Music has the potential to make someone feel more in five seconds than a novel can in five hundred words. Music has this ability to speak to our emotions in a way that is both vague and intensely piercing. When you combine this ability with storytelling, you get one of the most effective and most unique creative avenues in existence.
Be’lakor have always been great at storytelling: gems such as Countless Skies, Venator, Outlive the Hand, and In Parting showcase their lyrical prowess. They’re also awesome at making metal music; songs such as Abeyance and Remnants are two of my favourites. So when I heard that the Melbourne-based band were going to write a concept album, I was thrilled. That album has been out for some months now, and my hype was absolutely justified. Let’s dive in.
I’m a guitarist and a beginner drummer, but I’m honestly not that great at paying attention to qualities of sound, nor am I awesome at describing these. So let me just say on this that the Be’lakor sound hasn’t changed massively. It’s a polished and improved take on the sound they’ve consistently based their music on since the start. The low, bassy rhythm sections pierced through by high lead riffs won’t be a surprise to anyone acquainted with Be’lakor. There are a few acoustic sections, and the guitar there has a sound that’s warm, but not so warm and metallic that you can tell that new strings have just been put on (I’ve listened to a lot of music that’s guilty of this). At the same time the tone of the acoustic guitar doesn’t offset the mood of the rest of the music.
One random detail about the music sticks out to me, though: the snare drum. It’s got that hollow ring that isn’t overly present in the loud sections but in the quieter bits really hits home the sense of subtle disturbance that Be’lakor prides itself on. Good stuff.
Also not going to spend too much time on this by itself as I’ll dive deeper into this when discussing the lyrics, as the cohesion between the music and the words are what’s really remarkable about this album.
Be’lakor did say that Vessels would contain bits that would surprise some people. I’ll touch on a couple of these later, but it’s worth noting that while some parts might at first seem musically odd, once you become familiar with the songs and listen through a few times it all fits in together. Overall, the riffs are solid and supportive of the song in any given moment, the occasional piano section serves to bring a sense of melancholy, and the drums are clever, which is really important in making metal music stand out, as so much of metal drumming is very basic. This album is worth listening to for the music alone, and if you want a showcase, listen to An Ember’s Arc. That single song has pretty good examples of pretty much the album’s entire range.
I’m going to discuss both music and lyrics in this section as it all fits in together. I’ll step through song by song, talking about what each one brings to the concept as it evolves, and then finish with some conclusions about the whole thing.
Obviously, there’s heavy spoilers for Vessels below.
#1 – Luma
Straight off the bat, this song contains some unexpected bits: the high lead riff here makes me think of glam metal. But the buildup (this is an intro song, after all) is effective: it sets the scene with two short verses talking about “a thread that runs through all”. This is an important line, and I’ll get back to it later. One thing surprised me about the song is that the first word actually spoken (in the fade-in right before the main section) is “destiny”. That word is not in the lyrics booklet. Also worth noting.
UPDATE: As pointed out in the comments below, what I’d originally misheard as a distorted utterance of the word “destiny” in Luma is actually the quote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” These words are in the lyrics booklet, but on a page on their own before the words of Luma. On reflection, they don’t really seem to tie into the plot, apart from the reference to the sun. The fact that they’re on a page by themselves before the title “Luma” and the rest of the words makes me think that maybe they’re “outside” the concept of the album, and perhaps they’re just a thematic quote meant to set the scene.
#2 – An Ember’s Arc
Let me start off by saying that, musically, this is probably my favourite song on the album and one of the best songs Be’lakor’s ever written. It ranges from quiet contemplation to heavy confrontation. The formulation of the lyrics is great as well. In particular, give the introductory drum beat up to about 1:00 a few listens through. Awesome use of the high tom, but in general that part is just pleasing to listen to.
The song gives us our first big insight into the album’s tale: it discusses the formation of a star. Be’lakor doesn’t often reach for the skies with their lyrics, but this is done excellently. The riff at around 3:30 is probably my favourite part. In any case, we get a sense of primeval gas clouds coalescing into “a crucible for their collapse”, and the song explores the chaos of stellar birth (which is supported really well by the music). We find out that the star forming is in fact the sun, and the second half of the lyrics discusses two particles meeting and ultimately forming a particular photon. “Free at last, it’s final form, / The photon dashed for Earth.” Thus the song directs our expectations to Earth for the next song, but be warned that this is not Earth as we know it.
#3 – Withering Strands
At almost eleven minutes, this is the longest song of the album, and it starts off with a pondering, slow riff that leads into a recurring riff that will be something like the hallmark of the song. We learn of a small plant that the photon from the previous song directs us to. Overshadowed by titan trees, this plant has struggled to survive, with little light reaching it. The song almost mourns for the plant even as it dies.
But fortune changes: one of the trees around it collapses, and light pours through onto the plant so that it’s “Transformed by the day / As the fuelling light forged.” One small thing that irks me about this song is that some of the verses are repeated in different parts of the song. With such lyrical depth it’s a shame to see words reused, but perhaps it’s so that greater attention is paid to the music in those bits, or maybe Be’lakor just wants to reinforce the words. Another thing worth noting: at around 6:05 the rhythm guitar drops away leaving the lead guitar to echo hollowly, and we hear a wordless grunt from the vocals. Keep that in mind as well, because over the course of the album we’ll see recurrences of animalistic sounds that seem to be less for random emphasis and more to mark the primality of the situation in that moment. I’ll come back to this later.
The plant towers up, but the penultimate verse of the song warns us of its fate: “Fixated above, / The sky its sole purpose, / Its oblivious growth / Led the insects to surface.” The music here (at 9:26) is dissonant and striking, with strong accents that make me think of hammer blows.
Insects rise up onto the newborn tree and tear it down. This plant that we’ve seen on the brink of death that was saved has now been finally destroyed, and this sets the tone unequivocally for the album: this is a tragic tale. Expect no happy endings here. The final verse fades away with a lingering scream and the music vanishes, leaving only a foreboding, almost ticking sound that brings to mind clocks and mortality.
However, this seemingly desolate moment was where I got my first sense that maybe this isn’t all the album’s saying. I got a tiny hint that there’s something underneath. Remember that there’s “A thread that runs through all”. The next song confirmed my theory and it’s there that we start to identify the grand story that Vessels is weaving. Onwards.
#4 – Roots to Sever
I love how Be’lakor works the softness of the piano into otherwise heavy riffs. It gives your ears some room to breathe and your mind some room for contemplation. The intro gives way to a fast, rushing couple of verses that describe the final death of the plant from the previous song.
The piano returns, almost marking those two verses as an interim, then our attention turns to the insects that killed the plant. “Among them, one drone like any other” is our next character. We learn of two insects that have nurtured an egg, which is forbidden under the rule of a Queen. This fits in well with our knowledge of real insects like bees and so gives the fiction some authenticity.
However, the Queen finds out and the two insects are cast out, with their egg smashed on stones. There’s a line here that’s really, really important thematically: Be’lakor calls the broken egg “An offering to slake the earth” and this casts a light onto the harsh nature of the Earth that Vessels depicts: this is a world that has an actively malign nature. It hints at the foundation underneath the recurring tragedy we’ve seen depicted: the suffering of the two insects and their child perhaps makes the earth relent in its demand for sorrow, because “Despite its lot, the child emerged.”
The newly hatched insect searches for more of its kind and is watched by “A pack.” You can already see what’s going to happen here, right? The pack follows the tiny insect as it searches for its swarm, and once it finds them, the pack attacks.
This legitimises the theory that I’d started to hold since Withering Strands: there’s a cycle of tragedy here. The photon was consumed by the plant. The plant was consumed by the insects. The insects were consumed by the pack. See the cycle? Again, there’s this nagging feeling of dissonance inside me at this point in the album: there’s something connecting all this. But what? The rest of the album reveals the truth to us.
Roots to Sever has some awesome riffs, both in ringing guitar harmonies and the strong rhythm underneath. The drums here are strong but not overwhelming. They punctuate the guitar but don’t drown it out, and that’s one of the best qualities of Be’lakor’s drumming: the guys behind this know which instruments need to shine at which parts. Excellent polish.
Can I also point out that Be’lakor is able to set the mood really well? 4:18 and onwards really encapsulates a feeling of oncoming dread.
Another point: more animal-like grunts at 3:17 and 3:21. I’m strengthened in my theory that these parts serve to draw attention to particular points.
#5 – Whelm
That title. We immediately think of “overwhelm” since that’s the common word, but “whelm” by itself gives the same meaning with a more primitive ring. Perfect for the setting.
This is probably my least favourite song on the album. It has some good moments musically, but a lot of the riffs just didn’t sit right with me (the lead guitar at 3:05 is a huge exception; that’s amazing). Still, there’s some things worth drawing attention to.
Excellent uses of the words “chitin” and “ichor” in the first verse, talking about the death of the insects. This mirrors Roots to Sever: the final death of the characters of the previous song are summed up at the very start, and the rest of the song concerns the new focus. In this case, the pack.
Really important lyrical choice: “A rushing mass of fur and claws, / The host would move as one.” Keep the word “host” in mind, because it explains something that happens later in the album.
So at this point we expect some tragedy to befall this pack, and we’re not wrong in our expectation: as they travel the pack has to cross a river. We get a sense that this pack doesn’t hobble itself for the wounded: “Provided each could keep apace, / Those creatures feared none” and “Dispensable – when it should break, / The rest would let it sink.” So we know exactly what’s going to happen: one of the creatures falls while crossing the river and is “shattered on the rocks.”
5:40: A lingering, inhuman scream from the vocals. The creature that fell is watching its pack leave it to die. This sound goes on for a long enough time that it’s actually a little disturbing. It focuses our attention on the pain the creature is experiencing as it dies.
The cycle has continued: one of the pack has been consumed by the river. We’re close to finding out why.
#6 – A Thread Dissolves
Remember that thread mentioned at the very start? Well, the title tells us pretty clearly that it’s now dissolved in the river. This connection between all the characters in the story becomes a little more cohesive.
In the lyrics booklet, this song has no lyrics, but you can hear words when you listen to it. They’re all from the next song, which is interesting.
#7 – Grasping Light
Here we go. Here are the revelations.
Just downstream of where the furred creature died, a man contemplates life by the river. This song gives us the most direct explanation of the connection between all that’s been happening in this album: “To follow the river is to follow the arc.” Which arc? An Ember’s Arc. “To follow the river is to follow the thread.” Which thread? The “Thread that runs through all,” the thread that has now dissolved in the river. “Something of that ember lives! / He feels it bide, he feels it wake / Looking out, but at itself.” It’s the ember. That photon that started everything, that photon’s energy has travelled through all our characters. It hit the plant, which was eaten by insects, which were eaten by hunters, one of which has died and released its energy into the river!
Amazingly, this song also contains what seems like the crux, the delivery of the album’s climax: “But a vessel, adrift, / Not a theft, nor a gift, / That was all – / But a pulse.” Notice the name drop? The album here is trying to tell us, through the words of the human as he contemplates, that all these creatures are just vessels, that there’s nothing beyond them, that it’s all meaningless tragedy. But how can this message be effectively delivered when the entire album before it has shown us an immense cycle that connects all these creatures? Tragic, yes! Heartbreaking, yes! But it’s nevertheless there: all these creatures are part of something greater that started with the star. Vessels, after all, hold something within them! In this way the album incredibly and masterfully subverts and mocks the stereotypical death metal message. It’s through delivering that message at a surface level that the album has shown through deeper connections that message’s flaws. That is the amazing part.
But we’re not done. One more song to go. The man continues the cycle by drinking from the river in which the pack creature died. “To drink from the river is to meet with the arc.” The song’s title plays into this: the man is Grasping Light, because he’s grasping the energy of the ember as he drinks. We know that he’s doomed, but we also know that he’s a part of something now, and the final song will show us the part he has to play in the cosmic web that Vessels has crafted.
#8 – The Smoke of Many Fires
That opening riff. This song has a few jewels like it, and I’ll try to point them out, but that opener beautifully brings up that tragic expectation that we already have.
The man steps away from the river to go back to his clan. A lilting lead cuts through the background with sad notes. We know the man is doomed, and his doom becomes apparent soon.
“He soon found a failing, / Of flesh, and of mind – / They were no longer robust or bright.” The man has grown weak. Why? “What he could not have seen / Was the sickness upstream.” Remember the pack from before, in Whelm? Remember the choice of words? “The host would move as one.” What do hosts carry? Diseases. The man drank water with the blood or innards of the dead creature in it and has quickly fallen prey to the death it carried. “What he could not have known / Was the blight of the bone / In each ebb and each flow he had tasted.”
4:47: Absolutely amazing riff. Piercing and gut-wrenching. “It was then that he heard the sharp crackle of torches, / Carried past him by men from his clan.” He’s going to be burnt alive because “Those he loved feared his illness would wander.” Still that riff sounds out, and to me it’s one of the most emotional moments in the album, because it brings across the feelings of panic that the man must be experiencing at this point. The riff gives way to the only ever time I’ve heard a wah-wah pedal being used to communicate tragedy. The quiet bit after 6:40 or so is our final goodbye, our final contemplation of all that we’ve heard, but bizarrely there’s almost an assonant note at 7:15ish. Why would a spark of positivity be injected here? Our answer arrives with startling force.
“At the heart of the blaze, awareness dissolved / Light ascended devoid of desire / From a trail intertwined, / Life and death strewn behind, / To the stars, it returned, from the fire.”
Because in light of all this tragedy, all this death, the cycle is complete: that photon’s energy has been converted back to fire and is now on its way back to the stars from which it came. That ending is wonderfully tragic and bittersweet, and the music leaves that lingering feeling of shock, both filling and draining, that is the signature of a great tragedy.
What else is there to say? If you’ve read this without listening to the album, then you’re missing out; there’s a substance and energy that I can’t come close to communicating just in this post. The messages hit harder with the music. If you’ve heard it through before, I hope my reading of it has given you some additional insights. Vessels is an expert subversion of death metal that uses the genre to its fullest capacity. The storytelling here is primal: characters aren’t named, but are facets of nature and the world that Be’lakor has dealt with since Venator or even earlier. The music is stellar, and synergises with the words. The whole thing works together to weave an awesome story and is a perfection of what Be’lakor has been cultivating for a while.
A personal aside: one of my previous favourite bands, Parkway Drive, reached this exact same point with the release of Deep Blue in 2010. That was a concept album and my favourite album of theirs. Their albums after that weren’t to my liking and I drifted away from them. I hope the same doesn’t happen to Be’lakor.
But there’s a final point, something that I’m sure isn’t intentional but it’s awesome to pretend it is. Look at the album art:
Those look like kind of like people, right? I showed the cover to someone I’d listened through the album with and asked “What kind of people are these?!” Her response: “Well, they’re deformed, they’ve got bone disease!”
Oh no. “The blight of the bone.” The man’s clan didn’t burn him quick enough, and the disease spread to them before he died. Isn’t that a perfect, final gut-punch, even if it’s imaginary? This is my headcanon for the album, and an awesome finish to an emotional journey.
UPDATE: So I got a welcome surprise when I tweeted Be’lakor with this review:
It’s not every day that that happens!