Traveling Circle, Escape from Black Cloud: Bouncing from Time

Brooklynite trio Traveling Circle made their debut on Nasoni Records with Handmade House in 2010. It was a fascinating listen (review here) for a number of reasons, chiefly its buzzsaw fuzz, falsetto vocals and displayed affection for late ‘60s psych-pop. On their follow-up, Escape from Black Cloud, the space-minded unit of guitarist/vocalist Dylan Maiden, bassist/backing vocalist/electric pianist Charlie Freeman and drummer Josh Schultz expand the formula a bit, keeping the soulful elements in play while drawing back the tonal bite of the first album and exploring a more shoegazing feel. The 10-track/34-minute vinyl-only outing earns a return endorsement from Nasoni, and the LP package includes a separate lyric sheet fitting the aesthetic of the striking Erin Klauk artwork. As with last time around, there’s something playful about Escape from Black Cloud – even the title sounds like a children’s story, and Traveling Circle keep a sense of wonder in the material, songs like the grooving side two highlight “Rock this Feeling” – is that a Prince influence? – and the earlier analog trippery of “The Candlelight Sways” smoothing out much of what the first album presented without sacrificing the refreshing originality Handmade House presented. They are almost universally farther back in the mix. All three of them. From the Freeman-begun opening of leadoff cut “Higher,” everything is full-reverb, and that follows through to Maiden’s guitar and vocals as well, while Schultz’s drums seem to come in bursts of cymbal wash while otherwise sticking to a vinyl-compressed thump that hints at that moment right before rhythm sections in power trios threw the “heavy” switch and Cream gave way to Blue Cheer. A sense of weirdness prevails, and Traveling Circle seem to delight in it, adding theremin first to “The Candlelight Sways” and later to “Rock this Feeling” and “Conduit is Closing” on side two. All three are standouts on Escape from Black Cloud, and the theremin, played by Matt Dallow, is no less drenched in echo than the rest of the instruments, the vibe staying consistent across the release and never relenting from an effective balance of subtly presented structural traditionalism coated in some kind of hallucinogenic moss.

Slow, ethereal and righteously psychedelic, “Newborn Shadow” is perhaps some of the most affecting material on the album, making latter day Dead Meadow sound like thrash in comparison to its ambient hypnosis. Past the opening duo, which weren’t exactly lacking resonance on their own, Traveling Circle spend the rest of side one in a flowing slow-motion freakout, Maiden cooing over light-touch rhythmic minimalism on “Newborn Shadow” before the instrumental build of “Green Spider” takes hold, melding surf rock guitar à la Yawning Man with prominent fuzz offset by Freeman’s counteracting fills and a more-forward-in-the-mix snare march from Schultz. A linear progression is at work, but Traveling Circle are patient with it, letting the song come to its own peak before shifting to the more space-rocking launch of “Closer,” which sets its musical crux around variations of the repeated lines “Closer today/So far away/Closer.” If it seems barebones, it is, but the actual sound of the track is much fuller, Maiden injecting wah swirl for a tiger-growl at the halfway point before cycling once more through the verse. Freeman and Schultz pick up the already insistent pace for a build that Maiden soon joins and the whole song comes to a head on a drumroll and set of crashes, ending side one with as much energy as Escape from Black Cloud has yet shown. Side two begins with “The Willow Tree Fair” – the longest track on the record at a sprawling 4:53 – the central chorus of which seems to be nodding at early British psych rock lyrically, while the music is undeniably more modern, hitting its apex late in a similar spirit to “Closer” but having an even more languid vibe for the extra time it takes. Subtlety is a big part of what makes Escape from Black Cloud work, here a look at different psychedelic themes lyrically, there an ambient nod to experimental post-rock indie. It makes for an intriguing aesthetic, and with a firmer grip on his falsetto, even the “oohs” and “aahs” of “Rock this Feeling” come across more convincingly than they might have last time out, the fuzzed-out funk groove underscored by echoing slide-whistle theremin sounds, woven in for engaging texture amid Freeman’s excellent bass work.

Schultz begins “Fountain of Time” with an exploratory drum solo, feeling his way through at first before launching into a few impressive fills and making way for Freeman and Maiden to join in just before the minute mark. Vocals soon follow in out of synch layers for a verse sung in British accent, the eight lines sounding like much more for the heady strangeness of their cadence. What winds up holding “Fountain of Time” together is the drumming, which sticks largely to the initial progression presented, the opening solo signaling perhaps that it would be percussion leading the way for the duration. An unpretentious fade topped by watery falsetto “oohs” reopens to “Conduit is Closing,” which proves Traveling Circle’s final excursion into the classical foundations of psychedelia, taking the bizarreness, the cosmic ritualizing and the fuzz to a new level of cohesiveness in presentation. I don’t know if I’d say it’s my personal favorite from the album – the quieter “Newborn Shadow” suits me for current sessions, though I suspect it depends largely on the spirits of the listener – but it is their finest blend of the various sides of their musical personality to-date, and well positioned in the running order as a summary of their accomplishments on this sophomore outing. Closer “Tears from the Soul” is an epilogue similar to some of side one’s trippier entanglements, a not-to-be-overlooked mid-pace groove given atmospheric weight by guest synth from Gordon Raphael as repetitions mirror “Closer” in its side-ending spaciousness. “Tears from the Soul” isn’t the achievement its penultimate predecessor is, but Traveling Circle know where their roots lie and seem to have an even clearer idea of how to make something of their own from what are obviously varied and expansive influences. Escape from Black Cloud will likely find favor among fans in the continuing range of Nasoni’s quality psychedelic output, turning heads perhaps with its melodies, growth from the first record or the sheer dimensions of the soundscape the band creates, but even if you missed Handmade House, these songs are inviting and engrossing enough that you should have no trouble letting your imagination wander along with them.

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