“Do you think we can lift the shadow? No…” Will Cullen Hart sings on Signal Morning’s central axis “Round Again.” The decaying aural ellipsis felt hanging in the aether marks the dusky road of the album's fist half. This is dark stuff, darker than our main man Hart is known for.
It’s been eight years since the former Olivia Tremor Control mastermind first and last convened his coven to enliven his musical dreamscapes as Circulatory System. Even then, the ragtag group of Elephant 6 alumni was heading away from OTC’s underground hit formula of the Zombies-do-musique-concrète. Instead, Circulatory System’s eponymous debut rolled the mid-60s good vibes onwards into a freaky-deaky 1970 Manson-and-mantra cultish appeal amidst the garden of fuzzy delights. But now they sound more like the paranoid vampire hunters of Marvel’s 70s Tomb of Dracula series.
Excepting perhaps the weirdest corners of The White Album, the OTC-era late-period Beatles comparisons can go out the bathroom window for good. A droning Silver Apples chug-along takes their place from opening track on, sort of minimal but definitely sinister. This is appealing if you’re geared up for a little gloom, Phil Elverum style, an intriguing shady turnoff on the stylistic lane that produces a fair few individual standouts like “Round Again” and “Particle Parades.” But like any solid Elephant 6 album, it’s really meant to be taken as a whole.
The caveat: Hart couldn’t hold onto his perfect ratio of production to melody forever, and on Signal Morning, the balance definitely tips toward ambiance at the expense of the sunshine hooks that made records like Dusk at Cubist Castle so beloved. The occasionally half-baked chord runs aren’t necessarily better or worse than those of the brighter Circulatory System, but they’re certainly a couple cuts below OTC’s median. You could chalk this up equally to time’s arrow, the long fade of inspiration, or the absence of OTC co-mastermind Bill Doss (though, he does sing harmony on "Woodpecker"), but it really doesn’t matter much, and the proceedings aren’t proceeding in a simple major key anyway.
It’s tempting to ascribe the record’s tones and lyrical themes directly to Hart’s multiple sclerosis, only publicly disclosed in an interview last year, but that kind of speculation is best left to the message boards. Nonetheless, the titular nightcap “Signal Morning” opens with the most anguished vocals Hart has ever committed to record. Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s a collaborator or a sample, but the sense of terrible power cuts through the thick tape haze like a nightmare death, the horrifying moment when even your omnipotent dream self can no longer escape destruction. And, in theory, you wake up.
1. Woodpecker Greeting Worker Ant
2. Rocks and Stones
3. This Morning (We Remembered Everything)
4. Tiny Concerts
5. Electronic Diversion
7. The Breathing Universe
8. News From The Heavenly Loom
9. Round Again
10. I You We
11. Blasting Through
12. Particle Parades
13. Gold Will Stay
14. The Frozen Lake/The Symmetry
15. Until Moon Medium Hears The Message
17. Signal Morning