remains haunted and wounded and deeply affecting.
On their Facebook page, twenty | one | pilots write about pushing “through unhappiness to find joy,” which is something that seems to characterise numerous songs on Vessel. Where some take the more visceral approach described above, others embed their demons in mischief and trickery. “Ode to Sleep” has a twofold nature – stormy and ominous when it opens, it flips tone entirely and morphs into a bouncy, disaffected pop number some moments in. It switches back and forth throughout its running time, fusing murky optimism with refinement. It’s an odd number – especially as the album opener – but its rich character keeps you guessing and makes for a compelling and rewarding listen. “Semi-Automatic” is perhaps the finest example of Vessel’s conflicted heart. For every seemingly carefree, jovial song, there’s a darker and insidious streak as evidenced by phantom piano keys and wispy sound effects. The integration of these stylistic touches with the more disaffected tone of their singing is quite stunning, resulting in this slightly deranged and bizarre track which stops and starts over alternating brash and poignant vocals.
Conflicted, afflicted, and intensely entertaining, Vessel is about all you could ask for in an album. It is emotionally complex but doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, choosing instead to bury it beneath rich layers of beguiling music. It mightn’t sound particularly deep at first but once you are involved, there’s an endless amount to discover. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing it on repeat for weeks.
Review written by Grace Duffy