The evolution of Circa Waves

Finlay Holden looks at the rapid growth of Circa Waves, who have released four albums in just five years.

Finlay Holden
11th June 2020

Throughout their successful career so far, Scouse four-piece Circa Waves have proven themselves to be one of the best indie rock acts on the UK scene. Their four full-length releases have attracted hordes of fans to live shows and provide perfect material for a festival set. Here I am going to explore how their sound has changed across these records over the last five years, as well as giving information and my opinions on the albums themselves.

Young Chasers (2015)

Following the release of their initial singles and demos, Circa Waves came out with their first album back in March 2015. While the band had already attracted attention with their teaser releases, this was the first full-length offering that cemented the band as a successful act. Every track on the 14-track LP embodies the youthful, lighthearted and energetic spirit that made indie rock what it was in the noughties. Holding back on production and unleashing thrashing but light guitars with extremely catchy melodies and lyrics that are easy to grasp onto, the high energy level is maintained across the record and honestly, this almost feels like a collection of singles - there are no interludes or slow moments here.

The tunes reach such a high standard that I find it difficult to choose one as the best, as to do so would discredit the appeal of the others. The one song that stands out the most is, of course, ‘T-Shirt Weather’, the bands defining track that has had the most success - this is the groups only charting single, reaching #161 in the UK singles charts and currently sitting at almost 70 million streams worldwide, with the ‘Young Chasers’ LP itself hitting #10 in the album charts. Just watch this live show from back in 2015 and you can see the energy this song brings to crowds with just the opening chords alone:

This initial phase of Circa Waves’ sound is the rawest, and again I feel that it really encaptures a youthful vibe, generating that feeling of being 16 and going to your first music festival. This is expressed through the lyrics of the songs, as well as the vibe of the recording. It’s one my all-time favourites and, for what it is, cannot be faulted; this is a perfect, happy indie-rock album.

Different Creatures (2017)

With their sophomore record, ‘Different Creatures’, Circa Waves move away from the upbeat tones and leaned more into the heavy elements of the rock genre to take on a darker, more serious tone. This can be heard immediately from the first single, ‘Wake Up’.

This sound change is pretty consistent across all songs on the album, which again maintains a very high energy level. However, there is finally a slow moment when frontman Keiran grabs an acoustic for ‘Love’s Run Out’, which is then reprised with the final track ‘Old Friends’ which is also stripped back. These give the album some variety, and it’s great to see that the band can also perform well without just being reliant on guitar volume - the songwriting really shines through here.

This album is the only one to not crack the album charts top ten, just missing out at #11. It did provide more depth to the band, though, and once again there is not one dud song here. A mix of heavy guitar and bittersweet songwriting, intertwined well in ‘Crying Shame’, prove that Circa Waves are more than just a one-note group.

What’s It Like Over There? (2019)

After going from light to heavy thrashing guitar, this third record takes quite a change of direction. Relying heavily on drum tracks, piano riffs and a more pop-like production style, this album undeniably moves the band toward the indie-pop genre; ‘Times Won’t Change Me’ and ‘Passport’ are both a testament to this.

This is not intended to be a blanket description to dismiss any of these songs, though, and these are the standout tracks here. There are also songs that certainly sound like they could have been on ‘Different Creatures’ if not for the production update, such as ‘Saviour’.

Overall, you can definitely notice that the recordings were not done live in the room, as they seem to have been in ‘Young Chasers’; the level of production shows these tracks have been obsessed over in the studio to get the place they are at in the final release. This should not be a surprise, as Kieran has since expressed the fact that he prefers the more creative aspects of his career to the touring months; it is fortunate, then, that these songs also translate into an exciting live set, to which I can attest

Overall, I think this record was a noticeable change in direction, which is continued by its follow-up, but one that fans embraced, once again giving the band a #10 charting LP.

Sad Happy (2020)

Only a very short year after their third record, this two-part LP was put out into the world. Sad Happy is split into two halves, each supposedly featuring songs that fit the described mood. While this is an interesting concept, the song choices for each half do not entirely agree with the mood stated. While it is one of my favourite songs on the full release, ‘The Things We Knew Last Night’ is a very bittersweet and melancholic song, and yet appears on ‘Happy’? Seems like a strange choice.

Regardless of this, the overall vibe for most of the songs is still guitar-driven, but the pop production from the previous record has been taken to new heights this time around. There are of course exceptions and acoustic interlude tracks, but just listen to the title track and it almost sounds like standard UK pop charts music:

This leaning into popular music culture is reflected by the fact that this reached the highest album charts position yet, hitting UK #4 in its first week. This doesn’t hinder the music in the slightest though, and there is actually a lot of variation across this record - from sad boy acoustic (‘Sympathy’) to heavy electric guitar sections (‘Be Your Drug’) and catchy pop tracks (‘Battered & Bruised’), this almost seems like a culmination of all the styles experimented with previously.

This level of variation, on top of the strange concept attempt, unfortunately doesn’t allow the full work to be particularly coherent when compared to the consistency within the last 3 albums, and it definitely comes across as more of an experiment; this is perhaps how it was pulled together in only one short year. Despite this, the individual tracks are as still as strong as ever and flesh out Circa Waves’ now expansive discography.

Overall, it is clear that Circa Waves have significantly altered their music style, especially when you compare ‘T-Shirt Weather’ to ‘Sad Happy’. To me, each record manages to capture an individual mood through its production style, from youthful teenage summers through to more mature and sentimental reflection. The albums will appeal to different people in their own ways of course, and people will embrace or reject the fast changes as they see fit. It is impressive how much variety the band has shown, with four albums in just five years, when they could have just tried to replicate the magic of the debut and keep things simple; this is an approach that other successful rock artists have adopted (looking at you, Van McCann), but I think it is more fulfilling to explore music more deeply. Wherever Kieran steers the band with album number 5, the songwriting is guaranteed to be strong and the melodies irresistible.

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