When a band goes all out to create what they feel to be a truly epic sprawling masterpiece of a record it tends to go one of two ways. Either the band in question surpass all their wildest hopes and leave fans and critics agog with wonder at their creativity, or they turn out a grandiose but ponderous beast that meanders about with no particular direction. Unfortunately ‘Descensus’ the fourth release from Philadelphia’s Circa Survive slides fairly inescapably into the latter description.
On first listen the initial question to raise its head is just how Anthony Green found the time to create a record this sprawling with Circa Survive as well as fronting Saosin. As, for all its faults, from the outset sounds and feels positively gargantuan. And it starts brightly enough ‘Schema’ opening the album in about as intense fashion as possible with wailing tortured guitars and pounding drums firmly grabbing the listeners attention in preparation for a fairly epic vocal entry from Green backed by lightning fast intertwining melodic guitar riffs. This proceeds to last for all of 40 seconds before the whole thing runs out of steam and the band place their emphasis on poise, presence and trying to sound as expansive as possible. Don’t get me wrong the soundscape is pretty luscious with four or five guitar tracks of various (quite sedate) paces and moods blending together, but this focus kills all of the focus and impetuous of the track.
This trend continues on both ‘Child Of The Desert’ and ‘Always Begin’ with bursts of life and vibrancy allowed to quickly fade away. An impression not helped by a vocal delivery that is often excessively drawn out, trying to eke the maximum from each note in its efforts to be hypnotic and mysterious. Occasionally it achieves just that, and those moments are great, but most of the time it just enhances the sense of the tracks lumbering along and merging into each other. Consequently trying to follow any kind of lyrical message or themes requires near superhuman concentration, something that the that the swirling stargazing instrumental lines don’t really allow.
Tracks like ‘Only The Sun’ and ‘Nesting Dolls’ push the expansive aspects of Circa Survive’s sound to the limit. Edging the band into post-hardcore or progressive territory, the latter in particular creating a properly beautiful synth based effects laden soundscape, but neither ever quite do enough to warrant or maintain any serious interest.
’Quiet Down’ introduces big echoing guitars to this template on a half decent slow burning number that hits a rather nice crescendo near the end. The positive trend continues on ‘Phantom’ which see’s punchy intricate drums merging with atmospheric keys and a prominent bass line on one of the records most rounded and enjoyable tracks.
’Sovereign Circles’ initially shows signs of having some of the purpose and focus that is lacking elsewhere but quickly returns to aimlessly wandering guitars and overcooked down tempo vocals. This early sense of purpose and energy is even more pronounced on epic closer and title track ‘Descensus’, chugging distorted chords adding some bite and backbone behind the showy lead lines but unsurprisingly these are only flashes of improvement interspersed throughout the tedium and excess of the tracks nine minute length.
There’s a suspicion that with a listener in the right mood the whole swirling, sprawling expanse that is ‘Decensus’ could just click and suddenly become mind-bendingly glorious. Whether or not the time it would take to wade repeatedly through this record for the elements to combine in just such a manner would be worth it, well that’s another thing entirely. Too often this ambitious and remarkably crafted stretch of unabashed sonic creativity is let down by coming across as far too ploddy, self-aggrandising and lacking in focus or clear direction. Basically a record was aiming for awe-inspiring is distinctly underwhelming. On this effort at least, Circa Survive are far too hit and miss to recommend with any real conviction or enthusiasm.
‘Descensus’ by Circa Survive is out out now on Sumerian Records
Words by Dane Wright (@MrDaneWright