Flobots - The Circle in the Square Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 08.24.2012
Flobots return with their third studio album of socially-conscious alternative hip-hop! But does The Circle in the Square score more high marks for the band or fall flat? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "Flokovsky" (1:08)
2. "The Circle In The Square" (4:03)
3. "Run (Run Run Run)" (3:25)
4. "Sides" (3:32)
5. "On Loss and Having" (4:12)
6. "Gonna Be Free" (4:05)
7. "One Last Show" (4:01)
8. "Interlude" (0:48)
9. "Wrestling Israel" (4:29)
10. "Loneliness" (4:27)
11. "The Rose & The Thistle" (3:38)
12. "#OccupyEarth" (4:33)
13. "Journey After War (War Fatigues)" (5:07)
14. "Stop The Apocalypse" (4:08)
15. "..." (2:19)
Most people, when thinking about alternative hip-hop groups with heavy social commentary, immediately let their minds travel to Rage Against the Machine. And that's certainly understandable, as the Zach de la Rocha-fronted rap metal act have undoubtedly been the most successful. However, Rage broke up in 2000 and despite a reunion and promise of new music nothing has materialized since that time. These days, the masters of the genre are the Denver-based group known as Flobots. Fronted by Jamie Laurie (aka Jonny 5) and Stephen Brackett (Brer Rabbit), the group burst onto made their first major impact on the music scene in 2008 when their single "Handlebars" from their debut album Fight With Tools became a success on alternative stations on the strength of listener requests. Since then the band has released a second album, Survival Story, which saw them take on a heavier rock-inspired sound. Two years after that LP, the group has returned with The Circle in the Square which finds them further refining their sound while continuing their sociopolitical crusade.
The Circle in the Square began recording the day after the Occupy movement broke out. The timing is fortuitous and the album gives musical voice to many of the sentiments felt in that activism, but it is more than just activism set to a beat. The album's lyrics are dense and multi-layered, referencing both global and national events as well as ones that are personal to the group. The album kicks off with Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit doubling up on a short little verse titled "Flokovsky" in which they gather their listeners close before launching into the title track and first single. "The Circle in the Square," the title a reference to the demonstration in Tahir Square in Egypt against Hosni Mubarek, is clearly single material--and I don't mean that in a bad way. The song is reminiscent to "White Flag Warrior" from Survival Story in terms of being an energizing and very catchy. But by no means is it dumbed down; the band references everything from Obama's "Yes We Can" slogan and the Midnight Clock to Sly and the Family Stone. It is a fantastic battle cry to start off the album with.
But the band has more than just one single to offer. In fact, the song that follows, "Run (Run Run Run)" is one of the stronger tracks of the album. The track starts off with Jonny 5 rhyming about how the word "revolution" is being taken back by social media activists and then declaring that "now it's show time/compassion as fast as you can: go time." Mackenzie Gault, who always adds something incredibly distinct to the groups work on her viola, takes over the vocals on the chorus while the leads celebrate the revolution and call people to join them.
Unlike many of their socially and politically-active musical brethren, Flobots are about hope as much they highlighting and giving voice to what they view as the wrongs of the world; they do charity and humanitarian work on Flobots.org and make sure that they are practicing what they preach. That doesn't directly relate to their music of course, but it adds authenticity to what they're saying in their songs. You may not agree with their leanings (which they make no bones or apology about; on "Sides," Rabbit raps "It's time to take a stand, and stand up for the right/Or should I say left, 'cause that's usually where I find myself"), but you cannot deny their legitimate passion for their issues.
Of course, it's not just about their message; even the most important message and lyrics can be lost on an audience of the group's sound doesn't work. In Flobot's case, it absolutely works. Their sound on Circle in the Square backs off a bit from the rap metal tendencies that Survival Story had. There are still some strong rock influences, but the group has a more diverse sound than that. In "One Last Show" and "Wrestling Israel" for example, the sound has a much stronger hip-hop feel, though the rock creeps into them along with Gault's viola work. On "The Rose and The Thistle," Gault's Nancy Sinatra-esque vocals are a welcome surprise. The group is never afraid to experiment with their sound and while there's a moment in "One Last Show" that seems jarring in a bad way it generally succeeds with flying colors otherwise.
The last couple tracks are not necessarily as strong as the rest of the album, but they are still solid pieces of work. After the low-key "#OccupyEarth," which is one of the best on the album, the band gives us "Journey After War (War Fatigues)" which seems...well, a bit fatigued. With as much passion as the band has, it is difficult to maintain it throughout and while it's a fine track, it's just not quite as good as the rest. The same holds true with "Stop the Apocalypse," a good track that doesn't really cover ground the rest of the album hasn't. It closes up with a basically-untitled track with Jonny joking about the last track and then closing with a little instrumental music. It is a nice full-circle to the opening track, but it probably would have been better kept at twelve tracks instead of going to fifteen.
Standout Tracks: "The Circle In The Square," "Run (Run Run Run)," "Wrestling Israel," "#OccupyEarth"
The 411: Flobots' third LP, The Circle in the Square, sees the band continue to mature as artists while improving and refining their sound to great effect. The band is on the forefront of political relevance and while your appreciation of their music will likely depend on how much you agree with their social leanings, for those who can handle thus it is their best album to date. Several great anthems fill the fifteen songs within and yet it's not one-dimensional rage-filled anthems, resulting in an incredibly good album that should end up in a permanent rotation on people's listening device of choice.