Circuline is a relatively new arrival to the prog scene. Born out of the ashes of Downing Grey (a progressive rock cover band), the three founding members (Andrew Colyer, Darin Brannon, and Bill Shannon) sought to write original, creative music, building upon the foundation they had built by covering the classics. They developed a sound that resembles classic prog a la ELP/Genesis/Yes, but with a few modern updates. Their first release, Return, was met with positive press, earning them a support spot for prog veterans Glass Hammer on their North American tour.
Their follow up, Counterpoint, shows a noticeable improvement on several levels. While Circuline draws a lot sonically from their 70s idols, they also draw from more modern, heavier sounds (though not quite enough to turn off fans of 70s and 80s prog). The band sounds and feels more comfortable, and the compositions are more targeted and focused. This is well exemplified by songs like “Who I Am”. This song is an excellent showcase of what Circuline has to offer. Clocking at 8 minutes (long in the pop world, but just right in the prog world), the song features complex and bombastic instrumental passages, introspective lyrics, and a catchy chorus that will easily lodge itself in your brain and stick around for days.
One of the smartest choices that Circuline made early on was to feature 2 very skilled and theatrical lead vocalists, Billy Spillane and Natalie Brown. In their press releases, they use the title “cinematic prog rock”, which I think is an accurate assessment of their sound, and I think that the title is solidified by the vocals. Spillane has a baritenor range, and Brown has a very strong alto range, so they often sing the same pitches, but with different vocal timbres (with Spillane singing at the top of his range and Brown at the lower end of her range). They both sing with a lot of passion and expression, and in their live performances and videos, you can easily tell that both of them come from a theater background. This, to me, is one of their most defining characteristics and strongest attributes of Circline. Having 2 vocalists is unusual, and could potentially be a distraction, but I think it makes the band capable of some really unique and special things. Also, I am a big fan of vocal harmonies and interesting vocal arrangements, and the blend of Spillane, Brown, and keyboardist Andrew Colyer is very pleasing to the ear and balanced.
This is not to say that the instrumentation isn’t strong. The skill of the musicians on this album is evident from the first song. Andrew Colyer’s keyboard work throughout the album is exceptional (the last half of “Summit” reminds me of 70’s ELP). The bass and drums are highly complementary, as exemplified by the opening instrumental track, “New Day”, which is slightly reminiscent of “The New Math” from supergroup OSI’s debut release. The guitar work is excellent, and this is partly because there is a diverse sonic palate that Circuline draws from. There are a total of 7 guest guitarists that provide solos throughout the album. Players range from The Fringe’s Randy McStine to Stanley Whitaker (of Happy the Man). One of my favorite guitar solos on the album is from the very accessible and melodic song “Forbidden Planet”, provided by Alek Darson from Fright Pig.
Circuline was recognized in last year’s Progressive Music Awards in the Limelight category, and it is clear to see why. Good progressive rock is a perfect mixture of certain key elements. Almost all progressive rock bands feature musicians with above-average technical ability, with ambitious visions to make epic, unique, daring compositions. But good progressive rock follows the same rules as any music, really:the songwriting has to feel intentional and strong, there has to be some hook, whether instrumental or vocal, and finally, the vocals have to be strong, even if they are unique. And Circuline is doing quite well in each of these categories. Counterpoint is a very solid sophomore effort, but I think even better things are in store for this group of artists.