Circa Survive: ‘Descensus’ Album Review

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Alright, dual philosophy/Circa Survive majors, I’ve got a question for you. If Circa Survive releases a “weird” album, do we call it normalcy?

Certainly, the band’s latest endeavor and fifth full-length, Descensus, is weird, but has there been a “normal” moment in their career? Since the release of their 2005 debut, Juturna, the band has gained an unnaturally large cult following. Even their major label debut, 2010’s Blue Sky Noise, featured its fair share of experimentation, from the straightforward “rock-your-face-off” songs like “Get Out” and “Imaginary Enemy” to the softer, indie-rock appeal of its opening and closing cuts, “Strange Terrain” and the indisputable “Dyed in Wool.” When the move to release Violent Waves independently in 2012 resulted in their most polarizing recording to date (either their best or their worst, depending on who you ask), many fans remained curious as to what ground, if any, the band would cover next.

While Descensus does have more in common with 2007’s On Letting Go and Violent Waves, generally considered to be on the weaker end of the band’s discography, it successfully combines the best parts of both of these (still pretty good) albums and makes for the most cohesive Circa Survive record to date. Frontman Anthony Green made a note to call it their most aggressive album yet in pre-release interviews, and in that respect, it’s a surefire contender. Opener “Schema” is one of the heaviest songs the band has ever written, its chorus a wall of reverb-heavy guitars that shriek and wail over pummeling drums.

The majority of the album holds a steady, midtempo pace, a la Violent Waves, allowing Green’s grittier, worn vocals to soar throughout each track. The songs often linger over our, five, and in some cases, six minutes, which can either play to their advantage or disadvantage. “Child of the Desert” has its more traditional, pop-punk melody reworked after a blistering, rollercoaster of a bridge, while “Only the Sun” recalls the psychedelic tapping of On Letting Go. But Descensus truly hits its stride when risking brand new sounds and song structures. “Nesting Dolls” is an atmospheric triumph, beautifully looping around itself amidst Will Yip’s post-rock influenced production, and “Phantoms” carries the band in a unexpected, synth-led direction.

Descensus is a grower, demanding repeated listens that will not only make the album more memorable, but also showcase its most glaring weaknesses. Many of the songs don’t justify their runtime, the title track in particular dragging for almost nine minutes with the same, lazy, two-chord progression. Songs like “Quiet Down” and “Sovereign Circles” are pleasant listens, but after spinning the album repeatedly since its release date, it’s still difficult to recall their melodies. Descensus is undeniably a Circa Survive album, and a good one at that, but it’s likely to play an odd role when looking back on the band’s discography. We know how hard this band works and we’ve heard how strong their output can be (Blue Sky Noise in particular), so perhaps Descensus is the mid-life crisis that could eventually lead to a career-defining effort.