Hands up if you thought, one month into the new year, that you’d be pining for the halcyon days of 2016?
I’m exaggerating a little, and I’ll spare you the “it’s already worse than I expected” rhetoric that’s been running through my mind for weeks. But it’s pretty bad out there right now, and while I’m trying to keep my head up, I’m taking more and more solace in music. I’m hoping this column becomes a refuge for me, a few hours a week where I can escape and think about something besides the world falling apart. I predict quite a lot of the music that will find its way into this space this year will have something to say about that world, though, so maybe nowhere is safe.
Anyway, while I’m looking back fondly at last year, this seems to be the perfect week to do something I’ve been meaning to find time for since early December. I spent all of 2016 preparing for it, in a way, and never got around to it. Which is odd, since my year was very much colored by this man and his music. A lot of artists had a good 2016, but in a lot of ways, the artist known as Klayton had the best 2016.
Don’t believe me? This week, Klayton, who records under many names but most prominently Celldweller, released his first album of 2017. It’s the fourth volume of his experimental Transmissions series, and if you stack that up next to the albums he released in 2016, it’s his tenth project in 11 months. And all that follows the November 2015 release of End of an Empire, the epic third Celldweller album, which arrived as a five-CD box set. That’s a ton of music in a short period of time, and Klayton shows no signs of letting up.
So who is this guy? I first heard Klayton when he was going by the name Scott Albert and calling his recording project Circle of Dust. The first Circle of Dust song I heard was actually “Am I in Sync,” recorded for a tribute to relatively unknown genius Steve Taylor. (Yes, the Steve Taylor who rocketed into the public consciousness in 2014 with Goliath, one of my 10 favorite albums that year.) This was 1994, and I was in college, having recently discovered the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Machines of Loving Grace. So I was absolutely primed for new industrial metal sounds.
Circle of Dust delivered that in spades. I have the self-titled Circle of Dust album and the much heavier follow-up, Brainchild, memorized from repeated plays. It was doubly exciting for me having been released into the Christian market, since it pushed at the boundaries of what could be done in that space. Like a lot of bands on R.E.X. Records, Circle of Dust sounded no different from the more mainstream acts, and in fact seemed to thrive on the idea of kicking against those inherent roadblocks with real-world lyrics and shrapnel-sized riffs.
I remember reviewing the final Circle of Dust album, Disengage, for Face Magazine in Maine, and then I lost track. Klayton went on to a short partnership with Criss Angel, of all people, and then for me, he disappeared. Fast forward 10 or 12 years, and I found him again, recording as Celldweller. And to say he’d grown by leaps and bounds would be to understate the situation massively. Where Circle of Dust stuck to one style, for the most part, Celldweller is a crazy melting pot, jumping from electro-pop to metal to ambient to dubstep to soaring balladry. It’s music without boundaries – on End of an Empire, Klayton even mixed in some punk and synthwave.
In 2016, Klayton took time to look both forward and back. He finally got the rights to re-release his Circle of Dust catalog, reclaiming the name for himself. Five of his 2016 projects were these old records, remastered with oodles of bonus material (including new songs and remixes), and packaged in gorgeous sets. And man, did they take me back. There’s no joy in Circle of Dust – it’s all pain and suffering, set to jackhammer guitars and very ‘90s electronic drums – but I was a pretty moody kid, so it all worked for me.
The self-titled album is good, though Klayton is obviously feeling his way. It was released twice, with different track lists, reportedly because Klayton was unhappy with his first stab at it, and the 2016 re-release is a mixture of both. Two songs (“Technological Disguise” and “Senseless Abandon”) from the first release don’t appear here at all, and opener “Exploration” is here only in a brand-new re-recording. Frankly, though, this is the best of all possible worlds, and the most enjoyable version of Circle of Dust out there. The sound is tinny, the guitars far away, the drums clicking and thudding, and the influence of Pretty Hate Machine on much of this is pretty obvious. But it’s a good first effort, and the bonus disc is excellent, containing the first new Circle of Dust song in 18 years, “Neophyte,” and some delightful old cassette demos.
The second album, Brainchild, is where it’s at. This is where Klayton decides to go full-on metal, and in the process comes up with his first classic, “Deviate.” It is by some measure the very best of the old Circle of Dust songs, the one even casual listeners can recall. The rest of Brainchild is good too, albeit much heavier than its predecessor (or its successor). The second disc here contains another new song, the fabulous “Contagion,” as well as that Steve Taylor cover and some revealing live cuts.
The next two could be called side projects – Metamorphosis was a remix album on which Klayton chopped up and processed his own tunes and those of metal band Living Sacrifice, and Argyle Park was a strange offshoot teaming Klayton with someone called Buka. Their one album, Misguided, is pretty fantastic, actually, a mish-mash of styles and lyrics cut with real pain. The re-release of Metamorphosis includes further remixes, and the two discs of bonus material with the new Misguided contain a wealth of goodness.
Finally, there is Disengage, the last of the original Circle of Dust albums. Recorded at a time of great upheaval, when Klayton was rejecting the Christian market altogether, Disengage is a bitter record with an unfinished feel to it. “Waste of Time” and “Mesmerized” are terrific, but there are too many instrumental interludes and remixes to consider this a full final album. The re-release adds two discs of excellent bonus content, including the striking acoustic number “Your Noise,” which fully reveals the bitterness of these sessions. I thoroughly enjoyed a peek behind the curtain at an album that has fascinated me since I first heard it.
In the midst of all this, Klayton continued to give us new music in 2016, under three different names. There were two Celldweller projects: the third volumes of his ongoing Transmissions and Soundtracks for the Voices in My Head series. Transmissions remains some of his most interesting work – mostly instrumental, ambient space music, with beautiful production touches. Soundtracks is more explosive, and for this third volume, Klayton gave us instrumental versions of the fifteen interludes on End of an Empire, as well as five new tracks.
But the two I really want to talk about are the pair of brand-new albums Klayton released near the end of the year. (Yes, after 1,200 words, we finally come to what I really want to talk about!)
First up, Klayton unveiled a new identity: Scandroid. Well, I say unveiled, but he’d been releasing singles as Scandroid for more than a year, priming us for the self-titled album. Scandroid is his ‘80s-inspired synthwave project, set in a sleek retro-futuristic city right out of Blade Runner. If you liked the soundtrack to Stranger Things, you will love this. Scandroid is full of tightly written synth pop and just bursting with vintage sounds. Tunes like “Empty Streets” (one of my very favorite Klayton songs) and the instrumental “Destination Unknown” feel like riding one of those Tron cycles through a glass motorway high above civilization.
I’m honestly a little bit in love with the Scandroid album – it’s definitely my favorite of his 2016 projects, and I’m excited to hear more from him in this guise. The only problem I have with the album is the note-for-note cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout.” It feels unnecessary, particularly when Klayton’s own material, from the killer “Salvation Code” to the chill closer “Singularity,” is so strong. This one is worth hearing, and I’m hoping for a second album this year.
Finally, Klayton closed the year by fully bringing back Circle of Dust. Machines of Our Disgrace is the first CoD album in 18 years, and amazingly, it recaptures the sound and feel of those old albums while updating them for the 21st century. It’s basically a metal record with electronic drums, taking the aggression of End of an Empire (itself the most aggressive Celldweller album) and amplifying it. The title track is an absolute monster, lurching forward on a thrash beat and a shredding riff, mixed in with the dialogue samples that have been a Circle of Dust trademark.
Machines refuses to let up, too. It’s an hour long, and it rarely pauses for breath. “Humanarchy” is a powerhouse, “alt-Human” a techno-metal beast, “Hive Mind” a mid-tempo winner with a great Nine Inch Nails-ish chorus. “Outside In” is the one moment of respite, a Duran Duran-esque anthem with a lovely melody. But then it’s back to the metal until the final track, an ominous instrumental called “Malacandra.” (This is the third Circle of Dust song named after planets in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy.) It’s a lovely and fitting way to end not only this wholly unexpected new Circle of Dust album, but Klayton’s remarkably prolific year.
The main result of this year is that Klayton now has three viable musical identities to slip between, and they’re all fantastic. He’s built up a cottage industry around his work, issuing everything on his own label and delivering anything he wants, whenever he wants. There’s no reason for him to slow down at this point, so I’m hoping for another productive year. If this long and winding ode is the first you’ve heard of Klayton and his many projects, get thee to his website and try some out.
Next week, a roundup of new releases, including Elbow, the Flaming Lips and a duets record from Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.