Sunday, December 11, 2022

Self-Cut Bangs - Circle Around The Free

One of the most pleasant surprises of the unpleasantly surprising year of 2020 was the debut of Calgary duo Self-Cut Bangs. No doubt, "Self-Cut Bangs" is the greatest-ever name for a pandemic inspired band. But the music has proven to be even better than the name. To recap: Self-Cut Bangs began as one couple's home recording project during COVID lockdown. That spring/summer, Cayley O'Neill (Dark Time) and Shawn Petsche (Napalmpom) wrote and recorded one new song every Saturday. They kept up this ritual long enough to make an album, which was released in September 2020 to great acclaim (including mine). The album was such a success that Self-Cut Bangs became a permanent entity (and now a full-fledged live-ready band!). A couple years later, we now get Circle Around The Free, the sophomore release from Self-Cut Bangs. And oddly enough, I'd call this the band's "COVID" album. That first album was conceived as an escapist project. It was the feelgood indie power pop album we all needed at the time. Circle Around The Free, on the other hand, is inspired by the couple's actual voice memos from 2020. Across these 12 tracks, Cayley and Shawn dig deep into their own reflections on a time of sudden change and unprecedented strangeness. And as the world slowly returns to as close to "normal" as we'll likely ever get, these songs prove to be relatable and comforting. 

I'll say first off that Circle Around The Free is a little more expansive in approach compared to its predecessor. The vibe that Cayley and Shawn went for this time is "retro futuristic," and that's something I can totally get into. This album seems far more in line with modern-day indie rock, yet it's also decidedly more '80s new wave sounding than the last one. I don't know how that's even possible, but these two totally pulled it off. And if you listened to the first album and were surprised that it was co-crafted by the guitarist from Napalmpom, you will definitely hear a few tracks this time out where the classic rock comes out to play. Circle Around The Free does what few albums manage to do: bring together the best parts of new wave/post-punk, classic alternative rock, and contemporary indie rock in a completely satisfying way. This is a record that sounds cool and current without sacrificing big hooks and a rockin' edge. It looks to the future while offering numerous nods to the past. Tracks like "Shivers" and "In Colour" are so redolent of peak '90s indie rock that they practically make me feel twentysomething again. "Stargazer" and "Wake" give the synth-pop of yore a modern makeover. If there's already such a thing as a "vintage" Self-Cut Bangs song, "Never Say Never" is it. Elsewhere, Circle Around The Free stretches the band's sound in cool ways. There are pure indie rock tunes ("Make Believe"), high-energy rockers ("Abraham"), and even successful forays into post-punk ("Gibberish"). If I described a song as being half Black Sabbath and half indie pop, you'd never in a million years expect that to work. But somehow, someway, closing track "Head Start" is an absolute triumph. 

Like Self-Cut Bangs' debut, Circle Around The Free was home recorded and then turned over to Lorrie Matheson, who works his usual mixing and mastering magic. What results is a very warm-sounding modern rock record that seems tailor-made for long walks in the cold spent pondering the events of recent years (we are getting to the time of the year for such a thing!). Since the album's completion, the addition of drummer Joel Nye (Hot Little Rocket), guitarist Dillon Whitfield (Astral Swans, Reuben & The Dark), and bassist Nicola Cavanagh (Cardiograms, Night Committee) has expanded Self-Cut Bangs from a one couple home-recording project to a full band featuring two couples! One can only hope that any potential Fleetwood Mac/ABBA level of fame to come is not accompanied by the epic drama that plagued those bands. Another cool thing this band is working on is making music videos for all the songs on Circle Around The Free. I've embedded a couple of the clips below, but there are several more worth checking out on the band's YouTube page. Circle Around The Free, like its predecessor, is a free download from Bandcamp. Music this good for the price of free is a rare treat. Jump on it! 

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