Critical Voices 2.0: Circulatory System’s Signal Morning

In terms of rock ‘n roll time, an eight-year break is an eternity. Unless a band spends eight years recording a masterpiece or nursing a killer reunion tour, chances are the rest of the music world has moved on by the time it resurfaces. Then again, Circulatory System (and most Elephant Six bands in general) seems to operate outside of traditional rock ‘n roll time continuum anyhow.

Formed by Will Cullen Hart in 2000 after his other main project, Olivia Tremor Control, decided to take a breather, Circulatory System stands as another loose conglomeration of Elephant Six buds. In 2001, the group released it’s eponymous debut—a colossal helping of psychedelic guitars, smart orchestration, and loads ‘o quirk—along with a “remix” of that album in the same year, but has been silent ever since.

So why has Hart waited until 2009 to post a follow-up? Well, the singer attributes the interruption to multiple sclerosis, a condition he was diagnosed with a few years back. The condition purportedly delayed the recording of their new album, Signal Morning, but also prompted the Olivia Tremor Control camp to start playing together again(!).

Given that lengthy gap, a lot of potential avenues for analyzing Signal Morning are somewhat skewed. For starters, Circulatory System isn’t trying to make a career out of this music—it sounds more like friends coming together to capture energy on tape to share it with like-minded friends and fans alike. With intentions like that, who cares if this record doesn’t “measure up” in any traditional sense? Hart also admits that the chronology of songwriting varies dramatically, with some of the initial demos dating as far back as 1993. So to compare Hart’s ideas circa 2001 to their 2009 iteration is somewhat baseless.

Keeping those qualifications in mind, let’s get to the music: At their core, Circulatory System and Signal Morning overlap heavily in terms of aesthetics. Hart’s distinctive voice is as alluring as ever, the album embraces lo-fi elements without glorifying them, and there’s a healthy mix of melodicism, abstraction, and hypnogogic reverie.

There’s more straight-up noise on Signal Morning [“This Morning (We Remembered Everything)”; “The Pelican Trust”], along with a decidedly more somber tone, but it’s just as charmingly piecemeal as its predecessor. Opener “Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant” and mid-disc jam “The Spinning Continuous” especially channel the sort of boundless vigor that typifies so many great Elephant Six recordings.

If the circumstances were a bit different though, it would be easier to say that Signal Morning is too unfocused, and somewhat lacking in new ideas from Hart. But the eight-year gap privileges the artist in ways it wouldn’t for others: It’s definitely long enough to justify a similar-sounding record (hey, it’s “new”), especially when the quality of that material is already of a high caliber. And as far as veteran Elephant Six material goes, maybe we should just be glad this exists before taking any cheap shots at it.

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