Music News & Reviews

Starset brings rock – and spacesuits – to Aftershock

Starset Steve Gullick

Dustin Bates, the man behind the band Starset, holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from Ohio University and was positioned to work on leading edge technology before the opportunity for viable music career opened.

“I did numerous projects in automated robotics and highly accurate navigation,” Bates said during a recent phone interview. “My goal was to be in the forefront of automated vehicles, and it was timed just right that I really could have done that and been part of that movement.”

Music intervened. The band Bates had during college, Downplay, released several independent albums and in 2010 signed to Epic Records, which green lighted a first album for the label.

Bates put his aspirations to work on automated vehicles on the shelf and invested his savings into the band, which specialized in a mainstream rock sound with an alternative slant.

“And almost simultaneously with the completion of the record, the label got a new president and we were dropped instantaneously as they changed the direction of what they wanted to do…They wanted to focus on pop,” Bates said.

But looking back, Bates said the end of the Epic deal was not a bad thing.

“It was a very low point,” he admitted. “But it was good, though. It didn’t feel like it at the time – but it allowed for sort of cleansing of the palate. I was able to (re-connect) with finding a direction in a weird way.”

Bates began thinking about a new musical direction and forming a band with a much more substantial message – one that tied into his collegiate and post-graduate studies.

He came up with a concept for a fictional science organization known as the Starset Society led by an equally fictional president, Aston Wise. The society had received a transmission from outer space that foretold the demise of humanity on earth but also included instructions on how to prevent this catastrophic outcome. This message would be brought to the masses through a very real band called Starset, decked out in spacesuits.

That group released its second album, “Vessels,” in January, and its music and message have connected on a fairly major scale during its brief existence.

The group, which includes Bates out front on vocals, keyboards and guitar and band members bassist Ron De Chant, guitarist Brock Richards and drummer Adam Gilbert are performing Oct. 22 at Aftershock at Discovery Park. The event begins Oct. 21.

Starset’s 2014 debut album, “Transmissions,” debuted at No. 5 on “Billboard” magazine’s Hard Rock album chart and spawned a single, “My Demons,” which set the record for the longest run of any song to stay in the top five on “Billboard’s” Mainstream Rock chart at 41 consecutive weeks.

The album’s impact was perhaps even more remarkable online. The band opened two You Tube accounts to host its videos and other content. According to a Nov. 19 “Billboard” magazine article, those pages generated more than 85 million views. But Starset’s music exploded primarily in the gaming and anime communities on You Tube where account holders uploaded video content from the band and/or created videos set to Starset music. A whopping 534.8 million views were generated by fan-created content.

The music Bates has created fits with the scientific/technology themes of the lyrics. The music brings together elements of electronic music, hard rock and metal (the “Vessels” songs “Into The Unknown,” “Gravity Of You” and “Frequency” are prime examples of that stylistic mix – and even integrate a few metalcore-ish screams into their otherwise melodic vocals), while also adding in a good bit of expansive pop (“Satellite” and “Die For You”) and even a touch of progressive rock (“Starlight”). Despite its diverse ingredients, Starset’s sound is cohesive, cinematic and impactful.

What the music is not is easy to categorize. Writers and fans have struggled to describe the Starset sound, mentioning acts like Linkin Park, the Deftones, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails as touchpoints. Bates thinks the band’s sound is unique.

“I have no qualms with comparisons to other groups and I welcome it, actually. It is getting a little harder, I would say, which is good,” he said. “Yeah, I don’t exactly know offhand a total one-to-one comparison band. I would still have to maybe list four or five to even put people on the path of what it is. But maybe someone will come up with something.”

Lyrically, Starset can be a challenge as well, and many will probably find it difficult to draw a cohesive story out of “Vessels’” songs themselves. But just as Starset fleshed out the lyrical story of “Transmissions” with a graphic novel (“The PROX Transmissions”) and other material on the band’s website. Bates promised that accompanying material for the “Vessels” album will soon be available.

“A lot of it (the “Vessels” story) is pulling ideas from four major tenants of the Starset Society that are going to be outlined on the website,” Bates said. “They are space, mind or brain, body and automation. There are narratives that are based upon these. I guess ‘Transmissions,’ I would say, is a story of overcoming and ‘Vessels’ is more the journey. It also has a little bit more of an intimate, human effect.”

Bates is excited to take the new music to the live stage. The group is bringing some visual bells and whistles to its show when possible and continues to wear its signature spacesuits. But there will be differences from previous tours.

“We’ve upgraded the suits this time,” Bates said. “We’re calling them the Mach III. They’re a lot different. We’re actually going to continue upgrading those as the tour goes on.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee