Imagine network TV intercepting all regularly scheduled programming for a public service announcement. It’s a message from The Starset Society: Technology will take over if we allow it.
Tapping into the potential impact of science and technology on our lives, this post-apocalyptic concept has driven Columbus, Ohio sci-tech rock act Starset on its mission — from 2014 debut Transmissions and follow-up Vessels (2017) — to deliver “the Message” that technology is consuming us. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Just consider yourselves forewarned.
Orchestral, packed with sonic hooks and cinematic scenes, and melodically darker than Vessels, Divisions (released Sept. 13 on Fearless Records) continues Starset’s conceptual story of a future unknown. Vocalist Dustin Bates produced the band’s third studio album, which takes listeners through the next chapter in Starset’s dystopian narrative. Opener “A Brief History of the Future” appropriately sets the near-cataclysmal scene with Bates simply speaking and seeking to know the truth before things unravel into the heavier “Manifest,” the first single off Divisions. Its video puts a Blade Runner-esque slant on a love story wrapped around the tribulations of a tech-enslaved world set in 2049.
“The first goal of every song I write is to either convey an emotion I’m having or elicit an emotion in someone else on a human level,” explains Bates. “Then the second layer is the narrative.”
Divisions’ 13 tracks examine aspects of life — love, hope and hopelessness, death and rebirth — and other themes, creating a dreamlike, circuitous and penetrating flow. Ebbing and flowing from heavier melodies to moments of calm, most tracks end in a synth-y instrumental finale. Some feature futuristic audio sequences, like on “Where the Skies End,” which also pulls some fitting lines from a pre-WWII utopian General Motors film, To New Horizons (“In a restless search for new opportunities, the mystery and promise of distant horizons have always called men forward … old horizons open the way to new horizons”). On “Telekinetic,” a heavier sonic boom eerily ends in what sounds like machine-generated breathing.
The electro-pop-tinged “Solstice” glides into an intense orchestral close that could stand on its own as a track before violins vibrate into the heaviness of “Trials,” which hints at a more android-automated future. Album closer “Diving Bell” brings everything full circle — a haunting yet hopeful look ahead with such lyrics as “Wake me when the new day comes/ Together we will ride the sun/ The future is an empty gun/ We ride on them one by one.”
Throughout, Divisions considers all the “what ifs” of a future consumed by tech and science. “This record is the soundtrack to the second novel in the storyline,” says Bates. “There are many elements in the story that I was able to draw from, like war, control, abused tech, hope, tension, unrequited love… All of these can be incorporated into the songs in a way that both the active and passive fan can enjoy.”
Bates is literally an expert in all things space — he has worked as a research associate in aerospace technology for the U.S. Air Force, taught engineering at the International Space University in Paris and his PhD candidacy is in electrical engineering — so Starset tends to have ubiquitous astronomical song titles and references. But it’s all part of the message: When recording, he often describes Starset as a “lab” rather than a “band,” since production is influenced most by his engineering mind.
“There aren’t a bunch of musicians sitting around in a studio waiting for inspiration to strike,” say Bates on working with bassist Ron DeChant, guitarist Brock Richards and drummer Adam Gilbert. “I will it into existence through various forms of experimentation along with trial and error. It can be an exhausting yet tiring process, but it allows for greater iteration and higher likelihood of success.”
Onstage, the band thrives on providing a multidimensional experience synched to the music. Often donning pressure suits and backed by visual projectors, a polymer cube and live violinists and cellists, Starset pushes its sonic boundaries and keeps everything interactive — particularly with augmented-reality elements — and places special coding on posters around venues to help the audience become further immersed in the experience. This interactivity has been apparent since Starset’s inception, when it launched an online portal to give fans tools create their own media around The Starset Society. (Vinyl of pressings Divisions also will feature an NFC chip with exclusive content.)
When Transmissions arrived, Starset quickly gained a rabid following among video gamers — who found their gaming soundtrack in the band — which has since expanded into millions worldwide. With the group currently on tour supporting Divisions, Russia is on Starset’s horizon in 2020, with 15 dates tacked on for the band’s fan base there. “It has grown more than I could have imagined,” says Bates. “They are some of the most engaged fans and buy tickets, making it entirely feasible. I think bands maybe fail to address these markets because their label doesn’t push them in that direction, because Russians don’t tend to buy music.”
Although he is laser-focused on Starset, Bates has been engineering projects beyond the band. Earlier this year, he released a solo project under the name MNQN. Marvel is also within Bates’ orbit with a follow-up to his 2017 collaboration with comic writer Peter David (The Incredible Hulk, Aquaman) on the graphic novel The Prox Transmissions, which follows the journey of an astronomer who receives a secret message from a far-away galaxy about technology and the future of humanity — clearly a Starset tie-in. In 2017, Bates launched the podcast Under the Rock, where he talked space and the concepts behind The Starset Society, and broke down astronomical terms into digestible form.
According to Razor & Tie (which operates as an imprint of Fearless Records), combined views of user-generated videos and official Starset content have hit 1 billion. Because it’s moving into more video experimentation, the band recently sent its logo into the other dimension: space. In August, a Starset insignia made of plexiglass was launched from Sheffield, England. Using a weather balloon, the star was attached to a GoPro and GPS tracker for its nearly two-hour journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The logo’s entire voyage from launch to landing is captured in the exclusive video below, which is set to the Divisions track “Solstice.” (This fall, Bates will display the Starset crest at his Salem, Ohio, bar The Foundry.)
Starset’s concept may come across as epochal doom — a tech-ridden future pulling us from our innate, human intuitions — but Bates says the band and message are not anti-technology at all; quite the opposite. “We have been saved by technology,” he observes. “Technology has doubled our life expectancies, allowed for increased civilization and replaced endless hunger and workdays with the potential for recreation.”
Bates adds, “However, it also has the propensity to be a dangerous tool of incredible power — one that can enable the few to easily wield control over the masses when exploited. The only way to reap the benefits while minimizing the dangers is through awareness in the general public.”
And this is Starset’s purpose: to educate the masses. “With tech, it is often very hard to put the cat back into the bag,” says Bates. “For that reason, society needs to understand where the exploitations can occur, so that they can proactively avoid them before they occur. And unfortunately, we live in a society that both relies entirely on science and tech while also understanding very little of it as a whole.”