The Burning Circle and Then Dust by Lycia (Review)

Conjures up every cliché of goth/darkwave music… and then easily transcends them.
The Burning Circle and Then Dust - Lycia

I was talking with an elder at my church a few weeks ago about our shared affinity for the sort of gloomy post-punk that only the 1980s seemed capable of producing. I’m referring to bands such as The Cure (whose output during that decade is, in my opinion, almost entirely unrivalled), New Order, and Joy Division, but also Josef K, The Durutti Column, and many others. It seems like much of that music died off by the time the 1990s rolled around, with grunge and its ilk coming along to assuage the angst of teens everywhere.

However, the truth is that the sort of gloomy, atmospheric post-punk that we all knew and loved never really died. It simply went underground. There, bands such as Lycia (pronounced “lie-see-uh”) took the genre — if it could even be considered a genre — even further.

If you want to pick nits, I find it difficult to really label the songs on The Burning Circle And Then Dust “goth” (which Lycia and so many of their contemporaries are often labelled), due mainly to the amazing amounts of atmosphere that Mike VanPortfleet, David Galas, and Tara Vanflower pack into these songs. The result is a sometimes claustrophobic and overwhelming album that, like much of Lycia’s music, embodies nearly every stereotype that comes to mind when thinking of “goth/darkwave/etc.,” and then just easily transcends them again and again.

Originally a two-disc release on Projekt Records, VanPortfleet chose to pare this re-release down to a mere 18(!) songs, as had been the original plan. This is probably a good thing (it could be argued that the disc could stand even a bit more trimming, as there are several short tracks that seem like nothing more than filler). Although Lycia’s music is clearly not a one-trick pony, a fact that becomes even more apparent upon a closer listen, the prevailing tone of the album, as well the various synth and guitar effects that VanPortfleet et al. use, does lead to a certain monotony.

Many of the songs follow a similar progression, usually beginning with murky synths and spiralling, ice-laced guitars immediately looming over the listener in a rather bombastic fashion, while cold, clunky drum machines pound away in the song’s center. Then, VanPortfleet’s snarling whispers come drifting around from the edges, like a cold winter wind sweeping across isolated spaces.

Like many of Lycia’s peers in the darkwave circles, there is certainly some pretense to their music. But unlike so many similar artists, which often stike up a theatrical pose that at best seems fake and at worst is just plain silly, the intensity that VanPortfleet et al. brings to these songs does lend them a certain amount of conviction. There certainly isn’t a lot of subtlety to the group’s music, due to the singular mindset that they bring to so many of the songs on the disc. However, that singular mindset and sense of focus actually allows the songs to achieve the epic sense of gloominess and despair towards which VanPortfleet and his cohorts constantly aspire.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Well, it is, but while VanPortfleet is clearly intent on pursuing a very particular sound as far as he can, there is some variety that can surprise the listener. Compared to the rest of the disc, it’s surprising just how catchy, and even dancey, a song like “Pray” is. That is, if you consider songs like The Cure’s “Pictures Of You” and “Fascination Street” to be catchy. Like The Cure, Lycia obviously love their melodic, surging basslines, and David Galas makes use of them time and again, providing a sense of momentum and melody that pushes the songs forward where they would otherwise be lost amidst all of the swirling guitars and mopey synths.

While Lycia is most obviously indebted to the likes of The Cure and Joy Division — you can practically hear spectres of Ian Curtis’ voice during the opening seconds of “The Dust Settles (Part 3)” — there’s also a clear, if somewhat predictable, 4AD influence. The shimmering guitars cast a Heaven Or Las Vegas-like glow over “Where As All The Time Gone?.” Of course, once VanPortfleet’s whisper comes drifting in, that glow becomes something altogether darker and more insidious, far from the exultatory tones of the Cocteau Twins album.

The disc’s finest moments come towards the end, when VanPortfleet’s voice is join by Tara VanFlower’s. Foreshadowing her more ambient work on My Little Fire-Filled Heart and This Womb Like Liquid Honey, “Nimble” eschews the wiry, sinister guitars that lace through so much of the album for layers of VanFlower’s angelic voice and silvery, starlit synths. While the song is as melancholy as anything else on the album, there is a certain yearning and fragility to the song that allows some measure of light into the band’s shadowy world.

The disc’s closer, “Surrender,” continues the sorrowful theme begun in the previous track “Resigned.” Here, VanFlower’s clear voice echoes and parallels VanPortfleet’s desperate whisper on “Resigned,” as if she’s the angel promising salvation to his tortured soul. Whereas “Resigned” lives up to its title, with wilting synths and VanPortfleet’s vocals, threatening to pull the listener down into some bleak, lonely place, “Surrender” seems to hint towards a way out and up. The song unfolds at an almost orchestral pace, with VanFlower’s inscrutable voice bathed in the light of the choir-like synths all around her. It’s just as foreboding as the rest of the album, but like “Nimble,” there is ultimately a yearning that belies the darkness of the track, and allows the album to end on at least some note of consolation.

I suppose all of that may sound somewhat silly, as if I’ve bought into the theatrics of Lycia’s music. But trust me, spend enough time in Lycia’s world, and you may begin to see things the way they do. Sorrow, angst, and depression aren’t just things to fuel bad high school poetry. In Lycia’s arcane world, they become real and tangible aspects of reality, almost palpable in their presence. If you’re in the right mindset, encountering their singular vision can be a rather overwhelming and consuming experience. If you’re not, well… there’s always something else that can speak to your angst.

Personally, I’ll take Lycia’s dated, bombastic, pretentious, overwrought music — whispers and all — any day of the week.

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