Fire Note Says: Stomping Grounds offers up a healthy serving of bizarro-rock mini masterpieces
Album Review: Last year Robert Pollard and the Tobias brothers released Escape, an album that pulled off the usual Circus Devils trick of being completely different from the previous dozen or so records—but in doing so it also managed to reach heights no other Circus Devils record had, resulting in one of the best albums Pollard has released under any moniker. Following up a collection of tunes as strong as Escape is a tall order, but Pollard, multi-instrumentalist/producer Todd Tobias and guitarist Tim Tobias have pulled it off with this year’s slab of Circus Devils weirdness, Stomping Grounds.
The title of the album is apt, since on one hand Stomping Grounds finds the Devils drawing from many of the same sources of inspiration as their extensive and diverse back catalog. The album combines all the detours and unsettling vibes into a collection of tracks that sounds like a summation of all they’ve accomplished so far: the screechy, horror-filled dread of albums like Ringworm Interiors and Five (“Bumbling Reply,” “Wise Man’s Lament”), the sideshow freakiness of Sgt. Disco and My Mind Has Seen The White Trick (“Dr. Pompous,” “Stomping Ground”), the catchy and hook-filled yet unsettling pop of Capsized! and The Harold Pig Memorial (“Seeds Of The Craft,” “Girl In Space”).
Sometimes Stomping Grounds feels similar to the Crimson-esque mellotron whimsy of Escape, as on the gentle, guitar-driven falsetto ballad “The Liquid Observer,” and especially on tracks like those that comprise the first-ever Circus Devils 7-inch single: the Syd Barrett-like strangeness of closer “Sunflower Wildman (Remember Him?)” is stately and strange (as is its mid-album mirror image, simply titled “Sunflower Wildman), while the shimmering psych-pop of “Girl In Space” reaches for the stratosphere with its trebly guitar and classic Pollard melody. However, much of the album takes its cues from 70s heavy metal (and other Circus Devils hard rock such as Pinball Mars and Mother Skinny), with opener “Schedules of the Dead” establishing a snarling, dark atmosphere. The next two tracks follow in a similar vein but offer slightly different takes, with “Cold Joker” especially providing some fantastic guitar riffage, with typically cryptic Pollard lyrics (“Hot smoker / Reads Bram Stoker out loud”). Other highlights include the ominous “Weed World (Is Growing Very Strangely),” the majestic “Hue an’ Dye,” and the spooky, minor-key march of “All The Rage.”
Stomping Grounds isn’t merely a re-hashing of the Circus Devils sound (as if such a thing can be accomplished in a single album); it’s yet another chapter in the ongoing narrative of the band, one that uses the past as a foundation for more experimentation and growth. By now, though, it should be clear that Circus Devils isn’t just a Pollard “side project,” but is a band that deserves just as much attention as his other, more high-profile projects. As is usually the case with Circus Devils albums, Stomping Grounds is full of weird, off-kilter brilliance, the perfect soundtrack to long, cold autumn nights.
Key Tracks: “Cold Joker” / “All The Rage” / “Sunflower Wildman (Remember Him?)”
Artists With Similar Fire: Black Sabbath / Van der Graaf Generator / Amon Düül II
Circus Devils Website
Happy Jack Rock Records
-Reviewed by Simon Workman