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Circles by Unwed Sailor (Review)

So when I say I had no idea what to expect when I slipped Circles into the player, I really mean that.
Circles, Unwed Sailor

I honestly had no idea what to expect with this one. I mean, I expected instrumental music, but that was about it. You see, I’d really lost track of Unwed Sailor over the years, which is sad, because they’d been such a regular, consistent part of my listening routine. Whenever I ventured down to the Cornerstone Festival, it was an absolute must that I see them perform at least two or three times.

I also spent many days relaxing and reminiscing to such releases as the Firecracker EP and The Faithful Anchor. However, after The Marionette And The Music Box, which I loved in concept and for the artwork but ultimately found to be a little too light and pretty for its own good, I lost track of the band.

Sure, I caught a performance here and there, but in all seriousness, it’s been a solid 3 years since Unwed Sailor were really on my radar. However, in my defense, the band seemed to have been on extended hiatus. Rumblings of new material would occasionally surface, and the occasional tour would be announced, but then bandleader Johnathon Ford would be seen on tour with one of the 2 bajillion other bands he plays in, and all bets were off once more.

So when I say I had no idea what to expect when I slipped Circles into the player, I really mean that. Even so, I’d have to say I was surprised. Gone are the concise, bass-driven instrumentals of the earlier albums. In their place are two long, meandering compositions that sound so much like a different band, it’s tempting to wonder why they’re even put under the Unwed Sailor moniker. And yet I’m glad they are, because it points towards some interesting new territory for the band.

The first track, “Mist,” more than lives up to its title, with hazy, Verve-like clouds of feedback drifting throughout the song, slowly gathering mass before signaling the transition into the second track, “Mesa.” However, it takes a solid six or seven minutes for them to even begin to appear, mirage-like and shimmering. Until then, the song is much sparser and more rhythmic in nature. Various ethnic drums play sparsely between shimmering pools of e-bowed guitar, creating a ritualistic atmosphere not unlike the music of ethno-ambient artists such as O Yuki Conjugate and Voice Of Eye (two artists I thought I’d never mention in conjunction with Unwed Sailor).

“Mist” ends with the song’s feedback building up to a near-critical mass, finally imploding and resulting in “Mesa,” which is more song-like and structured. But even then, it’s much looser and freer than previous Unwed Sailor material. Rather, it feels more akin to the Circle of Birds side-project that Unwed Sailor was involved in back in 2002 (and which, hopefully, will release more music someday). Unlike previous Unwed Sailor tracks, “Mesa” isn’t nearly as bass-centric. While his playing is as deft as ever, Ford seems to take a step or two back, allowing the other musicians — Dan Burton, Phillip Blackwell (Questions in Dialect), Matt Griffin (Early Day Miners) — to breathe a little and color the song a bit more. This is especially true of Burton’s guitar.

Some might miss the heavier, more solid and substantial sound that Unwed Sailor’s earlier material possessed. However, I find this softer, more fluid sound interesting. Unwed Sailor’s music has always had a reflective element to it, and this softer, more atmospheric sound seems to fit that better. However, I think we’ll have a better idea just how this new sound words for the band when their upcoming full-length, The White Ox, is released.

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