Circle Takes the Square is/was/are the best hardcore band to hit the scene in this decade. As anyone who knows me knows, my extensive bitch-fest that is the anti-defamation of Emo as a genre starts and ends with bands like Circle Takes the Square and their contemporaries, Saetia and Hot Cross, among many others (Husker Du, Rites of Spring, Sunny Day Real Estate, etc.). Rarely will you ever hear me give an examples list to someone with whom I am defending the genre as a whole that fails to mention CTTS, as I believe that they are some of the only blood still flowing in an archaic genre.
But this post is not a platform for me to discuss the various merits of Ten Grand, or to discuss how much ass Billy Werner kicks. This is the story of, far and away, the most sweepingly beautiful albums I’ve ever heard. And what’s more, there’s a lot of screaming involved. And some chanting.
Because I doubt you are familiar with the band, a little history: Circle Takes the Square is the collective of Drew Speziale and Kathy Coppola, as well as a few other musicians who have revolved through the band since they began life. They are from Savannah, GA, and put out their first two songs in a split 7″ entitled Pyramids in Cloth, with Virginia band Pg.99, who are much better than you are. They released a self-titled EP, then released the album in question, As The Roots Undo, and have been making a new album called Ritual of Names since approximately 2007. Nothing else is known, other than the fact that the first song from the album is, without a doubt, immense. But this is also not a platform for me to pimp this band into the ground as I have since I first listened to it back when it was first released in 2004. What about the album?
As The Roots Undo starts with ambient room static and a disembodied whistling. After a few seconds, voices begin, chanting, low, “Rejoice, rejoice”. The chants flood into “Same Shade as Concrete, kicked off by Drew’s clarion call: “Rejoice, rejoice a NOBLE BIRTH!” The shout makes its way into dueling male/female vocals/screaming on behalf of Drew and Kathy, zig-zagging their way through the dense distortion and war drums. “A prince is born/behold the birth of violence/beast of fang and feather/cry for our concrete rapture,” they scream. The song’s speed breaks and Drew steps in to the hush: Shaper stop the music/Halt the harp strings whose chords confuse our histories with textures/With the disheartened chorus/Of a hymnal whose choir is the conviction of the starving”. Everything crashes back in, faster, harder, until it breaks again for the muttered hymnal, amidst arpeggiated guitars and break beats: “Wade, in the water, wade, in the water child.” Everything grows as Kathy chants “LET THE FLOOD SWELL! LET THE FLOOD SWELL!” bolstered by Drew’s howls, “The faithful say it’s beautiful/It’s God’s will, let the flood swell!” Everything begins to crack as the end of the song looms. For the first time in the song, they scream in unison: “There’s so much hope buried underneath tragedy/It’s the same shade as concrete/Let the flood swell!” and everything goes silent, save for a small drum beat.
As The Roots Undo‘s only misstep is the constant break in flow for a minor emotional breakdown of sorts. Almost every song comes to a complete shift for Drew or Kathy’s deliverance of each of the album’s most beautiful lyrics. “Gravity doesn’t grant me the privilege of failure my bough never breaks/I don’t stumble into anything,” his voice on fire in the next song, “Crow Quill.” “So I climb and I carve my initials in the bark/With that feather I found/But its all so contrived/My genes didn’t bless me with the foresight of a sage/ but I know how this will end/In apologies and ink on the page!” Poetry flows forth from the screams and howls in the eight songs of Roots. “All I ever asked was for a clean break!” Drew bellows halfway through “In the Nervous Light of Sunday,” “In the first nervous light of the day/collecting the novels whose scribes sought to keep me contained.”
As The Roots Undo serves as a sonic record of what happens when a group of people look upon the hardcore scene and realize that they can do it better. Its influence is not yet felt, as it as seen as a hardcore album for beginners, but the production values and the sonic landscapes are far removed from the band’s contemporaries, such as Ampere and split-mates Pg.99. While other bands seek to do what they do in only 7 seconds, the beauty in the music of Circle Takes the Square is that they are not above, for lack of a better term, prog rock. Only 25 seconds of the five-minute semi-ambient track features the trademarks of the genre, but are then replace by a disconnected interview and instrumental wanderings. “So brave in the face of all those roots that ruin/to stand so tall when in fact in ruins/To face that corner of the box and dive in/just the sound alone of its humble breath,” they sing lowly under the tribal drumbeats of Jay Wynne’s nimble hands. Things give way to a muddy makeshift guitar solo, and everything gels together, with the voices chanting yet again: “A murmur from the ruins echoes softly as the roots undo, and the branch becomes…”
Once the chants subside, the album’s sweeping centerpiece begins. At least three minutes (half the running time) of “Non-Objective Portrait of Karma” are comprised of ambient sounds layered and layered over the stream-of-consciousness guitar dance. More than halfway through, amidst voices whispering so delicately they can’t be made out (“Light as a feather, stiff as a stone”) Drew speaks: “Ignorance is bliss, no wise woman’s failed to mention, and surely some koan suggests neglect leads to perfection.” His timbre grows more frantic, “A knife of relief from all the petty insight, and finally I’ll sleep! AND I’LL SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT!” and we’re off. “Portrait of Karma” demonstrates the sheer songwriting prowess of the band as a unit, and to pull many lyrics from this song wouldn’t do any of it justice. (Lyrics can be found here)
The same holds true for “Kill The Switch,” the album’s longest song, clocking in at over 9 minutes long. However, rather than following the same path as “Portrait of Karma,” where you have a three-and-a-half-minute hallway, in “Kill The Switch,” all the time you get to prepare is the span of cymbal fade, before the assault begins. For nine minutes, the screams flood, in torrents, their throats bleeding with intent. There are moments where things stop for the band’s trademark noodling, but these are by no means enough to recover from the flood. “Sometimes to realize you have to lose track of sight blurring my vision makes it clear the tiny moving parts make up the whole,” Drew muses, and it proves true to the vision of the album. With As The Roots Undo, the concept of the “song” goes out the window, with everything flowing into everything else, as a river of emotion. “Tell me, who wouldn’t give their lives for such a soapbox to die behind?/Life is lonely, lonely anonymity/In the space of a smile, I find sleep,” he coos amidst feedback. The few moments where the song does break speed do nothing to ruin the flow of the lyrical out pour. Again, to break up the lyrics would be detrimental to the song as a whole, so I provide the lyrics to “Kill the Switch” here.
The progressive introduction of “Non-Objective Portrait of Karma” finds us again in the final track, “A Crater to Cough In,” longer and richer, but with a payoff just as great. The tempest slowly roars into life, and once the swell has found its break, Drew begins the end: “This path that we walk upon is the collection of points that the rain has drawn. The rhythm section of the storm.” “A Crater” almost rewards the journey that the listener has embarked on over the long, long course of the album, and displays how much the band has grown and swelled throughout it. The song proper is a thrashing beast, and every last moment reeks of a beast screaming for life, and the lyrics give it away. Drew and Kathy ramble about their deaths in metaphors and grandiose musings, ending the album with just as much rejoicing as when we began: “Only the most sacred crater will suit my burial, only the most sacred choir performs this ritual dirge/Perfectly imperfect, like a storm/Rejoice rejoice, the pawprints lead us gently
By our mane dragged and bound to our grave by our mane/to the grave dragged and bound to the tomb by the scavenger’s tooth!”
Once “A Crater” is finished, a quiet guitar enters, playing the same tune that was whistled in the “Intro” 45 minutes prior, bookending everything flawlessly. The booklet for the album states: “In a nutshell the concept behind the songs was to document the different points on a path to self-realization. In our interpretation of this journey, the wanderer ends up essentially in the same place that he or she began, if not humbled and even more overwhelmed.” This shines brightly in the album, showing the beautiful path of life and circling right back around, comfortable in the newly found knowledge, and glad to be right back home again. As The Roots Undo stands on the foreground of the hardcore scene, blending the raw power bands like Saetia always did, but with a wealth of philosophy to back up the emotion that is being conveyed. And yes, this album does stray from my normal path of music discussed here, but I feel that Roots holds fast as a beautiful statement about life and death and everything in between, in a way that’s a little less conventional, in the only way the Georgian troupe knew how to: with extreme force.