Artist: Starset /Album: Divisions / Release Date: September 13th, 2019
Starset, a cinematic rock band founded in 2013 by vocalist and electrical engineer Dustin Bates, released their third album, Divisions, this past fall. The band is best known for their sci-fi inspired concept albums and multimedia approach to entertainment that is revolutionizing the way fans interact with music. For example, following the success of their first album, Transmissions, Starset released a novel that explored the lore behind their mission as representatives of The Starset Society, an organization aiming to educate the public on all things science and technology (see thestarsetsociety.org). This novel later turned into a deal with Marvel Comics and will be followed up with a second novel, rumored to release sometime in 2020. Furthermore, prior to the tour promoting their second release, Vessels, the band devised an app that transported fans attending their concerts (called “Demonstrations”) to outer space, complete with planets floating in the venue and rockets flying overhead.
Clearly, Starset is dedicated to creating a whole production. The band members even appear on stage in intricate costumes that get a facelift with every new release. To demonstrate, check out some photos from the NYC date of Starset’s “Immersion: Part One” tour, courtesy of Alex Dean, one of our web developers:
However, Divisions truly is where the band’s creativity and devotion to the multi-faceted, alternative-reality aspect to their art really shines through. The band went on tour to promote Divisions the day that it released and fans quickly noticed a trend: there were two distinct “types” of Demonstrations, complete with different propaganda being handed out at the front door, different posters hung up at the venues, costume tweaks, among other changes. The Starset app became a portal to interacting with the posters, which clued fans in on what was happening in the Dystopian world that Divisions is set in.
Months later, the band members promoted a mysterious website (www.newwestindustries.com) on their social media accounts, which allowed fans to take a personality test that sorted them into one of the two factions (New West or Rebels) that exist in the world of Divisions. The quiz even analyzed fans’ Spotify listening habits and generated them a faction playlist, featuring tracks from the band as well as related artists and tracks with a similar vibe.
Clearly, Divisions is a fitting title for the album, not only conceptually, but is spot on in terms of sound. The album seems to be split between a familiar hard/alt rock approach as in Starset’s previous albums and similar to bands like 30 Seconds to Mars and Breaking Benjamin, and a more electronic rock approach, similar to Bring Me the Horizon or even some of Breathe Carolina or Linkin Park’s work.
What makes Divisions really stand out is throughout the album there are mini audio “scenes”, where we get a first-hand glimpse into the world the album is set in. Furthermore, through the aforementioned playlists, the tracks of Divisions themselves are divided into the New West (NW) or Rebel (R) factions. While I will denote which tracks belong to which faction in this review, I highly recommend listening to this album–and all concept albums–in order for the first time. It progresses quite nicely and track order on an album is always chosen for a reason. Then, if you want to piece together the puzzle here, have at it! Because I assure you, this album was meant to be dissected, if that’s something that interests you.
Let’s break it all down now, shall we?
If you would like to follow along, the band has released the entire album on YouTube, which I will link for your listening pleasure: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLzLnsw-yVvLhEX0VIpNj8qCVrJ4JM5Kno
Track One: “A Brief History of the Future”
“A Brief History of the Future” is a spoken word piece set to a backdrop of audio scenes pieced together with unsettling synths similar to the opening track to Netflix’s Stranger Things. This track sets the stage for the entire album–it catches us up to speed on the world the speaker finds himself in (“This place is a desert for the mind/void of emotion and barren of thought/no real thought at least”), and his goal: “But it hasn’t always been this way…I seek to know the truth.” If you’re interested in mapping out the story behind Divisions, then I feel it is important to note that this is the only track that is “neutral” in terms of faction– it does not appear in either the New West or the Rebels playlists.
Track Two: “Manifest” (NW)
“Manifest” was the first single for Divisions. It starts off softly, with quiet instrumentals and clear vocals that lead up to a heavy drop. This back-and-forth sound continues throughout the song and mimics the relationship described in the lyrics. The track itself is melodic and blends the hard rock and electronic sounds really well; it is a good introduction to the album for sure.
Track Three: “Echo” (NW)
“Echo” follows a similar progression as “Manifest” with a back-and-forth, quiet-loud build, but with a more dreamlike, almost lullaby-with-a-synthetic-rock-twist kind of sound. Lyrically, it has some strong imagery and has a catchy chorus that builds to an emotional climax. While fun to sing along to, this track feels a bit like filler compared to the rest of the album.
Track Four: “Where the Skies End” (R)
“Where the Skies End” was the second single that Starset released leading up to this album. Thematically, it almost has a Rise Against’s “Re-Education (Through Labor)” feel to it–a call to arms, a rally to a cause. But “WTSE” feels a step further, like we’re watching the action take its course. Musically, this is one of the most cinematic tracks of Divisions; it has a very complex sound that is layered well. It fades to our first distinct audio scene in the album.
Track Five: “Perfect Machine” (NW)
“Perfect Machine” is both the calm before and after the storm,k as it is sandwiched between two particularly intense tracks. It’s a good change of pace. Thematically, “Perfect Machine” is a ballad full of deceit. It definitely shows off Bates’ vocal power–both in range and in intensity.
Track Six: “Telekinetic” (R)
“Telekinetic” is one of two outliers; it is the heaviest track on the album. It combines clever, albeit somewhat edgy, lyrics with a great blend of electronic and rock sound. It builds to an intense breakdown complete with heavy riffs and growls. The track fades to a contemplative audio scene. Thematically, this song directly relates to the search for truth established in the first track, as the speaker finds himself “lost in the make-believe” with seemingly no way out.
Track Seven: “Stratosphere” (R)
“Stratosphere” was the fourth and final single released before the album itself; it is also the midpoint of the album. Interestingly enough, to fans, this track is the most familiar-sounding of the album; it could almost fit in better with either of their previous releases, with its direct astronomical theme and its more ethereal, other-worldly sound. It also has an intense instrumental bit following a thematically on-point quote from Ronald Reagan, starting at around 2:18.
Track Eight: “Faultline” (R)
“Faultline” is one the most well-rounded tracks on the album; it has a fun, bouncy blend of electronic and rock-n-roll sound and catchy lyrics that you’ll find yourself singing along to without realizing it. Taken out of the context of the album, it feels like a thinly-veiled break-up song with some really clever quips in it. Between the sound and lyrics, it may be the most accessible from the album to newcomers.
Track Nine: “Solstice” (NW)
While “Solstice” has a fabulous, cinematic sound paired with powerful vocals, it is lyrically one of the weakest on the album. It is incredibly simple and repetitive. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering how intricate the instrumentals to back it up are.
Track Ten: “Trials” (R)
“Trials” is truly a call-to-arms, an unifying, high-energy anthem with the goal of motivating listeners to come out of hiding, to rise up and be reborn, as “Today/They’ll hear the violence/We’ll rise from the dark like Lazarus”. Conceptually, this track feels like what could have led to “Where The Skies End”. They pair together perfectly in terms of theme–lyrically, spoken in terms of “us” and “them” with promises of a new way of living that is better than the “trials” they have been enduring.
Track Eleven: “Waking Up” (NW):
“Waking Up” is the other outlier of the album — it is the lightest, most dreamlike track, despite its title. Despite its more pop sound and painfully repetitive refrain, this track has some clever lines in the lead-up to the endless loop of “waking up”. I hated this track upon my first listen, to be honest with you, but after some thought, I feel it demonstrates the conflict present in Divisions really well.
Track Twelve: “Other Worlds Than These” (R):
“Other Worlds Than These” feels like a resolution, but given the nature of Divisions, I am unsure if we can trust this resolution. Instrumentally, this track is complex and progresses very well with a good blend of rock, strings, and electronic sound. Lyrically, its verses are well-written (despite its lazy chorus) and overall feels like a very satisfying conclusion…
Track Thirteen: “Diving Bell” (R):
Except “Other Worlds than These” is not the end of the album; “Diving Bell” is. “Diving Bell” is another outlier, but unlike the other two. “Diving Bell” is in a category of its own. It is a gorgeous, emotional ballad that sounds almost a capella at times but actually overlays a complex mix of funky electric beats and gorgeous strings that builds into so much more. But what truly makes “Diving Bell” an outlier is the scene at the end– Diving Bell has the longest audio scene that almost feels like its own song. After a few beats of silence after Bates’ vocals end, the listener hears the crackling of a fire, drones whizzing by overhead, and then a chilling, ethereal chanting begins.
Tickets for their 2020 Divisions World Tour are on sale now; you can find tour dates and more at the band’s website, starsetonline.com.
If you find yourself looking for more Starset, I’d highly recommend giving a listen to “My Demons”, “The Point of No Return” and “Telescope” from their first album, Transmissions; I’d recommend “Satellite”, “Back to the Earth”, and “Monster” from their second, Vessels.