Review Summary: An improvement in every single aspect. A fantastic, immense album.
The problem with Circa Survive has never been with their music. They play their instruments competently and whether you like his tone or not, Anthony Green can sing
. The problem is their lack of longevity. Debut album Juturna was good, but it only lasted for a few listens. An icon within the scene's attempt to make progressive rock music was interesting, endearing even, but ultimately the album was swept into the undertow of dozens of other albums by bands who were better at making that sort of music from the start (Minus The Bear, The Mars Volta, et al). Juturna was weird, but not necessarily in a good way; it simply made the album sort of impenetrable but with none of the charm that makes music like that worth exploring. It was catchy, but apart from "Act Appalled," the melodies were either too linear or too plain to warrant the listener singing along. On Letting Go, the band's sophomore effort, was super
catchy, but with all of the weirdness gone. Instead of expanding upon the aspect of their music that had the potential to make them unique, they abandoned it completely in favor of stronger melodies and improved singing from Green. But though the oddities were gone, the songs
were there. The album showed a band who was marvelously with it
, poised on the edge of...something. It wasn't clear what cliff they were on, what awaited them at the bottom of the plunge. More popularity? A return to experimentation? The album was great, but the longevity still wasn't there because it was missing something, something we all hoped they would find on their next album.
And find it they did.
The "it" in question isn't something that can really be defined, and honestly it isn't even the point. The point is that Circa Survive have done everything right on Blue Sky Noise. The sort of deft passion that they display here isn't something that comes along very often for a band, yet here they are acting as if it's the most natural thing in the world. It makes you wonder why they weren't this good from the start, but the learning process they went through ends up making Blue Sky Noise all the more satisfying. With On Letting Go, for every jaw-dropping track like "Your Friends Are Gone," there was a disappointingly bland song like "In The Morning And Amazing." On Juturna, for every "Act Appalled" or "The Great Golden Baby," there was, well, the rest of the album. The ridiculous potential that the band showed was almost torturous, and a bit scary too. The power that could have been in their music was palpable, but the band never threw open the floodgates and let it out, leaving us to wonder just how many amazing things they could do if they would. Maybe it was the three-year long writing process, or maybe Green was disgusted by how awful his old band Saosin have become and wanted to blow them out of the water, but Blue Sky Noise is a fantastic example of what a band can do if they learn from their mistakes, something most artists these days seem loathe to do.
The most obvious (and appreciated) improvements come from the musicians. With their first two albums, Circa Survive were unfortunately faced with what I like to call "the Paramore dilemma" - basically, when one member of a band is instantly recognizable and garners all of the praise, whether they want to or not. When Anthony Green was in Saosin, they were poised to take over the burgeoning 2000s post hardcore scene, and rightfully so. But just as the hype for a Saosin full-length album started to reach a fever pitch, Green quit and formed Circa Survive. Oddly enough, the hype was transferred from Saosin to Circa Survive (which is a rare occurrence in and of itself), and in the wake of his departure, Anthony Green left Saosin to flounder and die. Unfortunately, by comparison, Circa Survive's Juturna appeared rather tame despite its occasional flirting with weird textures, effects, and time signatures. In that case, the hype worked against them. And for the musicians who joined Green's cause, because they didn't play in nearly the same style as Saosin's members, they were written off as boring. This wasn't entirely unjustified though. They were good, but they had a long way to go. They shone in moments where the music was more energetic, and they seem to have realized this with Blue Sky Noise. Opener "Strange Terrain" is jaunty, bouncy, and the drums have improved a ridiculous amount. The main riff is catchy and a bit sugary, but not sickeningly so by any means, and the noises peppered here and there at certain points are tasteful and never feel out of place or overdone. The chorus, making amazing use of background melody, is pure Anthony Green, who certainly didn't slack in the hooks department. On Letting Go's "Living Together" was a fantastic opener, but "Strange Terrain" blows it out of the water. And it's only a small taste of what's to come on the rest of Blue Sky Noise.
But first, there's "Get Out." If other Circa Survive songs could be described as "weird" because of their texture or time signature or how flat the choruses were, "Get Out" is weird because of how evocative it is, not just of Translating The Name era Saosin (Green's vocals are deliciously aggressive), but of the 90s alternative rock movement as well. It blends the energy of "Seven Years" with a grungy, Smashing Pumpkins-like atmosphere, all capped off with a guitar solo that screams Nirvana. But it's actually good
. While it definitely wasn't the best song to release as a teaser, "Get Out" romps through its three minutes with a gusto that Circa Survive have rarely shown. After that, the album veers off into the newer territory that the band started to explore on "Strange Terrain." "Glass Arrows" seems to be what they were going for with songs like "Mandala" from On Letting Go. Instead of plodding along at one tempo and volume level for the entire song, "Glass Arrows" shifts into overdrive after the choruses, a tribal drumbeat blasting underneath palm mutes before the song recedes back into a spaced-out bridge that doesn't overstay its welcome. For all the new things that Circa Survive do on this album, the music is never overindulgent, and that is perhaps the greatest testament to how much they have improved.
Another thing that seemed to be missing from Circa Survive's music in the past was an ability to relate to its listeners. Green's lyrics were always good, always conceptual, and he was always able to drop some great one-liners, but perhaps the band's lack of longevity came from the fact that while his lyrics aptly matched the music, they both ended up being a bit too dense to be relative to their audience. One listen to "I Felt Free" changes all that. Here, both Green and the musicians work together as a cohesive unit. The intro is gorgeous, the riff mimicking Green's eventual vocal melody, and the rolling drums provide an interesting backbone during the verses, something that almost never happened on previous albums. The song goes through a few different moods between its verses and choruses; the former is brooding and the latter is a soaring, shining example of this new Circa Survive, this new beast that rears its head back and roars at the band's other two albums. "I fell apart in your arms for the last time, and I felt free to do what I want because of the things you told me," Green croons in the bridge, backed by a single clean-toned guitar, and he certainly sounds like he means it. And there is
freedom in this album. It rings out in every chord, every drumbeat, every hook. For all of its different moods and tones, Blue Sky Noise is about a band letting go of preconceived notions, of expectations, of the shackles of their previous albums.
From there, Blue Sky Noise is more of the same, which is to say, it's more of Circa Survive being what nobody, even their biggest fans, ever thought they could be. The fast acoustic tempo and expertly produced drums of "Fever Dreams," the immaculate chord progression of "Spirit Of The Stairwell" (complete with a snaking, slide guitar-like riff), and the uncertain, tense feelings contained within "The Longest Mile," all point to a band that have realized their potential and so much more. All of this is encapsulated in the last song, "Dyed In The Wool." With an almost tropical feel in the music (think Broken Social Scene's "Pacific Theme"), the song shows once again that Circa Survive are done with boring verses that only serve as a weak skeleton to the rest of the song. The chorus' distant, fuzzed-out choir gives Green a fantastic background to show that his best vocal moments aren't just when he belts things out willy-nilly. "Dyed In The Wool" is surprising in that it doesn't end Blue Sky Noise with any sort of bombast or fireworks, which the band has been fond of in the past. Rather, the highlight comes from the ascending guitar lead in the chorus, which is simple yet perfect, and the way the last chorus leads into a decidedly beautiful moment that closes the book in an immensely satisfying way. For anyone who thought that Blue Sky Noise would end up being more of the same from Circa Survive, think again. Those who previously considered them boring in the past might want to consider checking this album out. The entirety of Blue Sky Noise blows away anything else that Circa Survive have ever done. It is immense, it is challenging, and it will make fools out of those who doubt it.