“Best heard from the floor”, says the message from Vancouver’s March21 (that’s his name) a.k.a. Circlesquare in the liner notes for his first full-length album. And, having heard Pre-Earthquake Anthem, you’d have to imagine he’s not talking about the dance floor, but rather about lying down on the floor. It could be sex, it could be drugs, or maybe said earthquake, but the feeling this record evokes is one of being prone.
The liner notes also say that Pre-Earthquake Anthem was “recorded 2000-2002”, and your first response might well be “What took so long?” This music is minimal to the point where you have to admire, if nothing else, the patience that went into making it. The stark, melancholy effect is not unlike that produced by bands such as Low and Spain. The difference is that March21’s preferred weapons of silence are keyboards and sequencers rather than guitars and drums. Every click, electronic rimshot, and note has been painstakingly placed, and the result is music that sounds cleaner than stainless steel.
You can’t help but think that the first track, “Trancenation”, is a brilliant joke on those who read about this album in DJ magazines and assume it’s electronica. It’s not, at least beyond the fact that most of the instruments happen to be electronic. Gently pulsating synths, some haunting slide guitar and a barely-there rhythm track provide the background for March21’s whispered invitation to “come join our trance nation”. It’s striking, if not exactly a rave anthem.
“All Sleepers” exhorts “all your useless sleepers” to “put your head into the speaker” with a tempo that’s only a little faster. Here, March21’s vocals are detached, burnt-out and sleazy; the track could be a mellow, “sexy” one from the first couple Nine Inch Nails albums. “Non-Revival Alarm”, with its creeping, three-note bass figure, owes a huge debt to the quieter work of ’80s industrialists Nitzer Ebb. “Roomtone” evokes just that — what George Lucas has identified as the ambient hum that is unique to each part of a spacecraft in science fiction movies.
The album’s best track is also the saddest: “7 Minutes” encapsulates the drag and dread of living in the post-nuclear age. “In the plate glass city here / We build things pretty, dear / They’ll all go down in flames”, goes the lyric, while electronic embers crackle in the distance. It’s the aural equivalent of an empty metropolis or a Don Delillo novel. Listening to it, you can literally feel time slow down, and the vocals, for once, are sincere. Chilling.
Otherwise, Pre-Earthquake Anthem alternates the stark, electronic sleaze and more ponderous music that begs for a deep-thinking indie film to go along with it. Musically, this is pure minimalism. But March21’s frustration and confusion still come across, and the bearing that these emotions have on the listening experience is significant. You come away not quite sure how you were supposed to take this. What do you call chill-out music that’s not relaxing? Make-out music that’s not romantic? In this case, you can call it Circlesquare, and either in spite of or because of March21’s sardonic tendencies, it has its uses.