Album review: STEVE TILLING – CIRCU5

Pete Feenstra chatted to Steve Tilling for his Feature show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio (January 2018)


[Release date 15.09.17]

Pronounced ‘Circa-5′ (so why not call it that?) this debut album from Swindon based songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Steve Tilling is a hugely ambitious affair. Firstly there’s the Steven King/X-Men style storyline concept – tracing the life of a child raised as a psychopath by a secret government organisation, aiming to cure the condition while harnessing certain traits for business and military means.

Secondly there’s the lavish packaging – a hard backed digipack, with 28 page booklet, ‘secret’ document and a high quality digital download code (although I’m not entirely sure why anyone in possession of the physical product would need the latter), branded only with CIRCU5 – Tilling not giving himself so much as a spine namecheck.  It’s all designed to intrigue…

5 years in the making and featuring guest performances from Dave Gregory (XTC, Big Big Train), Phil Spalding (Mike Oldfield), Matt Backer (ABC), Alan van Kleef (Rachel Stamp), Johnny Warman (Peter Gabriel) and Andy Neve (Steve Hackett), the album is the collision of edgy alt-rock and prog.

Although with the doom laden artwork and imagery, and abrasive song titles like – ‘My Degenerate Mind’, ‘Days Erased’ and the five movement that make up  the centre piece The Chosen One – ‘Baptism’, ‘Transfiguration’, ‘Crucifixion’, and ‘Resurrection’, the expectation may be for something with more metallic under/over tones.

But in reality CIRCU5 harks back to the glory days of progressive rock and one comparison in particular – Home’s classic 1973 offering The Alchemist – seems to tick a lot of similar boxes in its balance of light and shade.

Naturally, a broad spectrum of styles are covered – from harder hitting numbers like ‘My Degenerate Mind’, ‘Stars’ and ‘Blame It On Me’ which border on Foo Fighters/Queens of the Stone Age territory, through elements of classic King Crimson, Yes, and Gentle Giant in the epic centrepiece ‘The Chosen One’, to more pastoral elements that bear comparison to Tull, and folkie Zeppelin.  There’s even a (thankfully brief) semi-spoken word section in the apocalyptic ‘Days Erased’.

With so much ‘going on’ (‘The Amazing Monstrous Grad’y, for example, covers ground trodden by acts as diverse as Zeppelin and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band) CIRCU5 needs repeated listens before fully revealing its plentiful delights.  And there are many. And unlike many concept albums, the component parts work equally well listened to in isolation.

Tilling may not be the most technically gifted of vocalists – in his quieter moments there’s almost a hint of Don Henley to his delivery (as on The Chosen One – ‘Baptism’), but at least he carves his own niche, and it’s nice to hear an album where his instrument of choice – the bass – is given such a prominent part (Chris Squire, would no doubt approve).

CIRCU5 would unquestionably have been a huge ‘hit’ back in the day.  And unlike some of Tilling’s prog contemporaries, who have a tendency to overegg – and often overcook – the pudding, it is equally palatable today.  Impressive.  ****

Review by Pete Whalley

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.

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