Flobots - The Circle in the Square
Record Label: Shanachie Records
Release Date: August 28, 2012
It made me laugh once to see the song “Handlebars” on a karaoke list one Saturday night some time ago. Not because I don’t think the song should be sung under the possible influence of alcohol in front of strangers who are probably expecting you to belt out some sort of Top 40 or mainstream rock hit, but because it helps to see a familiar name on the list. Flobots may have dropped off in popularity a little since then, but five years removed from the release of Fight with Tools we are given the band's second attempt to both progress and inspire with the properly titled The Circle in the Square. And while the mixture of social, political and personal messages are heatseeking in nature, musically the band’s funky, often gloomy vibe has uneven results – making this album a mixed bag of messages and musical landscapes that sadly ends up being filed as a disappointment.
The titular single suffers from a rough hook musically and lyrically, killing the mystified energy of opener “Flokovsky” despite a percussion-bolstered beat and a catchy enough melody. Call it a swing and a miss, but “Run (Run Run Run)” picks us back up with a grimy, yet oddly upbeat vibe that begs you to bob your head. That seems to be the story of this record musically – for every missed swing, Flobots seem to jump right back into the action with something twice as powerful. Where “On Loss and Having” seems to drown in its simply unfocused execution besides spitting some somewhat evil melodies, the dark bump of “Gonna Be Free” pounds like a strike to an anvil, bringing a less is more mindset to the table in an arguably much more successful execution.
But the success, at least in terms of the vibe, of this record lies in the versatility of the emotions they can summon despite the not as always visible shifts in instrumentation. “Stop the Apocalypse” is bouncy at times while still sounding ominous – and with good reason – while “Loneliness” seeps somber violins and a laid-back bass that creates a near-perfect match for the looping line of ‘Why don’t you tell ‘em about the loneliness?’. It’s one of the few times this album seems truly in sync with all of its constantly churning parts, a ballad of sorts in an album otherwise more lenient on mid-tempo marchers and upbeat calls to arms.
Yet while more prevalent in some spots than in others, the brooding, dark sounds of this disc fuel Flobots mouthpieces Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett through political (“The Circle”), personal (“The Rose and the Thistle”) and social (“#OccupyEarth”) inspirations. Again, the vocal contributions suffer a similar fate – a path of ups and downs that keep this album from truly soaring. “On Loss and Having” hinges on slightly sung vocals that simply don’t work, but its not really the band’s strong suit either. “Sides” is fueled enough though, with a punching pulse of percussion and an inspired melodic assault, that the lyrics and varying flows that play to and against the beat.
I wouldn’t say Flobots have lost it, as in terms of a message and showing conviction in that message, this is a band that has always succeeded in letting us know and feel what they have to say. But musically, The Circle in the Square is a bit too wobbly to stand up even amongst the rock acts channeling hip-hop a little less obviously. It’s a shame too, because the words sang, rapped and spoken have enough of a heart that they deserve to be listened to – even if it won’t propel the band to their once heightened popularity this time around.
I've been listening to this album all day today; and I must admit that I am slightly disappointed.
I am a huge Flobots fan and ensured that I got Circle in the Square as soon as it was released. Unfortunately, I didn't get the immediate head-bopping excitement I got listening to Fight with Tools for the first time.
The songs lack the optimism that was captured in earlier work by the band and, so far, this record just seems to be sombre and uninspiring.
Maybe my expectations were too high? Maybe by listening to them a few more times, the songs will grow on me? I really hope so.
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