In a year full of big releases, it can be hard to remember to keep your eyes (and ears) trained on the indie and underground scenes. The fact of the matter is that there’s been a lot of ‘smaller’ releases this year that have proven to be larger than life; big in skill, artistry, performance, concept, and scope. Big where it matters the most. It’s with our Weekly Featured Artist articles that we hope to give you a focused, magnified view of a band that accomplishes this, and showcase music that might cruise under the radar, but is definitely worth your time and attention. Vesper Sails are the progressive, math-rock manifestation of that description. Comprised of vocalist/guitarist Marshall Hattersley (also of The Duke and the Dauphin), percussionist Evan Kaiser, guitarist Ian Harshman and David Adamiak (Covet) on bass, they embody a classically attuned artistic spirit that is rarely seen nowadays. Couple that with a forward-thinking mentality and you have a band capable of great things.
Their story starts at University of California-Santa Cruz, where Hattersley and Kaiser were roommates at a campus dorm. ‘We bonded over a mutual love of prog bands like The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Gentle Giant‘, recalled Kaiser. ‘It was about that time that we both started getting into mathy music and ‘freak folk’, so we started an instrumental math project called Print Sale‘. The two later moved to San Francisco where they met Harshman and Adamiak each through mutual friends. ‘We basically poached him‘ Kaiser said of Harshman after seeing him play guitar, noting his standout shredding and ability to ‘serve the song with tasteful sonic layers’. Adamiak had already been established as a musician by working with guitarist Yvette Young in Covet. The four became close friends, building a camaraderie that lends itself to the artistic chemistry found in their music. Vesper Sails have since released two EPs – one of live demos and the other a self-titled two-song proof-of-concept – and one album.
Cheshire King, the band’s first full-length, isn’t even a year old yet, having just came out February of this year. It’s a wonderful piece of music, charmed with dashes of whimsy and forlorn feelings. There’s a marked sunniness to the mood of the instrumentation which balances out the pensive, reflective sadness present in the lyrics. No one feeling overwhelms the other, and remain complementary throughout the duration of the album. Although there is no grandiose, interconnected concept permeating Cheshire King, themes of isolation, loneliness, love, the monotony of day-to-day life, and the urgency one feels to solve these life mysteries are common. Kaiser says ‘the sound and rhythm of the words is more important than the content. I like to think of vocals as another percussive and melodic instrument‘. He refers to this as ‘a pretty prog/math approach to writing‘, which is opposite of a folky style where songwriters tend to start with a message and distill lyrics and the instrumentation down from that.
Asked about the meaning of the album’s title, Kaiser pointed toward an oft-cited literary work:
‘Like the vanishing Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we sometimes feel as if we vanish into isolation, over-analysis, or daily drudgery only to reappear, grinning falsely, to our regimented work lives. The Cheshire King is the master of disappearances and reappearances – the master of putting on face to project a happy, well-adjusted demeanor, leaving mysteries unexplored and emotions unexpressed. In my mind, it’s also a metaphor for loss and impermanence’.
“Ordinary Day”, the album’s opener, is a neat thesis statement. Bright guitar passages cast shadows on down-tempo verse sections. Guitar tones remind of modern John Frusciante mixed with Steven Wilson‘s Porcupine Tree work. In fact, much of Cheshire King carries a similar emotive and expressive weight to Steven Wilson in general. Maybe that’s why I like it so much, and perhaps why you will as well. “Lost Coast” is a favorite of mine. Vocals are very melodic, almost hypnotically so with the way they rise and fall in scale. Hattersley croons, ‘I’ll fall in love someday / someone to hold your hand / stranger to call your name / someone to take the blame‘. The song progresses into a delightful arrangement tinged with synths as colorful and wavy as an ocean that beats the coast the song’s title references. More traditionally progressive moments like the guitar and bass harmony in “Push Back” or the busy, eclectic outro of “Dialysis” also entrance the listener.
For such a sonically cohesive project, you might be surprised to learn that the tracks that make up Cheshire King were written over the course of years without any clear theme in mind. Adamiak expresses, ‘I think there was a lengthy discussion about putting together a series of songs that represented where we’ve been and where we’re headed as a group. The album spans a broad spectrum of our sound while being tied together with lyrical and harmonic themes‘. Hattersley adds, ‘we went into the studio with a setlist of songs we thought would work well together and took a fairly typical approach when it comes to band recordings – play live, get a drum take, layer bass on top, add basic rhythm and lead parts‘. After that, bells and whistles like pianos, synths and a string quartet (heard on “Wake Up” and “Field of Crows”) are added by way of the band’s democratic process. As far as the impeccable mixing and presentation, the band credits their recording engineer, James Meder of Pique Recording in Los Angeles, CA.
It seems like Vesper Sails have already formed much of what is their sonic fingerprint. If anything, Cheshire King was a declaration of that. Still, artistic inspirations lay the groundwork for any band’s music. Kaiser asserts that there’s a lot of overlap, much of the band citing St. Vincent, Tool, and Tame Impala as inspirations. Harshman name drops prog giants like Dream Theater, Between the Buried and Me, and Opeth, but attribute Radiohead as being especially formative for him: ‘The turning point for me was when Radiohead released In Rainbows. That album hit me hard, and that’s when I really started to diversify musically, maybe mellowed out a bit, too‘. I have no doubt that the group have laid the foundation for a very fruitful and fulfilling musical career together, and we, as listeners, are quite lucky to join in the fun with them.
Vesper Sails have become one of those bands that I tell all my friends that have any chance of liking their style of music about. I want others to see what I see in them, and I want others to get the same fulfillment from their music. That’s a large part of what music is all about for me. As for their future, they have told me that they are planning to record a five-song EP of new music in January of the new year. ‘The batch of songs leans more toward jazz than the ones on Cheshire King, but there are some math moments‘, Kaiser divulged. I, for one, can’t wait. If it’s anywhere near as majestic and moving as their previous work, their fans will be well sated until their next creative burst. I implore you, don’t miss out on one of the best prog albums of the year. Vesper Sails are the real deal: a group of warm, talented people inspired by, as they say, things bigger than them, yet I wonder if they realize that to some they are the bigger thing that will inspire others. That is truly the mark of a band capable of great things.
Vesper Sails is…
Marshall Hattersley – vocals, guitars, sax, keys
Ian Harshman – guitars, clarinet
David Adamiak – bass, additional guitars
Evan Kaiser – drums