Complacency is easy when you've established yourself as a major force on the music scene; when your name is synonymous with hefty sales, loads of devoted fans, lots of airplay and a bunch of pretty high-profile live gigs.
But in the case of South Africa 's Prime Circle, holding steady in the niche they occupy as the country's most successful rock band was never on the cards - and the band's desire to make new moves is easily heard on their third, and undoubtedly best, offering, 'All Or Nothing'.
Head for track five and even those who had pegged the Witbank act as masters only of anthemic rock will be smitten with what they hear. Titled 'She Always Gets What She Wants' the song is easily on a par with Counting Crow's best work and signals a significantly more melodic direction for this rock band. Most striking on the tune is its slow-build and use of layered and repetitive vocals to create a quite terrific and utterly memorable piece of music.
And the sonic surprises do not end with this song: With its call and response vocals "All I Need" is more indie than mainstream and album closer, "Tear It Down", is part post-punk, part full tilt rock and ends the album on the most exhilarating note. "Hey Now" is similarly infused with a resonant beauty that comes from a combination of frontman Ross Learmonth's heartfelt singing, the tug of drum loops and, most noticeably, the inclusion of a pretty mesmerising keyboard melody in the song. It adds up to a track that sees Prime Circle take its most adventurous sonic steps to date, accompanied by lyrics ("Hey now/don't look back/always look forward/stay on track") that in many ways signal the band's intent right now - which is to take a leap of faith onto a new playing field, with a new record label, new management, a new producer and new players in tow; all chosen to play an integral role in the band's intent to refocus on what counts most: the music.
Musically, the freshness comes courtesy of recently arrived session keyboardist Neil Breytenbach who is playing an increasingly important role in Prime Circle - both musically and in urging the band forward into new musical areas. Breyenbach's elegant, yet forceful, playing peppers the material on 'All or Nothing' and on the likes of " Find A Way ", it's the perfect match for the thrums of the acoustic guitar that mark this song. Learmonth's vocals are also not always perfectly rendered - on purpose. "We wanted the rawness of emotion to come through on the songs," Learmonth says simply.
Also playing a crucial role in this fresh new sound is Theo Crous.
The Cape Town-based Crous is earning a reputation as South Africa 's premier rock producer and his helming of 'All or Nothing' adds significantly to the album's attraction. Crous's ability to allow the songs to reach a crescendo without overburdening the heart of the music serves Prime Circle's material exceptionally well. Just listen to 'All For The Birds' (the basis of the song was penned by Learmonth when he was still at school) and "What I've Become" to hear just how perfectly the producer and band work together to create songs that effortlessly stick in the heart and mind.
Longtime Prime Circle fans will be thrilled to know Crous and the band are also able to create sinewy, full-throttle rockers that stay true to Prime Circle's signature sound - like first single "Out of This Place". Similarly the production on "Be Like That" and "This Time" allows the taut squalls of guitarwork, solid basswork and ferocious drumming to make themselves felt, once again confirming that passion and instrumental virtuosity are as much part of Prime Circle's success as anything.
Bassist Marco Gomes confesses that recording "All Or Nothing" was not easy. "There is always pressure and the expectations are always more - and in this game, you can make it to the top just as fast as you can lose it all."
Prime Circle pays tribute to Crous's role in seeing the album through to the fantastic offering it is in the end. "Theo has a great deal of patience," Gomes says, "which you have to have when working with Prime Circle because we have a very specific recording process. The most important thing that a producer can do is make a muso feel relaxed in the studio - and that is exactly what Theo did."
Gomes is quick to point out that a great deal of care was taken with "All or Nothing'. Learmonth agrees, "Everything was just a little more scrutinized this time around. In the end it was about the music. We are now around people who want to work with us - musically, management, and record company. It's about surrounding ourselves with passion."
* The release of 'All or Nothing' signals Prime Circle's third visit to the recording studio - and with the strength of material on the new offering, it's expected that the band's 2008 release will again sell past gold.
Prime Circle's previous two efforts - 'Hello Crazy World' and 'Live This Life' - have sold solidly, both earning gold certification in a domestic market that doesn't often see consistent rock sales. The raft of number one singles off both these records - including 'Live This Life', 'Hello' and 'My Inspiration' - have seen the Witbank band notch up an impressive array of live performances, including appearances at the Dubai Desert Rock Festival, the 2006 Coca Cola Colab Massive Mix, several 46664 appearances and the 2008 My Coke Fest.
The band is currently working out a schedule of live shows that will include brilliant, fan-friendly competitions as well as showcase exciting new brand associations for this benchmark South African rock band. Watch this space for details!
* Prime Circle is: Ross Learmonth, Dale Schnettler, Dirk Bisschoff, Marco Gomes and Neil Breytenbach