There can be a great deal of expectations for a sophomore record – especially when a lot of people questioned if said record would ever even come to fruition. Luckily for fans, Circa Survive is indeed the “real deal” and not just some one-off creative sidebar for prolific frontman Anthony Green. So, riding the wave of success from the well-received Juturna, and an exhaustive tour schedule, the band is back with the hotly-anticipated On Letting Go to show just where they have been the past two years and what they have brought back with them.
How On Letting Go is perceived as an album is going to be largely predicated on what sort of anticipations listeners have for the record, and this fissure will ultimately split the public on either side of the thumbs up/ thumbs down fence. For those out there that are expecting On Letting Go to be some sort of dramatic sea change – a quantum leap up from Juturna, you are likely to be disappointed. This is not to say that On Letting Go is nothing beyond Juturna 2.0 by any stretch, though. It is rather that with Juturna, Circa Survive established an elevated point of entry for themselves, and marked progression from that plateau is a difficult proposition. So, as we delve into On Letting Go, we see an interesting sort of dichotomy, as the work appears to be a bridge between where Circa Survive originated and some higher level altogether where they might be headed, but just aren’t ready for just yet.
One half of this split is evident in the album’s tracks that sound like they could well be Juturna b-sides. Cuts like “Living Together,” “On Letting Go,” “Close Your Eyes to See,” and “Your Friends Are Gone” all center around the blaring siren-like guitar wails, crackling percussion, and hypnotic vocals we have been exposed to thus far. Not a bad thing by any stretch for any fan of the band, but by the same token, this is a trait that will frustrate casual listeners looking for much more beyond previously-blazed trails.
While this familiarity is indeed present, it does not suffocate On Letting Go, as Circa still manages to flex its muscles on the other half of the record to break out of the mold they otherwise cast for themselves. This spirit is most notable on tracks like “In the Morning and Amazing,” a prog-anthem that rockets out of the gate on a furious riff and pulsing drum lines, or the shimmering “The Difference Between Medicine and Poison Is in the Dose” – the closest thing to a pop song the band has written, which still manages to juggle random, irreverent lyrics, thoughtful instrumentation, and believe it or not, the type of massive hook notably absent from Juturna. The same type of pop-flirtation peeks out on “Travel Hymn” – a bouncy, mid-tempo number and “Carry Us Away” – a more spacey number whose lonely verses converge and swell into epic chorus arrangements. These numbers do not, however, signify the band pandering to the mainstream throughout, as they test even their own boundaries on other tracks yet. From the funky verse breakdowns of “Mandala” to the concussive guitar blitz of “Semi-Constructive Criticism,” new territory is explored, and opens the door for the magnificent “Kicking Your Crosses Down.” Arguably the most ambitious track the band has penned to date, the song combines lonely, melodic guitar notes over a pressing drum pulse to underscore Green’s otherworldly, sensual delivery – ingredients which are all shaken and stirred into an urgent, theatrical, and almost sunny chorus. The tune ends up being both unexpected and wholly appreciated for being such.
So, as the songs themselves can be analyzed on their own, the question remains how the record’s overarching aspects perform. In this arena, there is little surprise. Vocally, Anthony is absolutely stellar – he resumes his spot on a perch above all imitators in the scene, and provides a performance that is in line with his impressive back-catalog of work – that is to say, he is still the best out there, bar none. There is a reason straight dudes have man-crushes on Green, and his performance on this album does nothing to dissuade these inappropriate thoughts. Likewise, Nick Beard, Colin Frangicetto, Brendan Ekstom, and Steve Clifford are all at the tops of their games, limited less by skill, and more by the creativity of their constructions. The way the band layers their unassuming contributions lends the songs an uncharacteristic lasting appeal, entirely too uncommon in today’s music. Finally, to bring the entire package together, Brian McTernan’s production of On Letting Go is absolutely top-notch as well. From the crisp drum notes and diverse guitar tones he is able to massage out of Circa’s relay to the tasteful mix of the finished product, it is clear that McTernan is doing some jaw-dropping work this year (along with The Graduate’s Anhedonia).
While we are becoming a society afflicted with ADD, it is refreshing to see bands like Circa Survive that continue to give us music that hooks us early, but still values the prospect of rewarding us each time we come back. On Letting Go might not be the game-changer that Juturna was, but it is still an inviting exhibition by one of the scene’s most talented bands honing its skill sets. Pick this album up, and listen to it ten times before you make your judgment on it – if you do not find something new to love on each spin, you are not listening hard enough. All in all, when the record is finished, it sounds like Circa Survive picked just the right time to let go.