Circles‘ textured approach to prog metal recalls the moodiness and energy of Fates Warning within the context of a post-djent landscape where six-string guitars and straight rhythms are seen as passé. Yet success stirs in their artful and sensitive exploration of space, whether they’re marching through angular hardcore, tip-toeing across delicate electronics, or bobbing in subtle waves. Like many modern, progressive-leaning rock/metal bands, they bring elements of Periphery-worship on their journey but deploy them so intelligently that at times The Last One becomes greater than its individual components. Yet it’s just those components that ultimately make the album so difficult to enjoy.
Songcraft is The Last One‘s greatest strength, showcasing the band’s ability to capture a mood or capitalize on a melody while avoiding the distractions of self-indulgence. “Dream Sequence” slants rough riffs towards each other, meeting just above a jazzy lull, creating a structure charged with energy, while “Renegade” sees lead singer Ben Rechter lead the song through a gradual crescendo. “Breaker” pits a stripped-down verse against an earworm chorus that feels particularly close to a song Fates Warning would have written had they begun their career thirty years later. Even at its greatest djentiness, the song — just like the album — finds a balance that, though precarious, recovers quickly enough to save the band. “Renegade,” for instance, wisely ushers away its most melodramatic material as soon as it’s set the stage.
Despite these strengths, The Last One doesn’t present much of a handhold to the listeners who are tired — were tired long ago — of the djent style. The most offensive aspects of the style are dialed down but not absent, and to appreciate the album’s surprising quality, one has to listen past the tropes. A full spin is a lot to ask of many and, though the band’s skill and command of the material never falters, no song on The Last One sticks out as a must-hear for skeptics. When listening, I’m torn between my general distaste for the band’s aesthetics and my genuine enjoyment of the material. The Last One is a frustrating record because it really is better than it appears to be, yet it insists on keeping up that appearance.
Little pieces of prog pop out of the matrix when digging through the performances in The Last One and it’s the quality of those performances that finally pushed me off the fence. Beneath bass lines and even a few guitar licks ripped straight from the seashell-encrusted Floridian knick-knack shop, Drummer David Hunter pulls off some tasteful hi-hat work and creative patterns in both “The Messenger” and “Arrival.” It almost makes me forgive him for that God-awful cover art. It just goes to show that when the band relies on their chops rather than their production, these songs get better and better. Closer “Alone With Ghosts” put me off immediately with a clinical and cold introduction, but when the drumming begins and the band falls into a groove, it’s the album’s best moment — a powerful emotional prelude to the album’s climax.
The Last One wiggles back and forth over the line that separates quality modern metal from the thoughtless djent that has all but replaced such a thing since the late 2000s. When listening for the worst of djent tropes — whiny singers, octave-based riffs, wandering melodies — you’ll find them. But you’ll also find skill, songcraft, and restraint in equal measure. The mixture makes The Last One one of the most difficult albums I’ve ever had to pass judgment on. It eschews extremity while embracing some of the most offensive tropes of modern metal, but proves that with careful construction there is still something to be made of the style.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist | Wildthing Records
Websites: circles.bandcamp.com | circles.band | facebook.com/circles
Releases Worldwide: August 31, 2018