Review: The Out_Circuit – Pierce the Empire with a Sound

Label: Lujo Records

Released: February 12, 2008

For this review, Chuck and I decided to collaborate. We both queued up the album at the same time and had a conversation about our thoughts. It came out more as the anatomy of a review, but the result was at least interesting. We’ll be trying this again (maybe every other week) to see how it goes.

The Out_Circuit is the work of Nathan Burke (ex-Frodus). The album includes guest appearances by a variety of artists, including Sean Ingram (Coalesce) and Dustin Kensrue (Thrice). If you don’t have the patience to read the whole back-and-forth of our discovery process, skip to the summary. And now, here’s what we had to say about The Out_Circuit’s Pierce the Empire with a Sound:

taotechuck: The thing I like about these guys is they seem to have a very unusual set of influences.

bob_vinyl: Yes… Fugazi and Eno. That’s eNo, not eMo.

taotechuck: The first track reminds me of Skinny Puppy, but then he goes into this Linkin Park part in the chorus. Linkin Park is a good band, as commercial pop-metal bands go, but the whole scream/sing thing was played out when Taking Back Sunday’s first album came out, and that’s been what… almost 10 years?

bob_vinyl: The Linkin Park sound doesn’t bother me, because it’s part of a larger whole. This is just one piece here, but it’s a whole album for Linkin Park. Out_Circuit has a lot going on. Like at the beginning of “Passchendaele” with the throbbing ambiance. I like the whisper vocals…it’s a nice contrast to “Come Out Shooting.”

taotechuck: I agree. The first four tracks show many different sides of Burke’s personality, yet they all sound like the same band. I’m torn on the vocals, though. He’s not a great singer, and drowning his vocals in reverb then burying them in the mix was annoying when all the crappy indie bands were doing it 15 years ago, and it’s still annoying.

bob_vinyl: I think he makes it work well, because at times it fits with the fluid nature and other times, it cuts through it.

taotechuck: The transitions between songs work well.

bob_vinyl: I agree and I think the album is better than individual songs.

taotechuck: The problem with the album, though, is the same problem that bands like Tool have. By the fourth or fifth song, you’ve pretty much heard all of the band’s tricks, and the songs become redundant.

bob_vinyl: There aren’t many bands that that isn’t true of, but if the tricks are good, I’m fine with a second and third look at them.

taotechuck: Sure, but a ninth or tenth look?

bob_vinyl: I didn’t feel like it was that redundant. The songs themselves move very subtly with layers moving in and out. You should like that, because it’s what good dance music does.

taotechuck: Good point. But good dance music does more than shift layers of sound. The tempos change, the keys change, the energy changes. The beauty of a good DJ set is that the DJ takes you on a journey. You build up, you climax, you recover, you chill out, and you start over.

bob_vinyl: The whole album is mellow, but it also finds ways to cut through that mellowness and it’s interesting to wait and listen for those things. I found it to be a very cool ride, but not like a roller coaster. “The Contender” has more ability to stand on its own than most of the others.

taotechuck: Dude, that’s totally some comment that you recorded on your little voice recorder. “This is bob_vinyl, today is February 6, I’m listening to out_circuit, and I find that it’s a good ride but not like a roller coaster. That’s a roger, Roger. We have clearance, Clarence.”

bob_vinyl: Actually, it’s not, but I understand why you suspect that. I haven’t been referring to my notes.

taotechuck: Wow. Spontaneous thinking. Look at the big brain on Bob.

bob_vinyl: I like how “The Contender” was harsh in and harsh out, but “The Hexagon” eased in, got a little uppity and then eased back out.

taotechuck: “The Hexagon” does stand on its own, which is especially surprising since it’s an instrumental.

bob_vinyl: Holy crap, it didn’t even occur to me that there were no lyrics. “The Fall of Las Vegas” has the alternating harsh and melodic vocals, but at least the melodic side isn’t whiny.

taotechuck: Do you have some kind of magic equalizer that lets you turn down the whiny?

bob_vinyl: I don’t think the vocals are whiny. Mopey perhaps, but not whiny.

taotechuck: No. I mope. Morrissey mopes. This is whiny.

bob_vinyl: The strings at the end seem a little disjointed.

taotechuck: Yes, they are a little disjointed. And now, with “We,” we’re back to the same sound as on “Passchendaele.”

bob_vinyl: I don’t know what you expect. Is he short on ideas or did he show his hand too soon? I have yet to get bored.

taotechuck: The guitar in “We” is another one of those little surprises you were talking about earlier, how if you are patient and listen, you hear something really nice.

bob_vinyl: Patience, young Skywalker. Or dogwalker, as the case may be.

taotechuck: This is definitely an album that requires patience.

bob_vinyl: But it rewards you for your patience.

taotechuck: It does. But do you know what I’m missing? This sounds like an album that was recorded by one guy, with help from some friends. And frankly, he’s not Eno. I don’t think his imagination or talent runs that deep. I’m missing the rewards that come when two or three people put their ideas together, and the cream rises to the top. This sounds like one guy’s ideas, with no checks or balances.

bob_vinyl: Well, not being Eno isn’t a very harsh dig, because Eno is the gold standard for this stuff, but I have come across the same thing before where it’s a one man show and I agree that it usually comes up short. It also has a tendency to not feel very organic, because there’s no life and no interaction, but this album does not suffer from that latter flaw at all.

taotechuck: No, it doesn’t. It feels very organic and alive. And I don’t expect him to be Eno. He has good ideas, but if he were more involved with someone else who has compatible but different good ideas, he could conjure up some magic. Like the vocal collaboration on “Across the Light.” That’s the strongest vocal performance on the album, and it’s where he had someone else to complement him.

bob_vinyl: I’d rephrase to say more magic, because I think there’s definitely magic. There were a lot of people involved here, but I don’t know how deeply. I think it was performances, but it sounds as if you’re looking for collaboration in the writing?

taotechuck: Yes. I think the collaborative performances are why the album doesn’t feel lifeless and synthetic. But the writing is very monotonous. The chord progressions are all very similar, the key signatures are all similar, the tempos feel very close… his songwriting is decent, but it’s not strong enough to carry an entire album.

bob_vinyl: I’m not with you. I think the songs are strong enough that I stay interested and want to return. That doesn’t mean that more collaboration wouldn’t help, but I don’t think it’s as necessary as you seem to.

taotechuck: The child’s voice on “Scarlet” gave me chills the first time I heard it.

bob_vinyl: Wow. That’s cool. That’s a big deal.

taotechuck: I wonder if this is his kid.

bob_vinyl: That’s interesting. Maybe. It’s well done if you even ask that.

taotechuck: If this had been an EP that went “Come Out Shooting,” “We,” “Across the Light,” “The Contender,” and “Scarlet,” I think it would’ve been bordering on great, maybe a 9/10. As it is, I’d probably give it a 6. There are some weak points, and “The Fall of Las Vegas” should’ve been cut completely, but the strong songs make up for the weak ones.

bob_vinyl: I loved it and I don’t share your reservations. I’m giving it an 8/10.

taotechuck: One other thing. I hate what they did on the packaging, with the lyrics printed in a blue/gray text on a black background.

bob_vinyl: I agree. I tried to look at the lyrics and just gave up.

taotechuck: If you’re going to put lyrics in the notes, especially for an album where the lyrics are treated more as part of the overall sound than they are words to be understood, at least make them legible. If you want form over function, then don’t include the words. This is the kind of graphic design that really irritates me.

bob_vinyl: The cover itself is well done, so the lyrics thing is a surprise.

Summary: Overall, I think we both thought Pierce the Empire with a Sound had a good bit to offer. If there was a weakness we could agree on, it’s that the album may have benefited from more collaboration in the early stages of its development. Nonetheless, I found it to be a compelling ride through an ambient, post-hardcore soundscape. Chuck felt there was too much repetition down the stretch that distracted him from the album’s truly great moments. Chuck found the vocals to be grating at times whereas I saw them as one of the many ways Burke found to create harshness in an overall fluid album. We both agreed that the album, being largely the work of one person, was still able to be very organic and while it took patience, it did provide a return on that investment.

Rating: 8/10 (Bob); 6/10 (Chuck)


About bobvinyl

bobvinyl, writer and co-editor of No Song is an Island, founded its predecessor, Rock and Roll and Meandering Nonsense (whose archives are found here), in 2005 and served as editor and principal contributor until it went on hiatus in 2010. He has also been published in AMP and Loud Fast Rules! (in print) as well as Glide and FensePost on the web. He has been an avid record collector since he was seven years old and enjoys sharing his love of music from the common to the esoteric.

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