Album Review: Circa Survive – ‘The Amulet’
Posted: by The Editor
Circa Survive, a gently psychedelic and otherworldly post-hardcore mainstay, started in 2004 as a project between members Anthony Green, Colin Frangicetto, Nick Beard, Brendan Ekstrom, and Stephen Clifford. Today, CS consists of those same five members, who have lived through a decade of personal tragedy, addiction, the growth of families, and more record labels than can be counted on one hand. With many one-off reunions and sudden attempts at reinvention after long silences, how many bands have stuck together and continued to make music – let alone music that is worthy of sustained attention from their once hormone-addled fans who have since graduated into adult life? The Amulet is Circa Survive’s 6th full-length album, which already puts them in rarified air, but what really makes it an album worth talking about is simply that it’s one of the band’s best.
2015’s Descensus was released following publicized revelations about lead singer Anthony Green’s battles with heroin. While it echoed earlier struggles with substances that were the thematic focus of Juturna, the band’s first album, Descensus showed that the group was still hungry, still capable, and still committed to making music together. It was an unexpected delight for some fans whose interest had dwindled following the uneven Blue Sky Noise, and the troublingly uninspired Violent Waves. This return – with plenty of claws and teeth – might have been enough. It was not the band’s best, but was certainly a good album that touched on some fresh ground.
With The Amulet we are not just given a re-introduction to the band. It is more than a statement of resilience and a reminder of what once was. Full of creativity, lacking predictability, it is a damn good album that rings with a sense of urgency most bands fail to sustain through two or three albums, let alone a half dozen.
It kicks off with “Lustration,” a song that takes its time setting the scene with a gently rendered and tender melody, before unleashing a barrage of signature guitar lashes and some particularly energetic drumming from Clifford, whose performances across the album are both inventive and bracing. As the first single, the song acts as a map of intent for the album as a whole; there are familiar tricks here, all the moves that one might expect from CS, but they are punctuated, and at places even pleasantly dismantled, by surprising doses of originality. Green’s recent penchant for growls are replaced by touches of falsetto, the chorus takes a step back rather than clamoring for attention, and the climax is followed by an extended and meditative outro. There is urgency, but there is also patience. The song breathes, feels vast, and hides nothing. And it is in the collection of songs that follows that these qualities are all mirrored and even further developed.
“Never Tell A Soul,” as well as the wonderfully energetic “Stay,” rank among the band’s most raucous and simultaneously mind-bending songs. These harken back to their sophomore record, On Letting Go, while incorporating elements that feel fresh and defy categorization. This is not surprising, given that the band followed the release of their last LP with two consecutive anniversary tours, which celebrated their first two albums by playing them in full night after night.
While there is certainly ample nostalgia fueling these now-common trips down memory lane, it was never necessary for Circa Survive to do these tours. They could have easily kept on with their current material, but seemed invigorated by mining their collective past, and from this, may have tapped into something that they lost with the years: a willingness to risk something, to indulge in restlessness. And damn if it isn’t refreshing to hear Green trade in his high-pitched growls for a full on scream here and there.
The album’s centerpiece, and its longest song, “At Night It Gets Worse,” is a dreamlike slow-burn that lulls the listener into a place of vulnerability, with moments of anxiety translated through sudden bursts of guitars that wail and jitter as the track lopes on towards its climax. Similarly, “The Amulet,” the title track and closer to the album, might be among the record’s most infectious songs. With its powerful build-up and invigorating payoff, CS is firing on all pistons with this finale, and its last minute makes for one of the finest moments on any album in their discography. Though Green’s lyrics appear to touch on themes familiar to him, those of addiction, loss, and subsequent redemption, they tend more towards symbol-heavy stream of consciousness meditations, which are more effective than some of his more pseudo-philosophical self-help narratives (Surely “Always Begin” and “I’ll Find A Way” worked for someone, somewhere). Here he seems happier to let the music guide the words, focusing on the feeling at hand, the moment, and his words and voice are the stronger for it.
That is not to say that every moment is entirely fresh. There are passages, and even tracks, where the band retreads onto some familiar territory, as on “Rites of Investiture” and “Flesh and Bone,” the somewhat token ballad of the bunch – but even these are delivered with more strength and tenderness, respectively, than their familiar counterparts from records past. The album is filled out by strange and surprising songs like “Tunnel Vision” and “The Hex,” that show the band meddling with time signatures and melodic tropes in ways they haven’t for years. Dueling guitars from Frangicetto and Ekstrom provide a swaying undercurrent of melody and tension, rather than blaring to the forefront with cheap hooks. The step away from the familiar, back towards a more atmospheric, and at times even chimerical approach, brings out the very best in this band by joining the enthrallment of their past with the clarity they have gained by writing and performing as a single entity for over a decade.
The album’s cover – another evocative entry in the band’s ongoing collaboration with Esao Andrews, without whose work a new Circa Survive album would feel inauthentic – shows a woman, naked in a desolate landscape, bending beneath the burden of a giant, somewhat sinister shell. While the image is arresting, it seems at odds with the overall feel of this album. Maybe this picture is the band commenting on the responsibility of having a platform, a voice that people keep coming back to hear, stripped of all privacy and struggling with expectations. But, The Amulet feels like Circa Survive at their most unburdened – shedding the formulas and trials of their collective past, accepting their strengths and limitations, and discovering something new through their enduring unity.