Caspian Provides the Antidote

Every once in a great while, a band comes along that composes the original motion picture soundtrack for your life. Their music makes you see your life anew, as if you’re finally catching a glimpse, for the first time, of the world as it was truly meant to be seen.

That band, for me, is Caspian. I’ve stood in awe of them for 10 years, and my admiration grows deeper with every album they put out into the world. Their last release, On Circles, is a towering achievement that conjures up a deeply intense and deeply reassuring vision of the world. A vision we badly need in these days when we feel disoriented and beaten down on a daily basis.

“Wildblood” starts things off with an open-throated, liberating, and barbaric yawp that would have made Walt Whitman proud. (Assuming, of course, that he was a fan of instrumental rock.) Rarely have a flute and a saxophone been deployed in the service of such a massive, pummeling rock opus.

That imposing opener leads smoothly into “Flowers of Light,” the sun-drenched, hope-soaked anthem we had no idea we would so desperately need when the album was released in January. But here in May, the song is a beacon of light emanating from a strangely distant realm, beckoning us to somehow resuscitate our faded hope while the world reels and staggers backward.

Next up is “Nostalgist,” a wistful foray into emo-rock that lacks any trace of self-pity. It reveals once again — this time with the rare addition of vocals — the bruised, splattered hearts that the Caspian boys have always displayed without ego or irony on their short black sleeves.

Then, 4 tracks deep, Caspian turns the universe inside out. They patiently bury their best song — not only of this album but of their entire gem-packed career — halfway through the tracklist. Despite being written prior to 2020, “Division Blues” somehow feels like it was dreamed up specifically for this unthinkable moment in time. It is bruised and battered, covered in blisters and blood. It bears the weary weight of the world. And yet it positively aches with life, with tenacity, with the inextinguishable spark of survival.

Musically, “Division Blues” is the most thrilling and innovative thing Caspian has ever written, filled with jaw-dropping guitar work, mind-bending time signatures that shift repeatedly, and truly ear-popping sound design. I’ve listened to the song close to 50 times and it still feels like I’m discovering it each time. I couldn’t say it any better than Benjamin Daniel did on Twitter: “The last minute of ‘Division Blues’ sounds like the soundtrack to the most important moment of my life.” I will add without exaggeration that it is one of the most breathtaking, overwhelming songs I’ve heard in my life.

If the first half of the album ends with a mind-expanding requiem for our collective innocence, the second half begins with a rebirth. “Onsra” is a delightful electronic confection that sounds like nothing Caspian has done before. Its palette recalls Digital Ash-era Bright Eyes but gradually ascends to a cresting wave of sound in the final minute that only a band with matchless rock chops (and no fewer than 4 guitars) could manage to construct.

Speaking of rock chops, the next song brings the straight-up heat. Caspian always throws a few sticks of kerosene-soaked dynamite into each album, and On Circles is no exception. “Collapser” wastes no time melting your face with its punishing snarl. It’s satisfying to see Caspian bring the full musculature of their guitars to bear on a song unburdened by sentiment or mercy. Pure adrenaline, pure catharsis.

Right on its heels is “Ishmael,” which feels like a resonant coming-of-age story with a philosophical bent. It starts with a kind of faltering adolescence, conveyed by the quavering sounds of a digitally altered cello. Then it gradually builds in confidence, adding guitars to the mix, one at a time, followed at last by drums halfway through the 8-minute runtime. Each ensuing minute brings a new layer of clarity and propulsive momentum, with expanding time signatures that mark the beginning of each new chapter of evolving consciousness. By the end, it feels that you’ve somehow witnessed the hatching of a soul into the world. “Ishmael” is vintage Caspian, brandishing its heart with disarming earnestness.

Then the album concludes in the most unexpected way possible. “Circles On Circles” is a gorgeous wisp of an acoustic ballad, anchored by an exceedingly rare vocal turn by co-lead guitarist Philip Jamieson. The fluttery finger-picking by virtuoso Erin Burke-Moran evokes the work another guitar master, Mark Kozelek. There is no epic build, no crashing payoff. Just tender vocals, evocative harmony, haunting lyrics, and some of the most aching and delicate guitar work Caspian has ever recorded.

On Circles begins with a wild-blooded howl and concludes with a gentle reverie reminding us in its final bars that “the shadow remains.” But despite that ever-present shadow, everything that fills in the circle of the album manages to ennoble the listener and elucidate the darkened corners of existence.

And this feat is no surprise to those of us who have long loved Caspian. Because even beyond being bona fide masters of soaring and searing guitar rock, they are above all else purveyors of clarity.

And clarity is, above all else, what the world needs right now.


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