Since the early 2000s, Ian Parton’s The Go! Team have kicked up a joyous noise with some of the most uplifting and energising music for our times. Taking the best parts of The Avalanches, Sonic Youth, early hip-hop and 60s pre-psychedelic pop and throwing it in a kaleidoscopic blender of dizzying noise and nostalgia, The Go! Team have embraced the power of music to make things better in the face of ever-escalating strife and paranoia that permeates the modern world. Since Parton’s solitary, almost entirely sample-based 2004 debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike, the group has grown into a full-fledged ensemble incorporating a multi-racial line-up and a host of distinct personalities, before breaking up again. But through all the changes, one thing that has remained is an undying joy and optimism. The group’s last album, another largely solo effort by Parton in The Scene Between (2015), was its most song-based to date, gathering an array of guest vocalists for nine joyously sugary but filling pop songs about overcoming hardship and finding confidence in oneself.
On the surface, Semicircle appears quite similar to that previous effort, and indeed, many of the songs are still built around brittle lo-fi samples and noisy guitars. However, a key difference is that Semicircle is decidedly a team effort. In the making of this album, Parton envisioned the idea of a “marching band gone rogue”, seeking to disassociate the marching band from its patriotic and sporting connotations. He made pilgrimage to Detroit, where he found kindred spirits in the Detroit Youth Choir, whose vocals and personalities are at the heart of the record. Detroit’s Motown influence also led him to recruit the 12-piece Neon Saints Brass Band, another key contributor to the album. The result sees the album gain a very communal feel, as reflected by the album cover and of course, keeping in spirit with the band’s very name. It is coloured by an expansive sonic palette, with the 12-piece brass band adding a very full-bodied sound, as well as prominent steel drums, glockenspiels and sitars adding touches throughout. The Youth Choir themselves contribute their vocals on a number of songs, imbuing them with a sense of joyful innocence, but one that is also self-confident and plays into the team spirit of the album.
From the very first song, “Mayday”, the Choir and the brass band make themselves known. The shouted cheerleader-like vocals in the main hook, as well as the Morse code backing, spell out the distress signal that sets the album in motion. The vulnerable vocals describe the distress this certain individual is in – “I don’t know if I can carry on much longer”. Musically, it’s packed with hooks, with what feels like one coming every 30 seconds, many of them delivered by the brass. The instrumentation is similarly packed, at times with as much instrumentation as possible, with the sitars especially making for some great textures. But the band know when to pull back and deliver some killer brass melodies as well. “Mayday” makes for an intense but very fun opener, channeling the superhero cartoon feel that the band have done all too well.
After the distress signal, the rest of the album comes off as something of an indirect response. After the opener’s nervous energy, “Chain Link Fence” tones things down quite a bit, with a calmer, more mid-tempo number. Apparently one of the more lo-fi sample-based songs, it features very sweet and tender vocals from The Go! Team’s own “Maki”, making for a very innocent feel to the song, with the lyrics seeming to describe a close friendship. The breakdown around the middle, featuring lo-fi strings and backwards instrumentation gives the song a dreamy, woozy feeling, like a picnic on a hot summer’s day. “Semicircle Song”, the album’s lead single, is like an intro arrived two tracks late, yet still fits in perfectly. The song in fact features co-writing credits from Stuart Bogie and the afrobeat group Antibalas, and is fittingly ushered in by a very full brass band intro. The song itself is sort of a showcase for the Detroit Youth Choir, as they play off each other in the cleverly showy verses over beautifully uplifting and touching melodies, before each one introduces themselves over a stunning steel drum backdrop. And just from the way they introduce themselves, one can get an impression of what kind of personality each of them has.
“Hey” takes a strange turn, as one of the odder, less song-based tracks on the album. Mostly instrumental, it is propelled by prominent handclaps, choppy shouts of the title phrase and a heavy, draggy feel, alternated with more mellow and dreamy parts. French vocalist Julia Margat delivers a brief verse towards the end, as if singing from a surreal, desaturated scene surrounded by gleaming butterflies, before her verse appears to cut off mid-sentence. The wonderfully titled “The Answer’s No – Now What’s the Question?” is among the more classic sunny lo-fi Go! Team tunes, with more gentle but righteous and confident vocals from Maki, and trademark noisy and sweet instrumentation, with a very pretty guitar break.
With the loungey instrumental “Chico’s Radical Decade”, reminiscent of elevator music or the background to a 60s educational film montage, we transition into the album’s second half. “All the Way Live” brings in the old school hip-hop influence, apparently directly sampled from an early-80s after-school special. The brass band comes in again to fill out the track with some epic and firm melodies, with glockenspiel and steel drums providing colour. It really feels something like a successor to the first album’s barnstorming single “The Power Is On”. More early hip-hop vibes come in with “She’s Got Guns” – another distinct throwback song with a sample-based approach. The band’s own legendary rapper/vocalist Ninja returns to take the stage on this one, and she’s not messing around – delivering her vocals with an utmost empowerment and confidence, with a powerful brass-led refrain.
On the flip side to “She’s Got Guns”, though, is perhaps this album’s most beautiful and most uplifting cut – “If There’s One Thing You Should Know”. It’s led by a flurry of steel drums and a strong dance beat, with Maki’s absolutely stunning vocals gliding smoothly over the melody. Her words carry a slight sense of melancholy, in what seems to be an outpouring or admission of feelings towards someone. However, no matter what happens, she comes off with such self-confidence, even with a clear vulnerability, that you get the sense that she’ll be okay no matter what happens. The song really is like a light breeze on a scorching day, or a ray of sunshine through the clouds. And if those are clichés then so be it, for it is only that they are true and really fit the song.
Finally, the album is rounded out by a couple of cuts that appear to mirror the start of the album. “Plans Are Like a Dream U Organise” has some similarities with “Chain Link Fence”, with a similarly slower and stuttering sample-based feel. Amber Arcades provides guest vocals and in all honesty, the song does take a little to pick up and feels a little monotonous at first. However, it does eventually bloom into something very worthwhile, with very pretty guitars emerging for the second chorus. Though the title hints at something optimistic, the song really has more of a regretful undertone, commenting on how we stop ourselves from doing the things we really want to do. But all that is ultimately rectified with album closer “Getting Back Up”. Another strong brass fanfare opens this one, immediately recalling “Semicircle Song”, as the Detroit Youth Choir deliver their triumphant farewell. It is a song that beautifully reflects the message of the album, the importance of teamwork and friendship, finding the best in one another and not letting the bad parts get you down. Thus, the album ends with a repeated mantra and reminder of “it’s alright”, which really does not come off as being shallow or naive, but feels earned and worthwhile.
With Semicircle, The Go! Team continue to make some of the most joyful and optimistic music of our times. Despite the seemingly innocent joy and enthusiasm displayed throughout, at no point does it come off as shallow or as mere escapism. Acknowledging that times are tough, it elects to carry on in spite of it, finding value in sticking together and embracing the power of music for unity. And that really is the kind of music that we need now, more than ever.