Circular Keys: Sorry!

Circular Keys are a paradox of intensely programmed electronics and rambling improv. It's a highly innovative approach to r'n'b, but does it work?

- Dennis Santiago’s previous outfit, Absolute Boys, released a record in 2013, Heavy Flow, and they sounded tight: the cloudy dub was carefully circumscribed by industrially heavy beats and neat pop hooks were woven through. Still, I remember some pundits saying the band didn’t care about song structure, accusing them of throwing everything out there and just seeing if it’d hold together. Strangely, it’s only with the demise of AB and the emergence of Santiago’s new(ish) thing -a collaboration with vocalist Philippa O’Shea called Circular Keys- that I’m finally starting to make sense of those descriptions. For better or worse, their new record Sorry! actually sounds like they could just let everything ride and the chips fall where they may.
The cause is an odd product of the meeting between Santiago and O’Shea and their divergent styles. Santiago processes his guitar and beats fearlessly, he’s not at all afraid of crazy distortion and strange aural artefacts. Even with all the hedge-beat-wizard stuff the tracks remain sparse, there’s an openness to the grainy atmosphere he creates and the beats populate it in an almost ramshackle way; and taking another twist, this is all still very regimented, pounding on with a machine-like certainty.
It requires Philippa O’Shea’s meandering vocals to really tease these out into long tracts that might spin off endlessly into the night. Santiago gives O’Shea a beat and she’ll bellow soulfully for as long as it takes. She improvises, mostly in a loosely r’n’b diva style and it sets the tone for the record. There are echoes of Dirty Projectors that time David Longstreth teamed up with Amber Coffman for the singular r’n’b- pop gem Stillness Is The Move. Mostly however the simpler orchestration and murky improv. pull this close to the slow and unsettlingly cultish work of Fabulous Diamonds, although this is more urban and less pressurised than they have been.
There are some interesting variations. The almost fragmentary Diamond, opts for a damaged electro-blues that has some of the broken power of early twentieth century blues recordings. I would’ve been interested to hear this developed into some kind of Nicolas Jaar craziness.
There are a few too many fragments, promising leads that should’ve been worked into proper songs, but here start to sound like opportunities missed. Even in the nine minute monster, Possessed, which closes the record, it sounds like they just let it roll, rather than build on potential.
Some of that work has clearly been done: a lot of these tracks are quite old, previously released, now partially or wholly renamed, and tinkered with, more or less. Is this just an attempt to get it all out there, a last look, more at something that could have been rather than anything new? Is that why it’s called Sorry!?
I don’t know what Santiago and O’Shea are up to next, whether they plan to work further in this format or not. If this motherlode of fuzzy improv visions just lets it ride, that’s always risky and, as the dice spin away you’ll see aspects you like more than others, some winners and some snake-eyes. It’s seems to be an open question where Circular Keys will end up.

- Chris Cobcroft.

Album Details

Album Title: Sorry!
Artist: Circular Keys
Record Label: (Bedroom Suck)