When we talk about introspective music, we often mean music that invites calm inward reflection. We tend to be referring to music that is quiet, spacious and mellow, music that allows for self-analysis and psychological probing. Winston-Salem’s Stellar Circuits are not quiet, spacious and mellow. The quartet is loud and heavy. Their music is dense. They play prog metal. Stellar Circuits’ music is about a type introspection and soul-searching, but it’s not introspective in the stereotypical superficial way. You might blow some otherwise pacified minds if you put Stellar Circuits on when people are trying to meditate.
The band is set to release Ways We Haunt, their full-length debut. (A self-titled EP came out back in late 2015.) And Stellar Circuits play a show at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on Sunday, Oct. 21. And then they’ll have a record-release show at the Ramkat in Winston-Salem on Friday, Nov. 2. (The record comes out Nov. 9.) I spoke with drummer Tyler Menon by phone last week, as the effects of Tropical Storm Michael blew through North Carolina. The Asheville resident was getting ready to drive down from the mountains to head to band rehearsal in the Triad.
The new record was recorded in Winston-Salem with Jamie King at his Basement Studios. The music has punch and muscle, with clipped and ultra-compressed guitar tones from Andrew Mericle, big pounding drum sounds, along with grooves, low-end melodies and ominous atmospherics from bassist Jesse Olsen, and powerful vocals from singer Ben Beddick that veer from operatic falsetto to anguished howls and piercing yells. Stellar Circuits don’t go full-on for whiplash transitions and super-jarring sonic juxtapositions, but you get the feeling that they could deploy a stop-on-a-dime aesthetic or zero-to-hyperspeed tempo workouts if they wanted. The band does move through loads of dynamic ranges, with the opening track, “Nocturnal Visitor,” setting the scene with heavy pummeling riffs that give way to a kind of twinkling guitar pattern about one minute in, and then some full-throated singing that toggles between breathy sighs and vocal-cord-shredding screams.
The music contains multitudes. And that’s probably fitting, too, since the songs and the band seem to be interested in exploring ways that our consciousness and our neurology are as vast and mysterious as outer space. We can be as wigged out by the crowded spaces in our own heads as we can be by the cosmos. The unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said, but the examined life can be pretty freaky.
Stellar Circuits evidently take their name from a hypothetical eight-circuit model of human consciousness that projects outward, where the higher circuits involve things like collective consciousness, hive-mind-type connectivity, telepathy and astral-plane-type stuff. The idea, if I have it right, is that our minds and our consciousness are — at this level — not subject to the laws of space and time. But, as with the macro, so with the micro. And if our consciousness theoretically extends outwards into those dimensions that are beyond our comprehension, then it also coils inward in a similarly impenetrable complexity. And that’s where some of the themes on Ways We Haunt seem to percolate up from.
Not to get too carried away with cracking the code on this music, but one idea lurking underneath it seems to be that in the same way that the inner workings of other people’s minds are ultimately unknowable to us, so too are the inner workings of our own minds: We are, in a sense, sometimes strangers to ourselves.
“You could make me believe there’s something inside of everyone,” goes a line from the song “Go With Your Ghost,” which somehow manages to sound like both Porcupine Tree and (almost in a weird way, like) Sade at times.
As Menon put it, talking about Beddick’s lyrics, there’s the analogy of our brains as being houses with different rooms, some that have locked doors and hidden chambers. And some of them might be haunted.
Another track, “Matrioshka,” also suggests this journey inward and outward. The title is the name for those nested Russian dolls, but it also has connotations with alternate theories of neurological structures and interlinking artificial intelligence.
You don’t need to get overly involved with the cerebral themes and interlocking puzzles to appreciate the brooding and tense music of Stellar Circuits. There are enough captivating details: a swirling deteriorating guitar sound at the start of “Polar Dreams,” the spooky atmospherics of “Interlude,” and Beddick’s pivoting between subdued melodic singing and athletic spirit-possession bellowing.
Menon said that the instrumental music was generally written in advance, and Beddick would add the lyrics, vocal melodies and other extended-technique stylings after the songs had taken shape. The process involved an exploratory openness that is kind of a through-line with Stellar Circuits.
“We usually just try to let it go where it feels like it’s wanting to go,” said Menon, speaking of the songs as if they have their own internal spirit that needs to be allowed to do what it will. “We try not to restrict ourselves as to making a song entirely heavy or making a song mellow for the whole song.”
Menon said that watching Beddick add the vocals to the songs was almost a spectator sport in the studio, complete with the singer’s preparatory routines and feats of physical endurance.
“His singing and his screaming is coming from a pretty raw place,” Menon said. “He was really going all in in the vocal booth. Before he would hit a scream, he would really warm up into it and psych himself out.”
Ultimately the whole process is one that involves intuition, maybe more than one would expect from a technically inclined prog-metal band. The music might be about the mind and our pathways of understanding, but Stellar Circuits focus on emotion as a way of navigating the darkness.
“I think the biggest thing for us when piecing the song components together is how the part will make us feel,” Menon said. “We try to build off of feelings.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Stellar Circuits at the Blind Tiger, 1819 Spring St., Greensboro, on Sunday, Oct. 21, and at the Ramkat, 170 West 9th St., Winston-Salem, on Friday, Nov. 2.