Circa Survive, The Amulet (Hopeless Records, 2017).
Signs for this record, the sixth studio album from Philadelphia’s Circa Survive, were looking more than good ever since they began releasing teaser tracks in the summer, four in total: ‘Lustration’, ‘Rites of Investiture’, ‘The Amulet’ and ‘Premonition of the Hex’.
The consistency and excellence of those releases is of course tempered by a nagging thought that they might be album stand-outs and their early release designed to superficially raise expectations and drive interest in the album. Gladly, The Amulet as a whole represents ten diverse tracks of glorious sonic immersion incorporating sometimes abstract, sometimes disconcertingly surreal lyrics where the personal and the political intertwine. The vocals delivering these mate gorgeous candied clean melodies with rougher techniques. Underpinning, or more correctly sat side-by-side with this, are tangled, intricate and brilliant instrumental arrangements that are luscious and colourful.
Undoubtedly the four preview tracks listed above form the liquid core of this record and strongly showcase the band’s technical mastery of their instruments and an ability to compose songs whose layers build and unravel around the listener and seem to shift, mutate and re-shape themselves in real-time in perfectly unexpected ways.
Singer Anthony Green’s high tenor voice easily commands the listener’s attention. Even to those familiar with it from previous Circa Survive albums or his numerous side-projects such as Saosin or The Sound of Animals Fighting, Green’s vocals still surprise in their range, the turns they take and the melodic threads they can tease out within the space of a single song. The content of the lyrics is also attention worthy with an often used enigmatic and strange turn to religious or sacred references and images.
Take these away though and the songs are still endlessly giving. The rest of the band constantly shine through in the luscious, imaginative and colourful instrumental arrangements. It’s difficult to focus on one element of a Circa Survive song since so much beguiling aural goodness is going on at once. However, of particular note on The Amulet is Nick Beard’s bass playing which combines many different techniques and influences. It’s high in the mix and often the songs seem to emerge out of his melodic ideas on that instrument.
Many of the tracks on the album conjure a heavily dream-like atmosphere. This feeling emerges in the airy introduction of opening track ‘Lustration’ with its portmanteau title and an organ like sound coupled with chiming guitars before the song bursts out of the speakers in hurried, busy drum rhythms and expansive, lightly distorted sliding guitar lines. Lyrically ‘Lustration’ demonstrates the aforementioned surreality with lines such as: ‘Inside the catacomb / The marble’s colder than ice / Our match is damp / Lit with a separate hand’ and ‘Beneath your fingernails they’ll find small pieces of stone’. The coldness of much of the imagery here suggests a situation of ongoing separation.
The next track ‘Never Tell a Soul’ is one of the strongest on the album and comes racing out of the gates before the pace backs off and then accelerates again. The song’s absolutely magnificent chorus is replete with spiraling guitars and a devastatingly tight rhythm section producing beats that will absolutely get parts of your body moving along as the lyrics bring in those sacred images: ‘We threw our crutches of weight into the ambry / Where we wait for others to wake / We shuffle out of the bedroom / Into the gavel with a cross at the end of it.’ The pulsating, bruising outro wraps this one up expertly.
‘Premonition of the Hex’ follows this and ushers in a mood change with an intro that leads with a spacey bass oriented groove in triplets, supported by bass drum, before the rhythm becomes more dotted. The track has a dub-like feel and is very minimal in terms of a typical Circa Survive arrangement, especially when all apart from the bass and vocals drops out of the mix around halfway through the song. Because of this it’s one of the more interesting compositions on the record in terms of structure and atmosphere since it is so strikingly different to what surrounds it.
A long soft drum roll and escalating, harmonising guitars introduce the next song ‘Tunnel Vision’ before they finish in a flourish and the track’s true mid-tempo flavour takes over. At this point in the album the focus on introductions themselves and the idea that they are perhaps of high anatomical importance for each song starts to gain prominence, they are more than decorative features and actually an integral part of how Circa Survive build and maintain or disrupt and change the tonal and timbral elements throughout the record. Admittedly this song is probably not the one that will stand out in the mind upon listening to the album and after, its slenderness encourages other more substantial tracks to subsume it. The chorus is strong and quite catchy though with drifting guitars and lyrics that seem to bad timing or insensitivity within a relationship: ‘You made your move when I wasn’t ready yet / Look at what you did / With your tunnel vision.’
The following track and de-facto halfway point of the album ‘At Night it Gets Worse’ features smoothly repetitive, melancholic lead guitar over a staggered, stuttering drum pattern. This is an interesting and pointed contrast that gradually slips its way into the mind and takes hold. As the song progresses a rich, rolling ostinato bass line creeps up on the listener to supplant the guitar and drums. Musically the tone is somewhat calm with sections of agitation, but lyrically there is a sense of fretfulness with Green apparently expressing a fear or reluctance to disclose one’s true feelings or opinions, or of saying or thinking the wrong thing: ‘Your straining stare /Cut from every other home / In the sequence of our unidentified / Impersonator / ‘Cause you know just what to say and / By any other name its still a lie.’ It’s unnerving in itself how the effect of the song alters depending on which details and particulars you choose to focus on when listening. The lyrics are secretive and unforthcoming leaving them pleasingly open to interpretation.
‘Rites of Investiture’ begins with a leak of guitar feedback before a punchy, severe bass line rumbles out of the speakers and consumes it. Verses are built around this, hard hitting drums and angry, pressing lyrics. The immediacy of the whole is compelling. The song has an interesting structure where halfway through a bridge section changes the tempo and mood reintroducing the drone from the intro, this time at a lower pitch. It’s a moment of immaculately built and exquisite heaviness. Here the band’s use of cyclic form and motifs becomes apparent across the album in terms of the use of melodic themes, key signatures and the general sense of tonality displayed throughout the ten songs. Green delivers a sequence of lyrics that could be abstracted social or political commentary: ‘You’re panicked, depressed, corroborate / In time you’ll know / You’ve got the right to stay sedate / Don’t shake the alter.’
The three tracks surrounding the preview tracks that fall towards the end of the record are ‘Stay’, ‘The Hex’ and ‘Flesh and Bone’. These are softer, slighter efforts and perhaps the fact that it’s possible to discuss them together shows that there is a small discrepancy between these and the songs the band chose to showcase The Amulet. This is not necessarily a lapse in the musical quality but in the sense that the import of the moment is precedent elsewhere, though undoubtedly there are moments of great beauty in these three. For instance ‘Flesh and Bone’ gently drifts by virtue of its melodic and rhythmic features and contains some rather dulcet guitar lines and distant consonant strings. ‘The Hex’ is a loftier, breezy moment that plays on and around with the off-beat.
These songs are introverted instances on what is an occasionally and contradictorily introverted record. Circa Survive’s music has a natural tendency to unearth places within itself yet the results can often be the exact opposite, powerful, at times heavily jazzy and ornate. The word filler would be far from correct description here but the impetus for and development of ideas, musically and lyrically is stronger elsewhere.
The album closes with the title track ‘The Amulet’ which is built around some of the sweetest phrasing and melodies you could hope to hear with duetting guitars climbing and twinkling as the verse segues seamlessly into the chorus where the band’s strength for composing monumentally catchy phrases and passages of music is again evident: ‘My voice is lost, inherently violent / We already made your casket stand / Trust when you’re dead, you wanted it so bad / That you didn’t know how fucked it was / All the pulses were a line, anaesthetize you waste away / In the city you wept a grave, decay.’ Its outro provides the final shove to send you over the edge being built around an intense, growing syncopated ostinato instrumental until it explodes in a stunning flourish with gnarled, layered and harmonised vocals before collapsing into a sudden end.
Coming in at around 40 minutes, The Amulet is a concise and addictive listen. This is a very balanced, very focused and lean album, more so than recent Circa Survive releases. There is nothing excess here, nothing spared, nothing wasted. However Circa Survive pack so much into each densely turned song on so many levels that the album feels longer than this and each track will absolutely reward repeated listening even though there is plenty of sonic immediacy throughout.