Vast's Debut Reveals A Vast Array Of Sampling

Visual Audio Sensory Theater mixes gothic lyrics, heavy-metal-like music and electronics.

Like many late-'90s albums, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, the debut from the genre-spanning artist known as Vast, relies heavily on the hip-hop-inspired use of sampling technology.

But band mastermind Jon Crosby's taste in source material differs wildly from that of his peers.

"I would never sample something written in this century," he said.

Instead, on such songs as the band's big single "Touched" (RealAudio excerpt), the 21-year-old musician bolsters his emotional crooning vocals, heavy rhythm guitar and atmospheric synthesizer parts with the rich, exotic sounds of traditional music from sources including the Bulgarian Female Choir and a group of French monks.

Although the album's mix of gothic lyrics, heavy-metal-like crunch and electronics seems reminiscent of industrial pioneers Nine Inch Nails, Crosby considers his band a rock group at heart.

"I never liked industrial music; I always hated it. I like Nine Inch Nails, but it's not the industrial elements I like, it's [the] songs," said the California-bred Crosby, who cited superstar Irish rockers U2 as his favorite band.

While Crosby's extensive use of technology might seem also to place him in the electronica camp, the musician has little or no interest in the dance floor-inspired sounds of techno music.

Instead, Crosby pointed to such '70s bands as the arena-rockers Styx as his first models for incorporating synthesizer sounds into a rock context. "I don't consider myself an electronic band -- it's rock 'n' roll [with] guitar," he said.

At first, Crosby's reasons for turning to technology were purely pragmatic. He searched for any musician who was interested in working with him, he said.

He had first attracted attention to his music as a 13-year-old guitar virtuoso, when a demo tape he'd made landed him in the pages of Guitar Player magazine. By the time he was 16, he had begun experimenting with the electronic sounds of a band he called Vast.

The world-music samples that came to define the sound of what started as a one-man band came together after Crosby began to feel constricted by the limitations of his own instrumental work, he said.

"When I sat down at the keyboard, it sounded like synthesized stuff that I'd heard before, like ['80s synth-pop band] Depeche Mode," Crosby said. "And when I tried to do stuff with guitar, I thought that had definitely already been pioneered by guys like [Led Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy Page."

"When I sample something ancient, it feels exotic and fresh," said Crosby, who traced his interest in world music to albums by the now defunct gothic band Dead Can Dance. "It's interesting to get away from the jazz/blues/rock/rap/goth/hip-hop thing," he added, laughing.

Crosby's melodic songs and innovative sounds garnered interest from several major record labels. He was ultimately signed by Elektra A&R representative Josh Deutsch, who also signed platinum pop-rockers Third Eye Blind.

Deutsch said that he was "blown away" by Crosby's demo and flew out to California to meet the musician the day after he heard it.

"I sort of bought into his whole vision. It's always exciting to find an artist who has a bigger picture in mind," Deutsch said.

After signing to Elektra, Crosby embarked on a seven-month-long recording process in which he sought to make the most of his sonic freedom. The first three months were unfocused experimentation, he said.

The resulting album's sound ranges from the gentle ballad "Flames" (RealAudio excerpt), on which Crosby is backed only by his acoustic guitar and a live orchestra with a solo cellist, to the near-synth-pop sound of "Pretty When You Cry;" (RealAudio excerpt) and such hard-hitting, pseudo-industrial tracks as "I'm Dying" and "Three Doors" (RealAudio excerpt).

Although Crosby recorded the album alone, with the help of some guest musicians, Vast has since expanded to include a full lineup of players -- drummer Steven Clark, bassist Thomas Frogget and guitarist Rowan Robertson -- all of whom Crosby considers to be full members of the band.

For now, the record company's focus is on Vast's debut. While the album is still a long way from gold or platinum status, its first single, "Touched," recently entered the top 40 on Billboard's New Artists chart, and has entered several regional charts. A video for the song is in the works, as is a new official web page for the band.

Crosby and his bandmates will begin their third U.S. tour Feb. 20; it will run until April 5 and hit all major markets.

In the band's live shows, the exotic samples are played from tapes, Crosby said, adding that it would be "boring" for a keyboardist to play the static parts.

"The only problem with the monks is they're really hard to work with; they're too rowdy," he joked.