It’s hard to believe that in just two weeks, year-end album lists will start rolling out. Anyone who covers hard rock and metal who’s working on their list now better have listened to Magic Circle’s second album, which isn’t officially out until Nov. 20th, or they will have no credibility in my book. It all comes down to a matter of taste, but Magic Circle hits that sweet spot where doom, rock ‘n’ roll and garage grit intersect. There’s a lot of bands that claim the same influences (Sabbath, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, Trouble, Pagan Altar, Hour Of 13), but none that celebrate them so thoroughly and convincingly, bejeweled goblets raised to the heavens, as Magic Circle.
What makes them so great? Let’s count the ways. While all but one song is over six minutes, they never drag or bore, even on the relatively crawling “A Ballad For The Vultures.” While there’s certainly a place for the slow and low blown-out sonics of Windhand and Conan, Magic Circle keep the tempos more snappy, with plenty of breaks, time changes and riff piled upon riff. That’s my jam. It’s understandable that they’re reluctant to drag the tempos, given members’ backgrounds in hardcore punk (Mind Eraser, Rival Mob and The A-Team). The musicianship is spot-on and tight. The solos hint at virtuosity without being too show-offy, as they’re pretty disciplined about keeping them from wandering off the deep end. The production veers towards a rough, live feel, but still with plenty of dynamics and clarity. The closest I can compare is the sound of the two albums from Green & Wood, who split up in 2011, the year Magic Circle got together. When their self-titled debut came out in 2013, it took a while to build and audience, partially due to them selling out of copies and having zero online presence at the time (no social media, Bandcamp, nothin’). A lot of great albums came out that year from Jex Thoth, SubRosa, Goatess, Avatarium, Brimstone Coven, Argus, Windhand, Age Of Taurus, Orchid, Wheel, Mountain Witch and many more, including Black Sabbath. That their debut surpassed most of those is most impressive. In a recent interview, co-guitarist Chris Corry admitted to crying when Pagan Altar’s Terry Jones died earlier this year, and gave a shout-out to George Lynch, guitarist for the somewhat unfashionable Dokken. This leads me to believe I’d even like this band as people, which is pretty unprecedented for me, because I often don’t like people. Or people in bands.
Speaking of not showing off, lead singer Brendan Radigan (who also serves in Stone Dagger) is kept fairly even in the mix with the rest of the instruments. Probably because he’s such a killer secret weapon, they don’t want him to be distracting. Again, they find the right balance, where Radigan hits some killer high notes that you never even imagined coming from a doom band, but sounds perfectly in sync with the band.
Let’s be clear. Doom metal traditionally has relatively sucky vocalists, with the exception of Ronnie James Dio who left this earth with one last offering of Heaven & Hell. To be charitable, let’s say they are adequate but not amazing. It’s not really a problem, until one of those bands shares a stage (before or after) Witch Mountain (with either their 2nd or 3rd singers) or Magic Circle and gets obliterated. And while there is modesty and restraint, the band is most certainly reaching for epic status here. How could they not, if they feel their music can provide a suitable backdrop for Joe Petagno’s artwork.
I really see no point in getting into describing each song. There are seven of them, and they’re all perfect. While there’s continuity with the sound of the debut, there’s progression, from minute evolution of sound and texture, to slightly more deliberate pacing, more breathing room between the rocking and shredding. The singing and musicianship is a bit more accomplished while maintaining a relaxed fluidity, like you could be spying on a rehearsal in the garage. Don’t mistake this as being mellow. There’s intensity in their performance too. It is metal, after all. And along with Christian Mistress, the best damn metal album of the year.