self-released / 2016
Young songwriter Julien Baker's surge to prominence over the last year has afforded her a mouthpiece to speak about Christianity to the national media, but also to draw attention to the vibrant D.I.Y. music scene in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview with Bandcamp, one of the Memphis contemporaries she most enthusiastically shouted-out was VAS, a rock quartet formed of students at the city's Visible Music College who recently released their self-titled debut. VAS ("vessel" in Latin) is a collection of melodic, electronically-inflected indie pop, packed to the brim with hooks - and though the record suffers from a sense of sonic déjà vu over its nine tracks, it's well worth a spin for frontman Andrew Elder's sometimes sublime vocal performance and for the promise it holds for the nascent band's future.
Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver)'s influence is all over VAS - from Elder's vocals, which are a clarion falsetto in the high ranges, then soaked in autotune and other effects in the low, to the neon-streaked synthesizers that recall Vernon's side project Volcano Choir even more than Bon Iver. It's an invigorating mix, and VAS succeed in making the sound their own, though most tracks are cast after the same mid-tempo prototype that by record's end loses its novel luster. Yet while the pace and structure of the songs becomes too familiar, every one has individual elements that work. For example, the dark bass synth that anchors "Soda Pop", the blistering, proggish guitar solo on the same song, or the close of "Dream For Real" which would be at home in a European electro club. But for all of that busy sound, some of the best moments come when VAS take a breather, like the memorable coda of "She Told Me", where the guitars drop away and Elder sings vividly about smoke billowing from a girl's ribcage.
The singer's performance on the sorrowful, piano-centric "BloodIsBloodIsBlood" is one of the album's highlights, and there's a crystalline quality to his voice as he delivers the remorse-ridden lyrics. Interesting lyrical territory is explored on "Vipers", too, which laments the know-nothing apathy of white churches to the unique struggles of black Americans. Imagining those struggles as the titular snakes, it ends on a note of hope in Christ's justice: "The head of the slithering serpent will be crushed under his foot."
It's "Richard Parker" that listeners will remember most clearly, though. The record's pyrotechnic closer has VAS pushing the envelope, with synths that drift like cirrus clouds around Elder's heavily-processed vocals before giving way to a post-rock-esque crescendo so big that it required a second drum kit and additional musicians (members of Forrister, band of the aforementioned Julien Baker, cut the track live with VAS in a single take). The track title is a reference to Life of Pi, and when Elder intones triumphantly that "I'm the captain now," and, "I'll train your mind to fear all the love that you've been given", the pathos courtesy of book/film could raise a couple goosebumps. This post-rock-inspired sound seems like a rich vein to explore in the future, but regardless of where the band goes next, VAS suggests that it will be worth following along.