It’s hard to imagine there’s a band that’s had the odds of success stacked against them more than Circles Around the Sun (CATS). They’ve just released their fourth studio album “Language,” the first with John Lee Shannon on guitar. He’s the fourth guitarist in eight years for CATS (Neal Casal, Eric Krasno, Scott Metzger). A band that was never supposed to be a band. A band that’s fought through death, disease, and much more to keep late founder Neal Casal’s project alive.
With a multitude of train wrecks behind them, “Language” sets the path the band wants to take CATS’s unique sound. A different direction than their 2015 debut “Interludes for the Dead.” A direction keyboardist Adam MacDougall says would have been completely different if not for the covid pandemic.
MacDougall told Slide&Banjo before the band went into the studio to expect CATS’s take on the Pink Floyd sound in this release. He was obsessed with Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright at the time. He and the band came through on that promise just as CATS fans would expect. They didn’t re-create the Pink Floyd sound. They created CATS unique take on the Pink Floyd sound. Just as they did with the Grateful Dead sound which catapulted them into the jam band stratosphere.
The original CATS synth driven sound is still there. Along with their homage to Pink Floyd, “Language” continues the cosmic disco dialogue the band started in their 2020 self-titled LP.
MacDougall visited with Slide&Banjo to break down how the band created “Language.” He also took time to reflect on the many years he spent with Casal. Sharing both of their still unfulfilled dreams for the band. He begins with his take on finally getting the Pink Floyd sound that’s been ingrained in his deepest musical soul onto a record. “Floyd has been a huge influence. I love Richard Wright’s keyboard, his piano and organ playing. Between him and Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic, that’s why I wanted to get a Hammond organ. Floyd has a certain sonic presence. There are certain sounds where people instantly go “That’s Pink Floyd.” They’re a band that created its own vocabulary. It’s not hard to copy Floyd. It is hard to do it and not get busted.”
CATS certainly doesn’t get busted copying Floyd with the first two tracks on “Language,” “Third Sunrise Over Gliese” and “The Singularity.” Both songs are dripping with the “Pink Floyd vibe” MacDougall mentioned. Yet, they stay completely within that unique musical space the band owns.
“Gliese” was one of MacDougall’s songs. He credits Shannon for finding the “mad seagull on acid” sound that sets its mood, adding, “I’ve always wanted to do that rolling field. The triplet thing Floyd used to do using delay pedals. That gave it the rolling effect. You must play in time for every delay, which is fun and sounds very progressive. People sometimes don’t like it when you bring in a song that’s all done in your head. It’s no fun for anyone else. It’s like, play this. I was nervous because it was in my head and there’s a specific way to technically get it out. Everyone was into it, which made me happy, and we built it from the ground up. All my friends who I grew up with taking acid and listening to Pink Floyd. This one’s for them. I know when my friends hear that, they’ll know exactly where it came from.”
“The Singularity” continues CATS journey into deep space. With a repeated trippy “poof” beat throughout, the song would be the perfect background music for a Super Mario Brothers video game. Something MacDougall says isn’t too far off from its original intention. “I really love the idea of having crazy psychedelic music in the background while you’re gaming. This song is about computer time, so it makes sense to have the video game feel.”
“Outer Boroughs” takes the groove back to the early “Let It Wander” days. There are no Pink Floyd musings. Just the laid back, patented CATS synth and Mark Levy drum sound with a Shannon guitar solo that cracks open another road for exploration. For MacDougall, there’s a simple reason behind his easily identifiable synthesized musical presence, “I’m really stubborn. I’ve been playing the same rig since, oh wow I was 14 or 15. I’m 49 soon so you do the math. I fell in love with the Moog, clavinet, and the Hammond (which we only used on the first CATS album). My sound won’t work with a lot of music. If people want what I do that’s great. I can do a bunch of other stuff, but if you see me doing Circles stuff, you’re probably not going to call me for a singer/songwriter record.”
Shannon’s contribution “Away Team,” is a complete theme shift from the previous three songs. Bassist Dan Horne lays down a funky 70’s groove while the rest of the band dances all around it. The band has been adding extra percussion into the mix to complement Horne’s bass adventures. Add in Shannon’s technical and percussive Niles Rodgers like disco grooves and the die has been cast for the CATS cosmic disco sound.
Shannon’s immediate impact on the band is not lost on MacDougall, “He has a percussive way to play the rhythm guitar. It’s a color this band has never had. There’s a lot of really great rhythm guitar that lends itself to that disco sound. He’s great at it. “Away Team” came out of John’s head. It’s a great example of someone coming in and immediately bringing something special.”
He continues, “It was surprisingly easy with John. He’s by far the best player in the band. As far as traditional knowledge. I’m ham fisted and can fake a bunch of stuff. John takes the time to learn how to ‘really’ play the stuff. In CATS he’s not even scratching the surface. That stuff takes real dedication and practice with a metronome. It’s no joke. He has a bunch of that we’re not even using in CATS.”
The album wraps up with two more fully disco flavored jams “Wobble” and “Language.” Levy’s drumming will illicit clear visions of disco balls and platform shoes. MacDougall ventures into all sorts of funky synth avenues that mix perfectly with Shannon’s guitar to create a hypnotic beat that keeps you fully immersed in the music. The band is joined by Mikela Davis who offers some great harp additions into the album closer “Language.” Davis has been in the recording studio with CATS and MacDougall says an EP of those sessions is very possible.
With no Casal for the first time on a CATS release, “Language” is a giant leap for the band. A testament to the resilience of MacDougall, Horne, and Levy to keep things going despite every effort from the world to knock them off course. Shannon has found his sound and space in the mix. It’s easy to see why Casal was completely floored by his musical abilities.
The last two albums have put MacDougall to the test in the recording studio. The previous album was 70% complete when Casal passed leaving a big hole for him to fill in. He reflects, “The last time I had to come up with a bunch of melodies. It ended up being really cool. This release is an extension of that, except we have John. We have more guitar. Neal suggested we use John to finish the last record. I thought I don’t want anyone listening to this record and wondering who’s who. I want everyone to know this is Neal’s last record. It was the last thing he recorded. I didn’t want to put anyone else on it. I got a cool vocabulary doing the last record. That’s part of the sound that made it on the new record. It was the same approach.”
In Part 2, despite “Language” being the first Casal-less CATS release, this isn’t the first time they’ve recorded in the studio without him. There are sessions (and enough music for an album) with another guitarist and a completely different sound than the cosmic-disco they’ve moved to recently. MacDougall reveals the musical direction CATS was headed before another unforeseen calamity permanently shifted that path. He also looks back at the band’s supremely overlooked EP “Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo,” and shares tales of his years on the road with Casal including both of their goals for CATS. A finish line that is continually getting closer and closer. Stay tuned.
Circles Around the Sun “Language” Calabro Music Media MRI Associated