Circle Takes the Square embarked on a considerably larger tour recently, and as anyone who's been following the band since their arguably classic 2004 debut As the Roots Undo knows, that is an incredibly rare thing. That they also brought out screamo "supergroup" United Nations was just bonus icing on this cake stored in a freezer on lockdown for years.
After local opener VYGR, UN were up. The last time I saw them was on an absurd lineup in an equally absurdly small venue: with the Hope Conspiracy, Blacklisted, and Mother of Mercy at the Cake Shop in lower Manhattan in January 2010. But seeing them in the wider-open spaces of the half-full Middle East (downstairs) venue in Cambridge, MA, was also satisfactory. It gave the kids in Glassjaw shirts up front far more room to spastically fingerpoint along. The band's ever-changing cast currently includes standby frontman Geoff Rickly, the rhythm section from Pianos Become the Teeth (bassist Zac Sewell and drummer David Haik), guitarist Jonah Bayer (who played in the pretty good post-hardcore act the Lovekill and does some freelance rock journo stuff), and guitarist Lukas Previn (Acid Tiger, toured with Thursday some too). It's a solid unit. The band tore through their usual shard-ridden, screamy hardcore tightly and steadfastly, with Rickly basically using the same sort of intense and theatrical stage presence he had with Thursday. As much as I enjoy them, differentiating their songs is occasionally difficult, but it seems like they played, among others: "Filmed in Front of a Live Studio Audience," "Fuck the Future" (from their Illegal UN tape EP, quietly released early this year), "No Sympathy for a Sinking Ship," "Serious Business" (new), "Never Mind the Bombings, Here's Your Six Figures," and "UN vs. UN" (also new?), in that order. Rickly said they'll have a new album of sorts out in April 2014, and if Wikipedia's anything reliable to go off of, it seems like it'll be called The Dark Side of the UN. It also seems like you can expect more of the same grinding, well-done nailgun hardcore on it with perhaps a pounding buildup here or there.
Rapper B. Dolan was next. It wasn't terribly surprising that Circle Takes the Square would take a hip-hop artist out on tour, given that their association/appreciation for the genre transparently dates as far back as that remixed bonus track on their reissued 2002 self-titled EP. At worst, it broke up the potential hours-long monotony of searing, arty hardcore. At best, it brought out a friendly dude that knew how to engage an audience mostly foreign to him (reminding me of P.O.S. on Minus the Bear's 2005 tour) with easy hooks, a clear and deliberate delivery, honest banter and a cacophonous backing beat of live band rhythms and pre-programmed stuff. It's a surprisingly abrasive backdrop that I'm not sure would translate as well on record, but is definitely entertaining and engaging enough live. Standouts included "Which Side Are You On?" and a surprise appearance by Sage Francis for "2BAD."
I'd only seen Circle Takes the Square twice before: a pretty insane, messy, and very up-front-and-personal set at the old Knitting Factory's Old Office (also in lower Manhattan, if I remember correctly) in 2004; and their set at The Fest 2007, where they created a impressively hellish atmosphere of fury. This set had neither the writhing intimacy of the former, nor the haunting aura of the latter, but it was a nonetheless powerful and physically exhausting experience with all the demonic and overtly serious tones of the band's studio output. The band's long-awaited 2012 full-length, Decompositions: Volume Number One, is just an incredibly dense, musically layered mix of punk rock offshoots (post-metal, techy grindcore, crust, and screamo of course), and that's just how it comes off live: harder to penetrate than concrete, but a leaden load that can be occasionally mesmerizing. That felt like the majority of the trio's nearly hour-and-a-half-long set this night (kicked off by rumbling Decompositions opener "Enter by the Narrow Gates", and occasionally helped by a pre-programmed vocal or guitar melody, but nothing too extensive), but they actually played almost all of Roots (its entire first half, "Kill the Switch", and legitimate encore "Non Objective Portrait of Karma"), with ravenous response from the crowd, who howled along, some climbing on each other occasionally (much to the chagrin of security) or oddly, violently shoving each other as if trying to up the stakes on kid'n'play push-mosh. Decompositions is a smart and impossibly intricate, detailed effort, but this set definitely benefited from the empowering dynamics of Roots material, which helped make for a rewarding set many don't get to see from one of the more thoughtful and all-encompassing acts to come from a hardcore subscene already known for its art school ways.