By: Kyle Rutherford
When a popular band takes a great deal of time between albums, the resulting release becomes the object of much scrutiny, in addition to becoming quite revelatory for the artist and its fans. All eyes peer even closer when that band undergoes a major lineup change. For STS9, this is doubly true.
Following the recruitment of Alana Rocklin to fill the void left by the departure of founding bassist David Murphy, the band enjoyed a creative resurgence with her presence. The Universe Inside is the culmination of that renewed creativity. Fans have already grown to love and appreciate Rocklin's tone and flavor, but much speculation surrounded how the band's direction might shift (or not) in the studio.
Our first experience with the new material begins with “Supercluster;” a simple, atmospheric instrumental that features words from Columbia’s original NASA STS-9 radio transmission from 1983. The words symbolize the band’s return from a journey that began with the first LP release, Interplanetary Escape Vehicle, as well as “their longest shuttle mission to date,” which can be seen as their longest stretch of time between full-length albums (nearly seven years). The music itself is mostly comprised of distorted guitar riffs, moving from foreground to background in a beautiful, ethereal manner. Definitely the kind of spacey introduction you would except from the group.
With the sound of space shuttle door opening and the rising tune of synthesizer, the super poppy “Out of This World” begins. Newest member Alana Rocklin throws down a smooth bassline and the song progresses into a full on electro-pop tune. It’s the kind of music that has caused many of the “EDM” kids to flock to the band, but the instrumentation of the tune is keen to the classic sound of the band that hardcore fans have always loved. David Phipps’ keyboard onslaught drives the ship on this one, with the assistance of Hunter Brown’s psychedelic guitar work. The vocals that morph the tune into its poppy self are gorgeous and arousing.
“Get Loud” continues in the pop livetronica vein of the previous track. It begins in a similar manner, with Rocklin giving us a solid bass groove and alluring, vocals from Betty Idol soon taking over the danceable track. The synths on this seem to be a bit more for background noise and general effect, with Brown and Rocklin’s string combination being much of the driving force of most of this song. Phipps does get to combine his some masterfully arpeggiated synths beneath the vocals about halfway through to create something angelic and dazzling.
The song itself is a collaboration between the band and Tampa, FL based production group, the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. Lyrically, it’s an ode to the plethora of producers and artists who have influenced the band over the years, as well as a call for music to invoke justice and civil rights.
“Light Years” is an instrumental interlude similar to that of “Supercluster.” This time, it features recordings that the band created over the years, including vocals, random conversations, children’s voices and some more inspirational musings. According to the band, the song is “a reflection on how quickly time flies and how fleeting every moment is.” It features provactive guitar and synth sounds throughout as well as atmospheric soundscapes to end the piece.
“Totem” has been featured in Tribe setlists for a few years now, but it's great to hear a clean, studio version of the piece. Phipps really takes the wheel on this one, with a combination of gritty and spacey synths, as well as matching Brown to create some stellar Middle Eastern sounds. The song features samples of speeches given by philosopher Alan Watts, mostly about finding something that expresses oneself. According to the band, “a totem is something that represents an idea, a natural object or animal believed to have spiritual significance. Watts’ declaration IS STS9’s totem.”
“Totem” is definitely a phenomenal piece that truly embodies the band’s livetronica sound. While listening to this song in a live setting, the listening to the lyrics while dancing to the superior instrumental sounds almost creates a spiritual significance to one’s actions. Even the action of dancing and enjoying yourself to the music is something that you have found that expresses you.
“World Go Round” keeps the band’s motivational message rolling. Rocklin once again gives us a solid groove under Phipps’s soundscapes, while we hear sampling of what sounds like a preacher motivating a congregation to expand their positive energy in a manner that will cause positive energy to come back to them. The band says the song speaks to the fact that humans have the power and opportunity to change the world, whether it be in an uplifting way or a destructive manner. Aesthetically, the tune has a strong soulful, funk nature to it. From it the vocals to Rocklin’s clean funk grooves, even to Phipp’s gritty synth runs, this one definitely seems like a nod to the old school.
“Give and Take” brings us back to some of the synth pop elements that the band is known to possesses. The tune is super light and happy, with beautiful, high end synths and repetitive, cascading guitar riffage. Lyrically, the song represents many of the things that bind us together in life, whether it be friendship, family, love, life, or death. The band says that the lyrics and feeling of the song reflect the words of a friend who passed away, who said that her life “all seems like a dream.” The atmospheric beauty of the tune does feel like a dream, whether it’s one where you’re staring into the stars or sailing through them.
“Elsewhere” is a recording of the band’s improvisational creativity. It’s mostly just the band playing together while the sounds of splashing ocean waves can be heard in the background. The waves were brought ashore by the pull of a full moon and drummer Zach Velmer recorded the beauty of the sounds. The recording features a sampling of the words "just beyond the bay, near the entrance to the Golden Gate," which is a nod to their muse, San Francisco. While just a simple improvisational cut, the tune is still bright and has a nice sway to it.
The soulful vocals continue on with “Sun, Moon and Stars” and they also really bring the tempo back up. This one could almost be considered an upbeat house tune, especially with some of the harsh, electro house synth sounds, hard build-ups and drops. About halfway through, Brown and Phipps have some really cool call and response soloing over Rocklin’s bass and Velmer’s battery. Lyrically, the song is about staying up all night, listening to music and immersing yourself in a crowd of like minded individuals. It’s about the love and connection that you feel within the group and how you feel like you can conquer anything.
You wouldn’t expect the drum n’ bass crowd to really get down to STS9, but “New Dawn, New Day” could potentially turn a few heads. It’s basically a live liquid drum n’ bass song, with the standard percussive loop, repetitive vocals and light, ethereal synths and guitar sounds. Percussionist Jeffree Lerner even adds a bit of a tribal sound to the song with his hand percussion.
The tune was the first song the group wrote with Rocklin and features excessive sampling from Nina Simone’s rendition of “Feeling Good.” The use of the specific lyrics are meant as an expression of reassurance for the both the band and fans in starting something new.
“Worry No More” combines much of the electro pop sounds we’ve been hearing with neo soul to create something even more spectacular. Phipps really takes the reigns on this song to create an enormous wall of sound behind the vocals of Lisa Taylor and Maureen Murphy. There’s also a decent amount of electronic percussion sampling that fills in for the organic percussion at some points, which really creates a diverse sound of the song. They even give the song a half time hip-hop feel towards the end, which seems extremely out of the ordinary for the band and the album itself.
After a short vocal interlude with “Common Descent,” the final song and title track, “The Universe Inside” opens with some beautiful vocal chants and animal noises. Soulful and serene, the song sounds like nothing you would expect from the band. After the vocals, it builds back into some spacey, glistening soundscapes to close the album.
The band says the song is a culmination of the message of the entire album. It is “about story, identity and feeling the past, present and future collide in a moment of reckoning. It recalls the spirituals of old before taking the listener back to nature, off on the next mission; a mission that is rooted in the rawness of the Earth.” The song lyrics speak to all people, stating how we are all one, made of stardust. Each one of us has a universe inside of us and we all bear the same weight and pain, just trying to live a life of freedom.
New fans and old fans will definitely enjoy the music that The Universe Inside has to offer. The poppy hooks will definitely continue to draw in new fans, and the instrumental superiority of the group will impress their hardcore base for many years to come. The Universe Inside is a conscious expression of the beauty in the world, and a motivation for all listeners to follow the path they wish to choose.
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