“Mirror / Vessels”: Flesh of the Stars Embodies The Shining Duality of Heavy Progressive Music (Early EP Stream + Interview)
I distinctly remember thinking I had Flesh of the Stars figured out right after I hit play on their 2019 full-length Mercy: initial walls of rumbling fuzz, laid-back drumming, and a 22-minute opening track pointed the way towards unusually melodic, but sonically and stylistically conforming doom. Less than two minutes later, I was proven to be exceptionally wrong: clean guitar, keys, and powerfully melodic vocals took over, channelling progressive rock's mystifying energy in a way that I'd never heard doom metal try. Bewilderment turned to appreciation, and appreciation to something closer to worship as Mercy executed a fusing of heaviness and melody with mind-boggling complexity.
Though bands like Elder have popularized the idea of merging progressive rock and doom, nobody does it like Flesh of the Stars. Their song structures lean towards the sprawling progressive rock of the 1970s, and the band excels in—revels, even—swapping between bombastic dirges and much softer explorations, rather than trying to maintain some consistent, single-ready hybrid. Sonically, their somber amplified guitar tones contrast with the sparkling clean ones, and not dialing vocals all the way up in the mix lets the rest of the extremely intricate orchestration shine—very rarely the case, even in the most progressive-minded doom bands out there.
On Mercy as well as their past records, Flesh of the Stars has continuously produced a strain of heavy music that you can't get anywhere else. To prove that point even further, the band's new EP Mirror / Vessels tweaks things again: crafted as a pairing of song suites and composed in lockdown, the added electronic touches retain the band's delicate, tear-jerking doom sound while showing a new side as well. We're extremely pleased to offer the entire EP here for you to check out before its release this Friday.
"Mirror" eases into the band's sound, first soft and then starkly loud. There's less of a surprise factor here, but the impact of that first amplified chord might be a shock, and the subtle use of harsher vocals stacked with clean ones further complicates the sonic profile of the track. Like past releases, the EP is densely layered and full of surprises, but it feels more modern and immediate, eschewing Mercy's pastoral atmosphere for a sort of near-futuristic tension.
Nestled between the heavyweight tracks are two interludes; as guitarists/songwriters Matt Ciani and Mike Fox discuss in the interview below, each of them wrote a core song and then wrote an accompanying piece for the other's song, resulting in this extremely-EP-friendly intertwined structure. These are lush, synthesizer-packed ambient ventures, taking the band's fondness for building rich textures and moving it into that same retro-future territory that "Mirror" and "Vessels" explore. Combined, these two interludes are still shorter than either song, so they don't spend too long building this ambiance before moving on.
"Vessels'' takes a more rock-focused tack than "Mirror," emphasizing the vocal melody and creating plenty of space for creative drum work. It fosters a windswept, icy atmosphere at first, but that grows increasingly superheated by the red-hot guitar work that moves into dominance partway through.
The air of tension that "Mirror" creates remains a factor through the rest of the EP -- fitting, I think, for a work composed and recorded in the vacuum that the pandemic left in our lives. However, the powerfully written songs here embrace that tension, express it, and process it through some of the least pigeon-holeable heavy music that I've encountered.
Check out an interview with guitarists Matt Ciani and Mike Fox below, discussing the band's past, their influences, and the inspiration and process behind Mirror / Vessels.
You've got a new EP coming out in March, Mirror/Vessels, and it's your first non-full-length EP release since you guys formed in 2015. Can you tell me how that came together?
Mike: Yeah, we were at a Black Lives Matter protest, and Matt and I were talking, it'd been about a year at that point since Mercy came out and our friend and live drummer Sam Corman Penzel was moving and he'd never been on a Flesh of the Stars release, so we decided that we wanted to put together a nice split or a good EP as a send-off to him.
Matt: We were more or less like, why don't we write a record?
Mike: Yeah, that's true.
Matt: Because Sam had been in the band for as much time as he was in college, and he had never appeared on a release, which seemed like a crime.
Mike: Sam basically started playing for us shortly after Anhilla came out in 2017, and hadn't been on anything, so... he maybe did some drum overdubs on Mercy and that was it.
So, who did drums on Mercy then?
Matt: That was our other drummer Nico Ciani, my brother. He's played on all the records, he did the artwork for this, he did our bandcamp redesign, he's doing all the new merch and stuff. So he's pretty much still involved, just this time we didn't fly him in to play drums.
Mike: For obvious reasons [laughs].
So, you've got the two tracks, "Mirror" and "Vessels" and then in the middle you have these two ambient, heavily synth-driven tracks, one that's kind of connected to Mirror and one to Vessels. Could you talk about the structure and the role those play?
Matt: So, the casual way that this came about and the way that we were working on stuff on our own, primarily, and we only had a little bit of time to get together, meant that an otherwise probably more collaborative process ended up being me writing a song, Mike writing a song, and then sort of as a psuedo version of that collaborative process, we each did an electronic interpretation of the other's song. And obviously we contributed to each other's full tracks, but also it was an opportunity to do something we haven't done since Hide, uh, where we have these synth interludes that I always really liked doing, and also, I don't know, interpret each other's work in a way that we didn't really get to do in person.
Mike: Yeah, that was the other big driving force for wanting to do this style of EP. I think the way that Flesh has worked since we started the band was like 2015, I wrote some songs, Matt wrote some songs, and then Hosanna came out and we basically did the same thing. And then Anhilla, mostly I wrote that record and then Mercy, mostly Matt wrote that record with, like, each of us contributing a track or two or something for those. And then, this time I think it just kind of broke [laughs].
It would be nice if we actually wrote songs together, and we almost did.
Matt: Yeah, we had a week and did probably more collaboration on the actual big songs than we ever had on the previous records.
Matt: I always say it, and I said it for Anhilla and I said it for Mercy and I'm saying it now: this is the band record, this is the one where we sound like a band, finally.
Mike: Yeah, I concur with that. This is the first time it felt like we were actually making decisions as a group, and not just like "Okay, we're done recording, now everybody else clear out so Matt and I can spend three weeks talking about what we want in our respective tracks.
That drives to one of my other questions. With Flesh of the Stars, your music is kind of unique in that it's really heavily melody driven and there's a lot of interweaving strands of stuff going on at the same time. I was wondering what the songwriting process looked like for Mercy. Sounds like it was that, with the "three weeks"?
Matt: Mercy is a record that I feel like expanded my brain to almost dangerous levels. The amount of time that I spent writing Mercy, the title track especially, was, I mean, psychotic.
Mike: Matt showed us a version of Mercy, we were maybe a week and a half away from finishing and releasing Anhilla... [laughs] and then it took like, another two years basically.
Matt: I feel like it's a really organic process of just kind of playing a lot of guitar, which is like so boring to try and talk about. Like, oh, I sit and sometimes I practice new scales, and you know. One of my good friends famously started playing guitar without ever learning chords, and he would just put his fingers on the fretboard in a way that sounded good. And he never learned the names of anything, just like did it. I really wanted to get back to that type of playing guitar that he would do when he first started playing guitar, but add in the knowledge that I have, obviously, I've been playing guitar for like 20 years.
Mike: It's funny you should say that, too. I think about him saying that a lot, and I was making a note of that when I was writing "Mirror."
Matt: Who wants to write a bunch of theory songs? That sucks.
But that's also a big part of it, the way that Mike and I have been able to work together is that we're both fairly theory-heavy musicians. So, the way that it gets built might be this very organic thing, but from recording our basic skeleton on it's just like talking specifically about the "tension" of the chords and things like that.
Mike: Yeah, how is the voice leading working on this track? [laughs]
Do you start with the guitar, and go from there or does it depend on the song?
Mike: I think it depends. Almost always, guitar is the instrument that things initially get written down on. That's the territory I'm the most comfortable in. Sometimes I'll write things down on piano and go from there. Mirror was a lot like that. Typically though, with Flesh, it starts with guitar.
Matt: For the EP, I was staying at my girlfriend's apartment for pandemic reasons and only had a guitar there. So, that was what I had to do. And then it kind of grew into this drum demo I did that sucks, but is instructive of what the song is trying to do.
I'm trying to think if anything on Mercy was born -- there was a Rhodes piano at the old studio that I think I wrote the song "Procession" on, because that was like the most amazing piano I've ever played. It felt like butter to play, and we had this huge keyboard amp so the low notes would just explode. It was really conducive to writing a doom track on this really pretty instrument.
It feels like all the instruments and all the tones, on each song across your releases, are chosen really carefully because they work together so well to create an atmosphere. Is that something you figure out while recording or something you know ahead of time?
Mike: Yeah, it's a little bit of both. Matt and I have fortunately been on basically the same track as far as Flesh developing goes. I think both of us have an idea on the kind of instrumentation we want when we start. I've bought things specifically because I wanted them to show up on Flesh songs, like the piano that's on this record, I bought that piano because I thought it would be nice to have on a Flesh track because we haven't had one since Hide really.
Matt: We were recording at my parents' old house, back when they had a piano. That's where that piano came from [laughs]. Any record-making process for me, like if I'm engineering my own thing, which is 99% of the time at this point, is having this idea of what I want to do in my head and then chasing that with the things that I have and trying to see what gets the closest, and I think this one got pretty close to where I pictured it. But you don't anticipate buying a Roland string synth and wanting that to be on everything [laughs], so you have to leave it open to the possibilities.
As far as the development part goes, to what you were saying, Mercy felt extremely pastoral, maybe ecclesiastical to me, and Mirror/Vessels takes a lot of that sound but it also kind of adds an electronic edge and maybe a bit of harshness. Did you go into recording with any "this is what we want to do now" ideas or was it maybe more an evolution?
Matt: We were talking a lot about trying more stuff, doing things differently than our normal orthodox, all the way back to the way that Sam recorded his drums -- it's different than the way that I normally record drums. I come from a 'close mic everything, everything super deadened' school like these 1970s drums. The way that Sam plays drums -- he has a million drums and a million cymbals.
Mike: You can never have too many cymbals.
Matt: Super resonant, you know, nice live room and making it sound like a drum kit. It was, as weird as it sounds for a metal band, a new process. And I think a lot of the rest of what we did for building this out followed along these lines. The things that we do specifically and have done for the last four records, what if we just did like 15 percent different? Like, what if we had Travis screaming at you? What if we had some screeching synthesizers instead of pleasant Prophet pads?
Mike: This whole record felt like both a good jumping-off point and a good way to look back. It ended up feeling a lot like we had kind of fully internalized everything that we did for the past five years or something. We had the opportunity to tweak that and kind of fuck with it. There's a lot of things on this album that to me seem very "Oh, this is so Flesh of the Stars, this is a very Flesh of the Stars thing to do," but like Matt was saying, I think we fully knew what we were doing and then decided to fuck with it a little bit and twist it around.
One of the things about Flesh of the Stars that I dig the most and that a lot of people have noticed, you have an interesting way of fusing that progressive feeling with that heavy doom atmosphere. What led you to that approach?
Mike: I love prog, baby!
Matt: Yeah, I mean progressive rock is probably the most elemental music to my understanding of how to make a rock song. Listening to Rush, in particular -- Rush was my favorite band for a decade of my life. They're probably not anymore, because I've swung in a pretty different direction, but I still probably know how to play most Rush solos, including the synthesizer phase, by heart, if you gave me a guitar right now. Alex Lifeson is king.
I feel like the doomiest aspects of the last one, at least, the EP, came out of just wanting to do loud shit in a room with my friends. You live this life of quiet solitude while the world explodes around you, and suddenly you're in a room with the amount of firepower that our amplifiers have, how could you not make a doom song?
Mike: How could you not want to hit every distortion pedal you have and then crank up the Orange past the breaking point?
I agree with what Matt said, but I also want to add that I'm not a Rush person.
Matt: You want to distance yourself from the Rush branding? [laughs] They're in the press release!
Mike: I'm not trying to offend the Rush fans, I think it's worth saying that I'm more of the Pink Floyd end of prog. I love Floyd and I love Yes -- Yes is like my favorite prog rock band. And like, King Crimson.
I was going to ask about your favorite prog bands, and... that starts to cover that. What's your favorite Yes era?
Mike: I like, like early 1970s Yes.
Like Relayer, that kind of stuff?
I get some of that, I also honestly get a large King Crimson, In the Wake of Poseidon kind of vibe from Mercy, not sure if that's in your interests or not?
Matt: I actually need to listen to some more King Crimson. I "save" bands for myself, sometimes. I did this with David Bowie, where I intentionally didn't listen to David Bowie because I knew I would love it and I need to portion out over what I anticipate being the rest of my life, these moments of discovery of something that fucking kills. If it's the coolest shit ever, and I know I'm gonna think it's the coolest shit ever, I think King Crimson sits firmly in that territory for me. When I need it, I'm gonna break that glass and I will talk your fucking ear off about King Crimson, but right now I do not know.
Mike: I'd say yes, though. King Crimson was a big influence for me with "Rites". That's where my head was at. And like, Warning. It's fifty-fifty.
Matt: Was there ever a time when we weren't listening to a lot of Warning?
Mike: No. [laughs]
What doom bands do you have as shared interests?
Mike: Oh boy.
Matt: The talk of the band chat has been Thou for the last two years. I think all of us -- I don't know about Mike, but the rest of us -- have that Thou collab record in our top 25 for 2020. Obviously, Warning... who else do we all like?
Mike: Like, Pallbearer. Sam is farther off...
Matt: We love Khemmis.
Mike: Khemmis is fucking rad.
Mike: Elder's great, and Electric Wizard, though... I haven't listened to them in the past couple years.
That's very fair.
Mike: Yeah [laughs].
Matt: I gotta say, Time to Die was actually one of my favorite records of theirs, but I don't think I've even heard the ones after that.
Mike: Boris, Sleep, the kind of typical... well, I don't know if I would count Boris as a doom band, but something that the chat talks a lot about.
As far as Chicago goes, you guys played a few shows last year -- wait, not last year, the year before that --
Matt: We lost a year. [laughs]
Unfortunately, I couldn't make it, and then there was the pandemic... fuck me... but what have been some of your favorite shows here in Chicago? What's your live experience like?
Matt: I think the most recent show was one of my favorite ones, right? Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean was the last show, at Empty Bliss. They're so fucking loud, and we got to share their cabs, so we got to play loud. We're so used to being the quietest metal band on the bill, just because in order to hear your monitors you need to be at a somewhat reasonable volume and harmonies really don't sound good unless you sing them right.
Mike: In the footage of that show, the guitars sound amazing, but it's clear that Matt and I are very... [laughs]
Matt: I'm just going on feeling -- the tension in my throat, let's hope that's an "A".
Just turn the amps up louder, it's fine.
Matt: Exactly. That show was sick, we got to see them play their Death Cab for Cutie cover, which I loved. The Schuba's show was really fun, that was a couple years ago.
Mike: That was dope. And Underground Lounge, baby!
Matt: I miss the Underground Lounge. I'll get shocked by that microphone any day! Don't put me talking shit about them in this. I'll redact it.
Matt: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that we were supposed to - it was on the books - do a show that we were all absolutely losing our minds over -- Elder, at Reggie's. We'd never played Reggie's before and I was so amped just to be in that room and to be on a bill with a band that we all like. That got bumped twice, now I don't think it has a date anymore -- understandably.
Am I just imagining this because I want the poetic aspect of it -- am I imagining that we recorded the EP the same weekend that the show was supposed to be?
Mike: You're right, we did the initial sessions for going over the material that weekend. Because when we were recording, Sam would just stop and go "Fellas... right now, we would be playing a show. It'd be two more days." And he did that like, eight times.
Matt: I miss live music, even if I didn't get to play it. My ears are probably happy that I haven't seen many shows, obviously.
Mike: Yeah, my hearing has recovered significantly in the last year.
So, in 2019 you released your fourth full-length album Mercy, if I can count right. It was my first experience with you guys and it seems like it was extremely well-received. How did it go from your perspective?
Mike: It fucking slapped, dude. It was nuts.
Matt: Yeah, I was shocked. I was proud of that record, I think we did a good job -- I spent an enormous amount of time working on that record, so to actually have it received well was truly one of the most rewarding things in my life up to that point. It was a very special and cool thing, and we got to hear from people whose writing we read, about our own music. I mean, I don't even know how to describe that, it's just so fucking cool.
Mike: It was mind-boggling. We got in "Black Market," and I had several friends that I hadn't talked to back in Ohio reach out to me and were like "Dude, this is you guys, right?"
Matt: Yeah, as a high school Stereogum reader, that was like a new era of my life, pre and post that.
Mike: We didn't like, there was no crazy blow-up or benefit outside of feeling like we got to connect with a lot of people. I think that's the driving force behind making records for us, most of the time, outside of just like creative expression, for me it's not like we expect or seek to make a ton of money, obviously, because we're in music. But yeah, it's just dope, it's cool to hear from people who like what we're doing and who we like what they're doing.
Any plans for a physical release? You know people would buy that, right?
Matt: That's my favorite question. I'd like to think so. We're working on it. Yeah, I mean, we're a DIY band, so we're to a degree stuck in this idea of doing this on our own, pressing vinyl. We have plans, but we don't have funds yet. I mean, that sucks as an email that I have to send all the time, it's like "Yeah, we just can't afford to press vinyl yet."
Mike: It's that, and the touring question. Before the pandemic hit, people would always be like "Come to South America, come to Germany," and it's like... "Dog, we would love to."
We've been saving up for a physical release, more or less we've had plans to do that since Hosanna really. It's just really expensive to do it the way we want to do it.
Matt: We talked about it for Mercy, and then we made the record a really unwieldy length and structure, so the size wouldn't make any sense. So that kind of fucked us up, there. How do you even press Mercy?
If you're looking for something cheaper, you could do CDs.
Mike: Hey, Matt, what do you think about CDs? [laughs]
Matt: I've long said, if you want a CD, give me your mailing address, pay for postage, and we'll burn you a CD and print out the album art for you. That is what I hold true.
Our other band did tapes, and I feel like I like the idea of tapes a lot because I like the culture a lot.
Mike: If we were gonna do tapes, I would almost want to do Hide and Hosanna on a tape, I don't know if I would do Anhilla and Mercy on a tape, though.
Matt: That sounds kinda fun.
Mike: We're just very picky.
I've been surprised how much people like CDs these days.
Mike: I'm not against CDs, I like CDs. One of my roommates, and a separate bandmate of ours in our other group, work at Reckless downtown, so I get a lot of really great old media detritus [laughs] from both of them.
Back to Mirror/Vessels, could you tell me the themes that these songs explore? To be honest, I love the vocals in your songs, but I understand... not that much.
Mike: Yeah, let's go in order, I guess. "Mirror", the lyrical content is mostly inspired by... it's metal, so it is what it is, but I was reading "Endurance," which is an account of an expedition to the Antarctic that went horribly, horribly wrong. Everybody survived, but basically they lived on the ice for two years and then had to go through this crazy process of taking a lifeboat across the most turbulent ocean to the nearest populated island to get help. That was a big inspiration, and then partially, more generally musically and thematically, I was really inspired by Angel's Egg, if you're familiar with that. It's this OVA [laughs], this old anime thing from the 1980s that's this really beautiful, super fucking wild surrealist film. It's dope. It's all dark and very Gothic, just super fucking crazy to watch.
Matt: Mike, can I tell the story about the tape machine band?
Mike: Fuck, I can't believe we almost forgot! Dude, I forgot that that was the inspiration behind the very first lyric.
Matt: Okay, so I used to have this old tape machine, a Tascam 388, that is like this old reel-to-reel machine, and I bought it from a guy that my dad knows, and he sold it to me really cheap on the stipulation that I was going to digitize his son's band demo, which only existed on tape. So, I had to repair the tape machine and digitize the demo, and he sold it to me for like, no money basically.
I actually did fix the tape machine and digitize this tape, and two things were interesting about it. One, the tape had really, really bad "sticky shed," which is like the back film of a reel-to-reel tape being made with plastic. Really shitty 1980s plastic, would melt onto the magnetic front of the tape and strip the magnetic film off of it as it would unspool, as it was being played. So, you get like crazy dropouts, and by the end of it, at the end of the tape at the end of this demo, this psychedelic, ambient sound. It was like this wash of noise that didn't really sound like anything, and knowing the beginning of the tape where they just sound like a kickass rock band... it's like, I know that's what the band sounded like when they recorded this in, but it became this experimental ambient tape just because of the physical medium degrading.
But the relevant part of this is that they have two songs that I was able to get off of the sticky tape intact. Both of which absolutely fucking kick ass -- they are so good, this kid sounds like... it's like 1970s, I compared it to like Iggy Pop played at 45 RPM instead of 33 RPM, because it's like a pre-adolescent singer. But the songs are fucking awesome! And the first line on the first song is the first line on our EP. Because we were inspired by this fucking amazing band of kids on this old tape machine.
Is that available anywhere?
Matt: I always say, I want to put it out. If they'll let me, I want to put it out.
Mike: We've talked about starting a label.
Matt: God, we could piss off Flesh of the Stars fans so much if we press that, but not our records. [laughs]
Mike: Congrats, guys... enjoy! [laughs]
Matt: I'm the only person who can hear this kid's band right now.
You're like the keeper of some ancient secret.
Matt: Yeah -- the ancient secret being "It's time for a change, it's time to rearrange, baby."
Mike: "Look in the mirror... [falsetto] who do you see?"
Matt: "Vessels" is sort of a salad of imagery and stray narrative bits that all center around some kind of summoning ritual. I had this whole mapped out thing about a group of grieving people floating out to a mysterious at-sea locale, offering meaningful binding objects et cetera, et cetera, but I tried to keep the thread fairly indirect and ambiguous. I’ve always been drawn to lyrics with a lot of mystery to them, and especially in 2020 anything too direct in its narrative sounded like it could be read as a comment on life in 2020. That was the last thing I wanted to do!
To wrap this up, what's next for Flesh of the Stars? Do you have release plans for Mirror / Vessels?
Mike: We talked about putting this out. Yeah, walking into this I think we were a little unsure if this was gonna be LP five, so our real plan is to hopefully earn enough money from this release to actually press the next one.
Matt: To make a record with vinyl in mind.
Mike: Yeah, and have it be a real fucking banger. We haven't talked too much about exactly what LP five is gonna be. I think we have some initial brainstorming things, like I've got three or four sheets of paper upon which I've written... "here's some cool ideas, here's some things that we could do."
I'd also really like to tour if that's ever a thing for anybody ever again.
Matt: I'd love to play even one more show.
Mike: We've been a band for six or seven years now and haven't done a consecutive string of shows, let alone a tour. That would be cool.
Matt: Yeah, we're good at continuing to make stuff, so what's next is always like a kind of nebulous web of an answer and then if you asked us the day that one of us had "The Idea," we'd be like "Oh, I can tell you exactly what the tracklist is and the times of each of the songs, and half of the lyrics." [laughs]
I've been cooking a lot of stuff, and we'll see... whenever one of us has the record idea, it's fucking off to the races.
Mike: Both Matt and I probably have 50 or 60 riffs saved up on our phones, just melodic ideas, at any given time for Flesh.
Matt: Maybe I'll just press a collection of those, put those on tape. "Flesh of the Stars: Voice Memos."
Mike: Well, when we get our box set release...
Matt: Our Numero comp.
Mike: Yeah, the really bad bonus tracks that nobody wants to hear.
You guys are making jokes about this, but I think there'd actually be interest in all these things. Don't underestimate Bandcamp nerds and their need for collectible media.
Mike: We're putting out candles!
Matt: Yeah, we have extremely cool merch. Nico is on a tear right now, he's just a fucking awesome designer, so I'm so excited to share the stuff that he's making for us right now. More where the album art came from, and I think it's very impressive and great. I'm as stoked about this as I am about sharing new music.
Mirror / Vessels releases independently on March 5th. Pre-orders available via the band's Bandcamp page.