The Spirit Lives
In virtually any genre of music, there are a few forgotten masterpieces. Albums that never really broke into the mainstream, but have a dedicated cult following who hail it as one of the finest ever made. The Last Things' sole album from 1993, Circles and Butterflies, is one of these forgotten gems. Before the band disappeared into oblivion never to return again, they released what I consider to be one of the greatest masterworks in all of progressive metal. Circles and Butterflies is an album with a unique sensibility, seamless compositions, and breathtaking complexity. When I search for a progressive metal masterpiece, those three things are seldom done to perfection - for that reason alone, I hold Circles and Butterflies as a benchmark for all other progressive metal albums to "attempt" to live up to. I'd give a limb to see these guys perform live; hell, I'd give two limbs for them to do a reunion album! Although I doubt either of these things will ever happen, at least we have an essential masterpiece to remember this top-notch Floridian band by. If you like progressive metal and you don't own this album, you're truly missing out on a timeless masterwork.
The Last Things had a very unique sound - even 18 years after the release of Circles and Butterflies, there's still nothing else like it. This band borrowed just as much from Marillion as they did from Atheist, and the result is nothing short of amazing. The music could be considered traditional U.S. progressive metal in the vein of Psychotic Waltz and Fates Warning, but the boatloads of influence from neo-prog and technical thrash metal set The Last Things apart from anyone else. You'll even find flute and bagpipe here! It's not everyday you hear that on a progressive thrash metal album! As if the band's one-of-a-kind sound weren't enough, they also had chops to put most legends to shame. Richard Elliot IV handles the vocals, guitars, and keyboards here, and every single thing he did on this album is sheer perfection. His technical guitar riffs, atmospheric keyboard soundscapes, and terrific vocals are all part of what makes this album so great. The drumming from Lou Buffalo is technically pleasing but also emotionally satisfying - he clearly takes influence from legends like Mark Zonder, and delivers just as well. The bass playing from Darren McFarland adds a unique edge to Circles and Butterflies - his playing style was unlike anyone else in progressive metal at the time. He delivers funky Faith No More-esque basslines combined with technical Atheist-influenced riffing; this album would be drastically different without Darren's top-notch playing.
Circles and Butterflies is an "album of two halves", so to speak. The first six tracks make up "The Circles and Butterflies Suite", whereas the rest of the album consists of standalone tracks. I would say that the opening suite is one of the finest progressive metal epics out there - you'll find technical thrashy riffs, proggy time signature shifts, and even a beautiful outro to close off this masterwork. Although I've heard some reviewers be a little less loving towards the second half of the album, I think it's equally excellent. "Ghost From the Past" is a heavy track, with obvious influences from the Bay Area thrash scene and the NWoBHM. "The Missing Piece" is a more progressive track with excellent funky basslines from Darren McFarland. "Morgan's Song" is a beautiful track about Richard Elliot IV's daughter, with tribal drumming and atmospheric synthesizers. His vocal performance is also outstanding here. "Reservations" is a short interlude with percussion and flute. Circles and Butterflies closes off with a song that sounds like "Jethro Tull meets Metallica", so to speak. "The Spirit Lives On" has heavy thrash riffing with a surprising dose of flute soloing. This is an excellent way to close off this masterpiece.
The production has a raw, biting edge that suits the music perfectly. Atmosphere breathes through brilliantly, but never at the expense of sounding weak during the heavier sections. The production is simply brilliant, to say the least.
Circles and Butterflies is one of my favorite progressive metal albums ever - I would gladly rank this album up there with Dream Theater's Images and Words, Fates Warning's Perfect Symmetry, or just about any other progressive metal masterpiece. This album is synonymous with "essential" in my mind, so don't be surprised when I throw down a 5 star rating. Am I upset that The Last Things disbanded and remained silent for nearly twenty years? Definitely. Am I thrilled that I have this stunning taste of perfection to remember them by? Absolutely. Circles and Butterflies may never reach the "legendary" status, but it's my hope that every prog metal fan hears this gem eventually. Essential is an understatement when describing this tremendous feat.