Caspian's Wall-of-Sound Post-Rock Is Handwritten Large with 'On Circles'

Photo: Courtesy of Speakeasy PR / Triple Crown Records

Caspian's On Circles follows in the footsteps of 2015's beatific Dust and Disquiet. It's a big album with its details writ small.

On Circles

Triple Crown

24 January 2020

The New England-bred post-rock outfit Caspian get about a quarter of the way into "Flowers of Light", the second song off On Circles, before the electric guitars switch from painting texture to soaring in flight. The initial appearance isn't all that startling, coming after the appearance of somewhat subdued electronics, an understated acoustic guitar, and the occasional interjection of a thumped tom. But it's an initiation, a rite, as much as it's a shift in tone. Driven forward by the trebly guitar lead, the band's rhythm section begins to roil, and the rhythm guitars explore the subtleties one can find in repeating and inverting measures. (On circles, indeed.) The song builds, almost without conscious awareness, into waves of blistering crescendos. By the three-and-a-half-minute mark, it's positively Vesuvian, bits of ash flying to and fro as Caspian's guitarists weave notes in intricate patterns of calls and response.

In the wake of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, lots of post-rock acts of varying degrees of technical proficiency have tried their hands at the crescendo – it's fairly well-worn terrain. On their new LP, Caspian don't do a whole hell of a lot that they and others haven't done before. But the precision with which they present their theses lends a sense of scale to the proceedings. Ironically, though, it's the more subtle details of the record – a tossed-aside guitar melody, the rarely employed vocal wail, a return to a modal theme buried somewhere within the cacophony of a song – that stick with you after the record stops spinning. In this respect, On Circles is a big album with its details writ small.

The band seem to be in on the ploy. Take "Division Blues". It starts with nearly inaudible guitar and tides of reverb before building – alongside more great tom work – into another lumbering 4/4 march. But the band is smart to return repeatedly to more nuanced interlacing of undistorted guitars. For a group that flirts with the definition of post-metal, their record collections must include some Pelican LPs. What's more interesting than the throttle of a roar is the grace of the whisper.

Sometimes, Caspian stick the landing better than others. "Onsra", the fifth of the eight tracks, meanders a bit too much, and its quiet and loud sections seem more disconnected than complementary. Though the song works as part of the larger narrative, when it's taken on its merits, it lacks the connective tissue of a song like "Flowers of Light". "Wildblood", which opens the record, suffers a similar fate. Although the occasional appearance of trumpet and woodwinds is a nice sonic touch, it feels more like it's sound-checking the stage than ably setting it.

The record's closing, however, is downright epic, with each of the last three songs angling to one-up each other. "Collapser", which toys with palm-muting to great effect, is the most visceral of the record's pieces and the one most clearly aligned with Caspian's post-metal brethren. "Ishmael" follows it and is on the other end of the color spectrum, practically subdued. The acoustic guitar that accented "Flowers of Light" now drives the band forward. Glassy icicles of electric guitar are a wonderful adornment. Closer "Circles on Circles" features acoustics even more prominently, here deployed in mournful refrains behind vocals honey-dipped in harmony. The song builds, though not to as much of a climax. In the end, we remain alongside the acoustic guitar and a lone voice, intoning, "The shadow remains." (The record ends, somewhat abruptly, on that note.)

It's unclear how Caspian's latest will age, especially alongside a gem like 2015's Dust and Disquiet. There's little on this LP that's as instantly gratifying as Dust's "Arcs of Command" or "Darkfield". But maybe it shouldn't have to be. With On Circles, Caspian continue to map out an ambitious campaign of crafting walls of sound on the borders of contemporary post-rock. Come December, and we won't be talking about this as one of 2020's finest records. But we might certainly still be spinning it.







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.