They veer stylistically to either side of the designation, but there’s little question that Connecticut four-piece VRSA are metal at their roots. Progressive metal, more precisely, and their Galaxia full-length released through their own Last Bastion Records proves adventurous in that regard without tipping the balance of heaviness versus indulgence. As the band’s name (interpreted, one assumes, from “Ursa,” as in Ursa Major and Minor), album title and artwork would lead you to believe, space is a central theme for VRSA, and that holds true for extended opener “Meteorite” as well, which sets up much of the musical breadth of Galaxia, though more than a few surprises still remain throughout “My Fingers Feel Like Razorblades,” “Saturnalia” and “Mona Lisa’s Eye.” VRSA’s prior self-release, Old Man Gray may have touched upon similar stylistic nuances, but even if it did, it took more songs to do it (11 as opposed to four), and as VRSA’s sound is based so much on progressive musical thought, it’s easy to imagine some of that has played out on the scale of the band itself as well. In either case, the rhythm section of bassist Jesse van Note and drummer John that do such distinguished work tying these songs together has already been replaced with Cheech on bass (also of Curse the Son) and Kevin on drums. How that shift will affect VRSA’s scope is impossible to speculate, but it’s worth noting that on Galaxia, the four-piece of van Note, John, rhythm guitarist/ engineer/vocalist Josh and lead guitarist Andrius make a cohesive sound out of a wide range of elements, and even though they veer into somewhat technically-minded areas, they do so without losing sense of the song at hand.
The keyword, then, is “balance” the whole way through, and that idea comes through Josh’s performance as well as the most prominent figure in the band and the one who started VRSA through experimentations at his Last Bastion Studio. His vocals range from well-mixed background metal screaming to melodic croons, and are layered but natural in their arrangements so that the other players in the band could easily take on the response roles in a live setting. “Meteorite” is the longest cut on Galaxia at 11:13 (immediate points for it being the opener) and stands itself out thanks to a chugging central riff and more strummed chorus that offset angular turns with smooth rhythmic execution. Van Note and John are fluid in following and expanding on the main riff, and three minutes into the song, Andrius embarks on one of Galaxia’s many impressive solos. Rather than putting on a clinic, though, in typical prog fashion, VRSA work well to bring the performances together as one complex whole, and that comes through in the mix of “Meteorite,” which highlights the individuals while celebrating what they do as a contribution to a larger idea. Josh and Andrius work well together on guitar, and that’s no less true in the long break section underscored by low-mixed sampled speech (Carl Sagan is credited in the liner notes with “spoken words,” obviously sampled, but I believe that’s referring to “Mona Lisa’s Eye”) than in the heavier crunch of the chorus riff to which VRSA eventually return, using a tinny digital compression that sounds a bit like a low-bitrate mp3 as one of several effects on the guitars and bass, on which van Note shines to end the track and lead directly into “My Fingers Feel Like Razorblades.” A volume and cymbal swell serves for easy transition, and though the song is among Galaxia’s most progressive stretches, Josh keeps his vocals mostly on the harsher side, breaking from screams and growls only for a throaty chorus.
As the definition of prog has expanded over the last decade, that’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it is presented smoothly, and the screams where and when they occur on Galaxia never feel out of place, and that includes “My Fingers Feel Like Razorblades,” which hits with an intensity worthy of the title until a big slowdown about halfway through. But for that, the song reminds somewhat of the achievements Cynic were able to pull off on their 2008 return opus, Traced in Air, and that holds true for the smoother vibe of “Saturnalia” as well. Josh spaces out a purposefully monotone vocal with Galaxia’s doomiest lumbering riff, punctuating the resulting darker atmosphere with screams atop John’s bombastic tom work in the chorus. “Saturnalia” is probably Galaxia’s most melodically accomplished track, finding room in its eight minutes to also be the heaviest. A faster midsection leads to ambient guitar and gradually to Helmet-style riffing and the inevitable chorus section, punctuated by piano to accent Andrius and Josh, and even with all the ground they’ve covered, the acoustics that come to the fore over sampled radio frequencies at the beginning of “Mona Lisa’s Eye” are a surprise. “Mona Lisa’s Eye” is instrumental save for the Carl Sagan samples, and marked by alternately cascading and bluesy lead lines that eventually intertwine to create a landscape of melody. Although a more forward solo kicks in at 3:34 and leads to a payoff for the subtle build that takes place beneath, the song never really gets “heavy” – at least not in comparison to some of what VRSA do on these tracks – and winds up being stronger for it. Analog noise emerges from the end of the guitar line, gives way to chirping birds, and Galaxia ends with a whisper louder than some suddenly-cut roars.
With the construction of new material reportedly under way already and a new rhythm section in place of John and van Note, not to mention the manner in which the pieces of aesthetic that first showed themselves on Old Gray Man came to fruition here, VRSA’s next offering could take any number of forms, and that’s part of what works best about Galaxia. During some of the breaks, there are measures where it feels like the band is maybe losing their grasp on the material, but they never completely let go, and the patient, steady methodology they display in these songs does little to contradict the passion driving them. Prog isn’t everybody’s thing, but with a few anchors to meter out accessibility and the diversity that becomes the focal point (as opposed to, say, dry displays of technical prowess), VRSA’s greatest strength seems to be in creating harmony out of what in most hands come across as disparate ideas.Connecticut, Last Bastion Records, VRSA