Once upon a time, I avoided bands with emo qualities like the black plague. Not because I didn’t enjoy certain things about the genre, but because of the image that the bands and their fans in my hometown presented. That is, until a little band called Circa Survive came along and changed everything.
My first experience with Circa (like many people) was their album On Letting Go. To me, this album completely changed the dynamic of a genre that I suspected was pretty repetitive. The album was progressive, experimental, and most importantly, wasn’t afraid be a little trippy, which, at the time of its release, was a death note to any hardcore or emo rock band.
On Letting Go was a record that had brought me to what I considered the dark side and there was no looking back. I soon picked up Circa Survive’s first album, Juturna, and discovered another really good album that I had denied myself from enjoying. Though it was half the album On Letting Go was sonically, it had the progressive qualities that drew me to Circa in the first place, and I felt like it had the edge that On Letting Go was missing.
Needless to say, when I heard about Blue Sky Noise’s release in early 2010, I was excited, and apparently so were a lot of other people — the album hit Billboards Top 200 at #11 and received praise from critics and fans. But to me, that release lacked the trippiness and edge of its predecessors. Heavily delayed guitar progressions and waves of effects sweeping through the mix were still present, and Green’s vocal performance was still right on point with the other albums (if not more passionate), but for the first time, the band included group vocals on an album, which added a certain pop quality to the record that reminded of what I didn’t like about the emo genre.
Overall, the album was good, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by what seemed to me like the conformity of the vocals, so when I heard Circa Survive was going back into the studio earlier this year to record their fourth LP, Violent Waves, I was confronted with mixed feelings. Here’s a band that had changed my entire perception on what a genre could be, and I was cynical about one of their new albums. So I decided to put all preconceived notions aside and listen to this album as if I had nothing to compare it to, but guess what…I really didn’t.
Violent Waves starts off with the 7-minute epic “Birth of the Economic Hit Man,” which, for those of you not familiar with psych rock albums, is something you might expect from, say, The Mars Volta but definitely not Circa Survive. I was intrigued, to say the least, and my intrigue was met with content. The song starts off with the piercing ring of a guitar note being held out, the drums come in on the back beat, adding a certain funky swing to the mix, and the guitars and bass follow suit with Green’s vocals soaring above it all.
What happens after that is a revelation from an LSD trip gone horribly right. The song builds and deconstructs, layers and flattens — it’s a concept that I have seen with many progressive psych rock bands but had yet to fully experience with Circa’s music; however, as I continued to listen through Violent Waves, that was clearly about to change.
The very next song, “Sharp Practice,” which I would have to consider my favorite on the album, is immediately upbeat. One of the most positive things to me about the song is that the lyrics reflect exactly what is going on with the music. There seems to almost be a symbiotic relationship between Green and his band mates. The first time he sings, “You get what you pay for, we can’t sell our god damn souls anymore,” it feels like a release valve is opened, causing the band to break into a passionate frenzy of layers and melody. The verses are bright and punchy with weaving guitar layers and a sense of urgency that eventually drops back into the groove of the chorus, proving that the dynamics of the first track were not an anomaly, but instead the promise of what was to come from the rest of Violent Waves.
The next track, “Suitcase,” is a bit of a detour back to On Letting Go’s vibe. The song has the melancholy guitar and vocal vibe mixed with the up-tempo percussion that originally compelled me to become a fan of Circa Survive in the first place. “Lottery” couldn’t start any differently. Primal drums tumble along with choppy, distorted guitar riffs that most metal bands can’t even fully pull off, and then I realize that the downtrodden feel of “Suitcase” was just a precursor for the upbeat nature of “Lottery.” Instead of drastically changing the dynamics within each song, Circa is now transitioning the feel that they established with the first two songs of the album across multiple songs, building and tearing down song by song.
Violent Waves continues in this fashion either constantly building one song up and down or transitioning from song to song until “Think of Me When They Sound.” The song is mellow and feels eerily like the end of a trip when you’re winding down and lying in your bed reflecting on the craziness that was the night or day before, which falls right into “Brother Song,” a track that has a different feel than the rest of the album. It’s not upbeat, it’s not noisy, it has a sense of groove, but it’s ridged in its progression. Instead of the drums, Green’s vocals seem to provide the swing, and the guitars are tame compared to those on the rest of the album.
“Bird Song” quickly takes you out of the post-trip vibe and returns to the upbeat, effects-driven psych rock that has been a common theme on the album. This track can almost certainly be considered the first part of a two-part song as the end of “Bird Song” flows right into the beginning of “Blood from a Stone.” Both of these songs play like an example of what has been accomplished on this album, which is an exercise in progressive experimentation.
The last song on Violent Waves, “I’ll Find a Way,” has to be my second favorite on the album. Another 7-minute epic, but this time closing the album instead of opening it (coincidence?), the song takes you on a journey through the many themes of the album — building, deconstructing, groovy, trippy, heavy, progressive, and experimental all in one, ending with what feels like an homage to one of my favorite Black Sabbath songs, “Planet Caravan.”
Violent Waves is an album that stands out amongst an already stand-out discography. It’s the first album Circa Survive has released without a record label, and to me, allowing the band total creative control paid big dividends. If you are a fan of passionate, meaningful lyrics and experimental psych rock music progressions, then you definitely should give this album a spin.
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