Review Summary: Dead Letter Circus’s 2018 effort unfortunately continues the slow and gradual decline that began back on their third studio album.
Some bands are lucky enough to catch fire on their first couple records, while for others it takes time for them to work their way into the ears of the ever-impatient mass that populates today’s stream-friendly world. Dead Letter Circus was one of the fortunate bands to find enormous success within Australia’s alternative/prog rock movement that sprouted wings back in the late 2000s. What tends to happen with bands who experience early success is that they get stuck in ideas that they know have worked in the past and get caught trying to re-ignite old ideas instead of pushing themselves. Dead Letter Circus in 2018 really does not sound a whole lot different from the one that released their first self-titled EP and This Is The Warning
, maybe a little more tamed and well-produced.
That’s a bit of an unfair criticism for me to slap the band with, so let me elaborate further. They did try something slightly different on their 2015 album Aesthesis
. There were noticeably more acoustic textures to that album, more focus on proggier song structures, and the back half centered almost solely around vocalist Kim Benzie’s vocals. Most of the other band members were mere afterthoughts by that point. Because of this decision, despite the tight song-writing on the first half of the album, most listeners merely shrugged the entire listen off as “too soft” and “lacking energy” compared to their earlier work. The band is well aware their older stuff is the more preferred, but they came into their 2018 self-titled item much the same way they wrote the previous one, with Benzie first writing vocal parts and the rest of the instruments built around that. The only difference this time was that Kim Benzie intentionally wanted to write heavier stuff again with more personal lyrics and so we have an album caught somewhere in between. It wants to sound like their older hits but was written like Aesthesis
was, with Benzie’s voice front and center.
While the band could theoretically get away with merely making songs packed with their signature soaring, reverb-heavy guitar sound and strong vocals, the issue in 2018 is that Kim Benzie’s voice just isn’t as good as it once was. There’s nothing remotely close to the breathtaking vocal performances this guy conjured up on songs like “One Step” or “Alone Awake”. He sounds aged, especially on songs like “Trade Places”, where you can hear him actively avoiding breaking out into the higher notes and straining to come close on the chorus. His vocal work single-handedly ruins later song “Say It Won’t Be Long”, with oddly jarring tonal choices littered everywhere. What could have been a fiery late album highlight falls flat with vocals that don’t fit. This album also suffers from a huge deficit of well-written hooks, something the band leans on and something Benzie has historically had an ear for. “Change” and “Running Out of Time” each use the same cheap parlour trick of coming to a brief full-stop before emotionally belting out the hook, hoping it will mask its simplicity and ineffectiveness.
The band does have a great sound at its core, they always have. The energy they once had is back in some regards, just not as consistently realized. Older fans will likely look to the first half of the album for the stronger song-writing. Opener “The Armour You Own” is electric and passionate, starting with a Blue Sky Noise
-era Circa Survive riff and a chorus that rushes through unexpectedly, hitting just the right spot. “The Real You” delivers the second punch with a nice build-up to undoubtedly one of Kim’s better vocal performances on the album. “We Own the Light” really feels like a song that an “entire” band made with guitars and drums that are equally impactful. The song in general really pops. Elsewhere, “Ladders for Leaders” joins the ranks of some of their best ballads to date, right up there with “The Design” back in 2010. There’s always at least one softer moment (or in Aesthesis’
case...five?), but this one is thankfully worth the time, with heartfelt lyrics, a sticky chorus you can’t help but sing along to, and a healthy sprinkle of piano in the mix. It’s powerful stuff.
An album like this will always have its listeners. The band has a unique sound not many bands are channeling even today and many will simply be happy with more of the same. All it does though is charter the band on a slow and gradual decline. They haven’t fully collapsed yet, but this new self-titled effort does not have tantalizing and juicy ideas flowing through it that are begging to be further explored. It reeks of a band simply going into the studio doing copy-and-paste work and high-fiving each other after making more of the same. But with Benzie’s ever-deteriorating vocals, it’s time for the other members of the band to throw their ideas into the hat. It could serve as the spark they need.