Circa Survive – Descensus (2014)

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Circa Survive is officially an ‘old’ band now. Formed in 2004, with their first release coming with 2005’s Juturna,  they’ve come to be one of the most consistent and powerful bands in the alternative rock sphere. This year, they made a surprising move in signing with Sumerian Records, first rereleasing 2012’s Violent Waves, and now delivering their fifth and newest studio effort, Descensus. At this point in most bands’ careers, it’s where you see them start to slip and fail to live up to their standards.

Circa Survive is not such a band.  Since Juturna, they’re a band that has managed to grow and mature, without having to become something else entirely to do it. And that’s no easy feat – to stay fresh and exciting for ten years – without suddenly throwing in EDM beats or disappearing up their own asses like some kind of freakish musical Ouroboros.

Descensus is yet another step down that path, incorporating both old and new sounds to create something new. What’s most apparent on the first listen is that this album is much more balanced than it’s predecessor Violent Waves was, which traded on long streaks of down-tempo songwriting and melancholy. Descensus has instead struck a balance between these quieter passages and the louder ones, with the screeching ‘Schema’ barreling out of the gate with crashing drums and tortured guitar scrapes, while songs like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’ (clocking in at a brief 54 seconds) take things down a peg and giving the album some room to breath. This is quite possibly Circa’s most dynamic album, because it smoothly jumps between moods and doesn’t stay stuck in one gear for too long (unlike some of Blue Sky Noise or Violent Waves do).

Descensus was actually touted to be Circa’s heaviest album yet, and while it’s not necessarily much heavier than any of their other records, it certainly has no shortage of hard-rocking songs. As mentioned before, ‘Schema’ is an excellent, brash opener, and songs like ‘Sovereign Circle’ and ‘Quiet Down’ are angry, pounding tracks that would almost seem out of character if not for the trademark guitar interplay of Brendan Ekstrom and Colin Frangicetto. They play with dynamics on ‘Child of the Desert’, too – what at first seems like a brooding, broiling track erupts into straight up groovy rock riffing, soloing, and screaming.

And here’s where that fine balance comes in – for all the harder rocking tracks on this album, there’s also moments of empty space and beauty, which allow it to breathe and flow like a true album should. ‘Phantom’ sounds like something you could sit under an umbrella on the beach and watch the waves to, replete with echoey lap steel guitars, and yet hides a darker lyrical center: Anthony would “rather be on my own, than with you”. ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’ is a spacey interlude, with some small snippets of vocals buried in reverb drifting through the hollow, empty-sounding guitars. But the real centerpiece of the album, both literally and figuratively, is ‘Nesting Dolls’. This song finds Circa Survive doing their best Explosions in the Sky, but instead of mindlessly aping, they’ve actually created one of the most beautiful songs they’ve ever written. ‘Nesting Dolls’ floats along with gentle, bright guitar arpeggios and ethereal vocals, (at times buried similarly in the mix as in ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’), and slowly works it’s way up to what seems like the typical cliche post-rock crescendo. However, right at the critical moment, it simply floats back down to Earth, fading out with grace instead of feeling the need to explode.

Descensus also sports the band’s longest song to date in the title track, which closes out the album. It’s a nine minute journey that starts off with the same echoey guitars as ‘Phantom’ and a driving bass line, and feels almost cinematic in the way it smoothly works it way up to a flurry of guitar tapping and then comes back down. Eventually, the chugging guitar from the beginning of the track returns as a sort of motif for the second half, which is much more restrained and spacey. This simple chugging motif becomes hypnotizing, as it’s embellished with the occasional strain of guitar and reverb, and gently ends the album by making it feel like we’re floating out of it, instead of crashing into a wall. This track is actually a great summation of the album itself, emphasizing it’s balance between driving, progressive-tinged rock and drifting, spacey sounds all in one song.

It feels as if Circa Survive has made finally the album they’ve been working towards since Blue Sky Noise. Descensus has that album’s strong sense of hooky songwriting, but also incorporates Violent Waves’  sense of space and melancholy, creating a whole that knows when it should push the pedal to the metal and when to back off and breathe. ‘Nesting Dolls’ and ‘Descensus’ take the band into territory it hasn’t explored before, and tracks like ‘Schema’ and ‘Sovereign Circle’ rock like they haven’t since On Letting Go. And yet for all this album does, it still stays recognizably Circa Survive, and in that respect it probably won’t win over any new fans or suddenly push them into stardom. But that’s fine, because instead Descensus finds a band that’s ten years into their career and still firing on all cylinders, still delivering music that pushes their boundaries, and still insanely worth listening to.

Key Tracks: Schema, Nesting Dolls, Phantom, Sovereign Circle, Descensus

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