The Circus Devils


(Recordhead; 2005)

By Bryan Rowsell | 22 June 2005

“Robert Pollard appears courtesy Matador Records.”

It's interesting that the liner notes for Circus Devils’ latest offering, Five, ends with that statement. Didn't Guided by Voices just disband? And doesn't he have this album--From a Compound Eye --that's floating around without release? Does it mean Compound Eye might soon see the light of day under the comfortable Matador banner? Hopefully, and until then, we have the Circus Devils to enjoy.

The Circus Devils are one of seemingly endless side projects for Guided By Voices’ former frontman Robert Pollard. Their previous three releases--Ringworm Interiors (2001), The Harold Pig Memorial (2002) and Pinball Mars (2004)--had a musically-gifted lineup: Pollard, Tim Tobias (then-bassist for GbV) and Todd Tobias (multi-instrumentalist GbV producer du jour). Those records proved to be the outlet for Pollard’s more progressive side of his otherwise pop-rock dominated series of musical personas. The Brothers Tobias proved more than capable as musicians, installing the listener with odd time signature, not-quite-ambient noise that backed Pollard’s increasingly obscure lyrical bend. The albums were more experimental than just about any in the Fading Captain canon, yet they somehow always kept at least one toe on the terra-firma of accessibility on which Pollard has made a career. As such, these albums were wondrous romps through the slightly musically-disparate musical imaginations of its members.

Five has Pollard and Tim Tobias amputating said toe, and the majority of the record is an over-indulgence of their prog-rock influences. They opt for experiment over melody and noise over rhythm.

After the instrumental opener “The Bending Sea,” “Look Between What’s Going On” has a bass-heavy beginning that leads into a diggery-doo solo. Vegemite sandwich, anyone? The next few tracks sound like b-sides to Ringworm Interiors with their dynamic soundscapes and rapidly hopping textures. Somewhat enjoyable, but one can't help but feel that they’ve heard these songs before. “Strain” begins a series of interestingly, more traditional-sounding tunes that save Five from being a throwaway release. “Future for Germs” is one of the album's few gems, again with Pollard writing from his lyrical shed in Montana: “In various corners / Many legs roam / Arms and chairs / Tiny jeweled eyes love you.” “Effective News,” “Eyes Reload,” “Her Noise” and the instrumental “We Taught Them Rock and Roll” round out the middle third of Five that have Tobias and Pollard melding experiment and melody as well as any portion of Circus Devils’ past.

The remainder of Five is typical, pedestrian fare of noise-driven, obscurely-worded prog-pop. I’m not sure where and how exactly Five went awry, though several obvious factors might be used to explain its overall weakness compared to the band’s previous offerings. The lack of Tim Tobias’ influence could have affected the record, though other Pollard/Todd Tobias releases have proven successful--just listen to Pollard’s last two solo albums, FaCE and 2004’s Fiction Man. As a comparison, check out any of Gem’s offerings or the overlooked Clouds Forming Crowns release for what the Tobias brothers can do as a musical collective without Pollard.

Pollard claims on his website that there was a shelved fourth Circus Devils album, titled Sgt. Disco. You have to take that with a grain of salt, but if Sgt. Disco really is out there, why did Pollard and Tobias choose to release Five instead? Like that Matador quote above, no one can know for sure just yet (except, uh, Matador people or Bob; shoot me an e-mail, guys). But, in any case, Five is beautiful in parts and downright uninspired in others. My advice for those who haven’t ordered from Pollard’s non-GbV menu? Skip Five and pick up Ringworm Interiors or The Harold Pig Memorial instead.