FLOBOTS – The Circle in the Square

reviewed by Jonathan Cohen | Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

The Circle in the SquareThe year was 2008: a simpler time when the United States was going through a second experimental phase of “son of a president as a president” (you still my boy, John Quincy Adams!). And a group from Colorado was riding high with the success of their anthem “Handlebars.” In the vein of Rehab, Kid Rock, and oh so many forgettable nu-metal attempts at the fusion of seemingly disparate ideas, the Flobots disregarded any negativity and sought to forge the future. Success was momentarily achieved.

Four years later, the world is a considerably different place. Change we can believe in permeates inside national tea kettles. Top 40 radio is occupied by a four-song rotation, which on a good day may be performed by two different names. The Flobots have released both a live and a studio album since their 2007 full-length debut and 2008 popularity. A new decade is upon us, and The Circle in the Square, the Flobots’ third album, is the also their first without guitarist Andy Guerrero. But perhaps most important to consider when revisiting the Flobots is that since their late 2000s breakthrough, alternative and hip-hop music have equally embraced what was once a distant European taste for electronica. Does the style hold-up to changing aesthetics?

Luckily, the common theme for the band’s career permeates throughout the album: a gleeful ambivalence to cultural fads. This is a group that thrives on a self-created sound forged only by their diverse influences. Yet this shields the band from neither criticism nor analysis. The duel vocalist approach is interesting, so long as the Linkin Park parallels are avoided with the comparable amount of caution required to walk across a freeway unscathed. This is a facet not so much to showcase a clean vs. shouted vocal style, as in a metal band, or singing vs. rapping. The rationale appears to contrast different different lyrical styles as well as the higher/lower toned voices of the vocalists. In this regard, Gonna be Free” is rather interesting. Evidently, not even the world of alternative hip-hop is immune to the temptation of hashtag flow (“Touchdown like Broncos/This song goes on like ponchos”) bringing to light the top three lines on this album in reverse order:

3) “I’m washing my hands clean, like surgeons in emergencies,” also on “Gonna Be Free” …because good hygiene is key to healthy living.
2) “You save yourself from anguish, I make myself a sandwich,” on track 13, “Journey After War (War Fatigues)” …slightly out of context, but still amusingly peculiar.
1) “People retweet like a parakeet,” on track three, “Run (Run Run Run)” …pretty snazzy metaphor, but just as alarming is the potential of birds on social media.

When it comes to individual performances, it is fairly evident that Kenny Ortiz steals the show from the back, recklessly riding his drum kit through The Circle in the Square.  The percussion section is characterized by a relentless sense of rhythm rope-a-dope, simply beating the listener into willful submission. The tag-team partner to this is high cymbal work generally reserved for repurted reggae groups. What is most surprising is how this man has more engineering credits to his name than drumming sessions — the previous including 1996’s From Where??? by Mad Skillz, which features some truly stellar production on “Tongues of the Next Sh*t” by the album artist, “VA  in the House” by Buckwild (along with the line, “I specialize in microphone satisfaction/Hackin’ MC’s who think Skillz be relaxin’/Straight from Punchline Ave., metaphor metropolis/I’m shockin’ MC’s like seeing their grandmothers topless”), and “The Jam” credited to someone named J Dilla.

And although this would be an opportune time to engage in a riveting round of six degrees to Kanye West, I digress to the original point. The rhythm section at large, with its versatile grooves, is what holds the band together. The best example of this rhythmic glue is possibly the instrumental outro titled “…”. Another strength in and of itself, because in a popular music culture driven by individual songs it is pleasant to see an outfit acknowledging the literary qualities a well-constructed album can possess.

On that note, it is absolutely imperative that the Flobots begin to use Mackenzie Gault’s viola more, or more effectively. Precisely, the normally classical instrument should be played to its strength of occupying the space otherwise inhabited by samples, bearing the brunt of the melodic burden, and eliciting emotion as well as (I apologize) playing the listener’s heartstrings. Look no further than “Wrestling Israel” for the power this cousin to the cello can have. Then compare the song concerning the Mesopotamian mess to “On Loss and Having,” which at best is a ballad with curiously no emotional relate-ability.

The fact of the matter is that the sole acoustic instrument gets easily lost within the overwhelmingly electric qualities of the band. This is something which is not so much inherently negative as much as…louder. Without increasing the prevalence of one of the group’s largest assets, it may as well be eliminated all together. A final note on the instrumentation, the piano/keyboard is also a welcome addition to the band’s repertoire; although used mostly in isolated instances.

As previously mentioned, the band’s influences are indeed diverse, as can be heard throughout the album in the form of alt-rock, reggae, hip-hop, and latin sounds sporadically rearing their heads. This, however, can unfortunately be a double-edged sword. Take for instance the titled track “The Circle in the Square.” While the Puerto Rican group Calle 13 has become world renowned for vocalist Rene Pérez using himself, and his fame, as a bullhorn for the voiceless of Latin America — thus lending the group’s spotlight to issues that may otherwise get overlooked — the Flobots take a reverse approach. The collective, it seems, wants to establish credibility as a voice for a populist demographic by sprinkling rallying cries such as “Allahu Akbar,” “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” and, “Foster all the people.”

Most dangerously, though, is the possibility this creates for criticizing the band since it may now be said the band takes an overly academic and rigid approach to the music they create — criticism that is both fair and unfair, lest we forget that Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello has a Harvard degree. Most importantly, even if the desire to emulate RATM is evident, the Flobots never seek to become them. Rather, the legacy of socially conscious music is merely used as a creative springboard.

Other highlights include “Sides,” which marks the first appearance of strings and compelling guitar; “One Last Show,” a really strong song featuring the viola and dangerously danceable rhythm; and “Loneliness,” another very strong musical track with an extremely minimal rhythmic role and viola again carrying the melody.

Since 2008, I have developed a kinder and nonjudgmental view of the band. More than anything, my view is due to the Flobots’ admirable dedication, and how the music sounds nothing at all like the hit song that first propelled them. This band never fell into the trap of recreating a sound, but rather grower beyond it, evolving. The Circle Within the Square is a prime example of that. Though this album may not be one to appear on a plethora of year-end top 10 lists, the genuine heart that created the LP makes music worth listening to at least once.

(Shanachie Records, 37 East Clinton Street, Newton, NJ 07860)

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