If the eponymous debut from Circulatory System looks like an Olivia Tremor Control CD, it’s because it almost is. The first thing you might notice is the William Hart cover painting that fuses the recognizable Olivia Tremor Control mountain/beam of light/celestial crown motif from Dusk at Cubist Castle with the delirious color flag creatures of Black Foliage.
But this is not an Olivia Tremor Control CD — this is a new band, and although the only major difference in personnel between this and OTC’s Black Foliage of two years ago is the absence of Bill Doss, it’s a pretty important one. While we have the familiar Hart drugged-march rhythms, minor key melodies, and even production signatures, this is a different band without Doss’ bright and optimistic pop songs. While Olivia Tremor Control was euphoric in its vacillations between Doss’ sunshine pop and Hart’s shadowy tendencies, the music on this disc is dark and focused.
Lyrics on Circulatory System succeed thanks to their inventive bizarreness, such as the emphatic chorus command “Ride the waves of bark and light”, and some, such as “We’re sending photographs of days to come”, can spark the imagination with just a few words. But others are less successful, sometimes repetitive and sometimes meandering.
These gripes about the lyrics aside, the disc sounds like a musical children’s book for adults. Hart’s mystical sci-fi leanings gain sympathy through their tethering to a darkly textured orchestration that rises and falls throughout the CD. And it’s a rich and unusual orchestra, equally adept at great weight, as in “Yesterday’s World”, and great delicacy, as in “Now”.
“Yesterday’s World” is unlike anything we’ve previously heard from Olivia Tremor Control, but it’s not completely foreign to that sound either. It’s a very heavy and driving mid-tempo song with rolling drums and massive fuzzed-out bass and guitar. It’s one of the more conventional songs on the record, with sonic debts to Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?. Considering how experimental much of this CD can be, even the more conventional pieces are pretty unusual. “Yesterday’s World”, for all its weight, features a clarinet section (courtesy of John Fernandes), which doesn’t sound at all out of place.
No other songs on the disc come close to matching the intensity of “Yesterday’s World”, but the emphatic “Waves of Bark and Light” and the stately “Days to Come (In Photographs)” come close. “Days to Come (In Photographs)” wouldn’t be out of place on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass for its weight of production and tunefulness. In fact, the famous album is not a bad comparison for the more directly rocking tunes on this disc, but even in those cases Circulatory System cuts its own trail.
Another highlight is “Diary of Wood”, which has what sounds like a chorus of bovines, possibly created by Darren Cook’s double bass. “The Pillow” is a catchy tune you could imagine hearing on ’70s AM radio replete with bells and 12-string guitar hook, and a dreamy repetitive chorus that recalls post-Beatles John Lennon. In “Stars” we are confronted with what might be termed ancient psychedelic circus music, and “A Peek” is built on a buzzing drone, hand drums, and eerie fiddle melodies.
As thick and heavily textured as Circulatory System can be, it is ultimately warm and inviting, and offers an embarrassment of sonic riches. There’s so much music here that great ideas and hummable melodies appear and disappear in the mix without repeating, only to be replaced with another tuneful stroke. The Zombie-like background vocals at the end of “Symbols and Maps” are gone as soon as they’re established, and the Harrison-esque slide guitar in the same song makes its memorable melodic commentary in the first verse and doesn’t repeat in the second. Some songs zip by, make a quick case, and are gone, such as the brilliant “Prehistoric”, which clocks in at one minute, twenty-one seconds and has enough great ideas to last three times as long. It segues abruptly into “Diary of Wood” and its distinct sounds, rhythms, and melodies aren’t heard from again.
As the tracks on Circulatory System are taken in one by one, influences emerge, such as the ones mentioned above. But in order to identify them one has to reach fairly far out of Circulatory System’s musical atmosphere. Everything that’s absorbed tends to take on the broader hue of the music, resulting in a familiar yet alien listening experience, and this is one of the CD’s strengths. It is also a very giving music — Circulatory System continues to reveal more at each listen and seems like it just may be inexhaustible.