Review Summary: A step down from their previous efforts, but on the whole, Starset's latest is serviceable.
Starset has been one of the best mainstream rock bands to arrive in the past decade. While in some ways they were a little derivative of Red, their added electronic and cinematic elements helped them to stand out. Their mysterious "concept band" thing has always been a little hard to take seriously (not to mention difficult to follow), but the strength of their music always made up for that. Now, after two excellent albums to jump-start their career, Starset drops their third album--and this time the results are mixed.
While the band has generally been able to strike a good balance between the rock/metal and the pop/electronic parts of their sound, this album seems to lean more towards the latter -- or at least, it overdoes it in that regard. This isn't to say that the heavier aspect of their sound is gone, but the opener (not including the intro) and lead single "Manifest" is a bit misleading in that regard. "Telekinetic" and "Other Worlds Than These" are really the only other songs that reach that level of heaviness. There are other guitar-driven songs like "Stratosphere" and "Echo," but they're more mid-tempo rockers. Nevertheless, most of these songs work about as well as usual.
Elsewhere the more electronic/poppy elements take center stage. It's not that Starset can't do good with this side of their sound; they have before, and a couple of cuts here succeed as well (namely the highlight "Solstice"). The issue is how on other songs the electronic elements are overdone and come across as distracting. This may be in part because Rob Graves is no longer producer; lead singer Dustin Bates does it himself this time and he runs the poppier side of the band's sound into the ground.
What happens sometimes here is that we have songs starting off with being rather dull and poorly executed in the first verse/chorus but eventually becoming more interesting later; this happens namely with "Perfect Machine" and "Where the Skies End." Most of this is forgivable, but then the second half of the album comes along and with a couple exceptions, it plods along with hollow and forgettable cuts like "Faultline," "Trials," and "Waking Up." And that's without mentioning the awkward "oh-oh-oh's" of the over-the-top "Other Worlds Than These," or the ham-fisted "rise up" nature of that song and "Trials."
What stands out the most here are the previously mentioned heavier cuts like "Manifest" and "Telekinetic," the latter of which sees Bates using his harsher vocals for pretty much the only time on this album. Other cuts like "Solstice" and "Echo" are genuinely catchy, channeling more of what we've come to expect from Starset. Also of note is "Diving Bell," which (like "Solstice") uses the poppier elements more appropriately. It also features Bates's best vocals on the album and is probably their best album closer thus far.
In general, most of this album is listenable enough. It's just less memorable than their previous two albums, and sometimes more awkward and poorly produced/executed. Not to mention the ill-advised choice to drop the good balance between the heavier and poppier sides of their sound and lean more towards the latter. Hopefully this is just a temporary misstep for Starset and they'll return to their better ways in the future. Even so, there are solid tracks to be found here and it's still a serviceable listen that fans of the band will want to check out while at the same time tempering their expectations.
Song Highlights: "Diving Bell," "Solstice," "Echo," "Telekinetic"