Any concerns Circa Survive have bowed to the major-label machine and produced an overtly glossy, pandering record in their big league debut are washed away with Blue Sky Noise, their first record for Atlantic, and a completely logical and enjoyable progression at that from their time on indie Equal Vision.
Frontman Anthony Green's ethereal voice continues to permeate swirling walls of guitar-driven sound, with choruses pounding through without exerting so much effort it sounds forced. Even in Blue Sky Noise's single-ready front half, the delivery is smooth and effervescent, with Green's voice loose and invigorated--this is where the band fully replicate their wild live performances. Voice and guitar-heavy lead single "Get Out" is immediate yet lasting, while "I Felt Free" is one of the album's most beautifully understated moments; despite the punctual simplicity of Green's words on the latter's chorus ("I fell apart in your arms for the last time / and I felt free / to do what I want, / because of the things you told me"), it's one of the most heartbreaking moments in the band's catalog. Its follower, "Imaginary Enemy," is a pure bundle of consistent kinetic energy.
If that warm, soaring melodic first half is prime for play on Alt Nation, then it's the second half where the band wield its colder and more careful intricacies. "Fever Dreams" is a sneering, heady adventure, with Green self-exploring mistakes ("Either way I'm going to hell") while guitarists Colin Frangicetto and Brendan Ekstrom surround him with an array of clipped riffs, pedal-induced psychosis and furious acoustic strumming. The introductorily twangy "Spirit of the Stairwell" is acoustic-driven all through, but its soundscape is magnificently opulent (sharp piano clinks; subtle post-rock guitar sprawls; light female vocal dalliances), while Green's froggy delivery reverberates off its foundation. Penultimate track "Compendium" is merely an instrumental interlude, but it works.
If earlier records found the band inhabiting some sort of space that could be vaguely categorized as dreamy post-hardcore, then Blue Sky Noise is where they tip the scales between atmospheric brands of alternative and indie rock. But the change doesn't feel all that far-fetched, or even that palpable. Granted, the band have gotten even better at masking their influences; while 2005's Juturna often sounded like the logical extension of the direction This Day Forward--two members' former band--was taking, and the spacey guitar tones on 2007's On Letting Go reeked of an influence from Cave In's Antenna, Circa have forged an even more unique identity this time around.
Producer David Bottrill made a name over the past three decades producing and engineering records for the likes of Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and Tool. Unless you count some mixing work on Coheed and Cambria's 2005 opus, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, it's only recently that he's begun to work with acts that larger music rags would likely classify as "emo." Mind you, between Moneen's 2009 effort, The World I Want to Leave Behind, and now Circa, it's the respectable lot, at least. But where Bottrill seemed to falter a little bit with that Moneen record, fracturing the band's potent energy in favor of an overly polished, glassy touch, here it complements Circa perfectly, with guitars steadily yearning and leaving a place for mixer Rich Costey (Brand New, Mastodon, Muse) to push Green's strengths to the forefront of the mix without drowning out the rest of his band.
Despite a new home and producer, Circa Survive is by and large the same band on Blue Sky Noise, and it's as strong as one as they've ever been.