When the members of Circles Around the Sun (CATS) met to discuss the musical direction they wanted for their next album, it didn’t take the quartet very long to reach a unanimous decision – they wanted to put out a dance record. Not just any dance record; a retro disco sound with plenty of cosmic vibe to it.
A lot has changed since that meeting. One thing that absolutely did not was finding and creating the dance record they were looking for. CATS will release the self-titled Circles Around the Sun on March 13.
To accomplish the dance beat for the record, the band introduced a drum machine into the recording mix, used on every track. It keeps the beat and opens up plenty of space for the members of the band to groove around.
Right as the band was in the middle of piecing everything together for the record, guitarist Neal Casal committed suicide. Casal made it clear to the rest of the band that he wanted them to continue without him. CATS other members (drummer Mark Levy, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, and bassist Dan Horne) are eager to follow through on Casal’s wishes, but moving forward has proven to be difficult.
From the pain and confusion in Levy’s voice, it’s evident he is still processing the loss of a close friend. “It’s been quite a journey. Our whole world got turned upside down,” he said. “The fact we have Neal enshrined in his last recording with us is equally heartbreaking and beautiful in a way. Having his blessing to move forward is nice and comforting, but nothing will ever replace Neal.”
Prior to his death, Casal had recorded all of his guitar parts for the album. But it was Casal who would usually step in and fill in the gaps in the recordings and get them finished for release.
Levy makes it clear, there was plenty of work to be completed after Neal’s passing, stating “When Neal left us, the record was not complete. We were left with a couple of different gaps where melodically Adam (MacDougall), being the only other soloist in the band had it fall to him.” Fortunately for MacDougall, he was overly familiar with the material since he wrote the music for every song on the album.
Circles Around the Sun finds the cosmic disco sound immediately with the opener “Babyman,” written in Detroit over a two-day break in the band’s schedule. With the drum machine clicking along, MacDougall and Casal weave back and forth, finding the disco ball-worthy sound they were after. Levy says choosing “Babyman” for the opener had a purpose. “It was important to start off with something strong and direct that doesn’t beat around the bush at all.”
“You’ve Got to Start Somewhere” has a more laid-back vibe than the opener. MacDougall stands out as he finds several spacy tones for his keyboards. The same holds true for “Leaving (Rouge Lemon),” where the synthesizer and Casal’s jazzy tone push the song and album forward.
“Detroit Dos” is a perfect example of the new and expanding sound CATS was looking for. Once again, the drum machine sets the tone with bassist Horne finding his cosmic sound on the low end. MacDougall channels some spacy Motown licks as this song sends the band off to the races.
After a muffled sound to start the song, “Landline Memories” picks up where “Detroit Dos” left off. Eventually the band finds happy-sounding groove that’s finished off by Casal’s in-your-face leads.
While making cosmic disco record was priority number one for the band, number two was shortening the songs to speed up the record’s flow. There are no songs that reach double digits in length like so many on the first two albums.
The album finishes up with “Pete Jive” and “Money Is No Option” which whether sadly or beautifully – or both – exemplifies the new dance sound Casal and the rest of the band had found. The growth from a bunch of musicians who joined together to create background set-break music at Fare Thee Well to Circles Around the Sun is remarkable. Casal’s guitar makes a statement, proudly standing out front as the rest of the band cements the new sound all around him.
Casal was so captured by McDougall’s orchestrated keyboard opening to “Money Is No Option” he insisted it was included. From there Casal creates a gospel-like euphoric groove that fades out to indicate the albums’ close. It’s obvious CATS has clearly found their sound going forward, made bitter with the realization that Casal won’t take part.
So, what’s next for CATS? Eric Krasno and Scott Metzger have taken turns at guitar for the live shows the band is playing to promote the album. Both musicians have the pedigree and background to take over for Casal. What they probably don’t have is the time the next guitarist is going to need to devote to the band.
Levy knows finding “that” musician who meets all their criteria is a daunting task. “Oh man, have we thought about it. It’s impossible to stop thinking about it. Just to go through the process has been really difficult. We all want to keep playing. Neal wanted us to keep playing. We want for sure to have a member. For the immediate future, it’s going to be a cast of really excellent guitarists.”
Levy says former bandmate Chris Robinson told him “You got to go through it, to get to it.” Here’s hoping CATS can “get to it” soon.