Whereas the majority of Robert Pollard's Fading Captain releases (whether under the guise of Pollard solo efforts or thinly masked groups like Lexo and the Leapers, Airport Five or Soft Rock Renegades) could easily be mistaken for releases by Guided by Voices proper, the Circus Devils efforts truly distinguish themselves from the members' primary outfit. Pollard's vocals play more of a supporting role in the Devils' work, while the operation is dominated by the vastly underrated guitar work of Tim Tobias (formerly of Cleveland's 4 Coyotes, and currently guitarist/vocalist in Gem and bassist for GbV) and the assorted instrumental atmospheric accents concocted by his brother, Todd Tobias (who has also played in 4 Coyotes and Gem, and served as the producer for GbV's 2002 return album for Matador, Universal Truths and Cycles).
While onlookers with one foot firmly planted in the GbV camp may listen to this album and be disappointed that it doesn't sound like just another Pollard solo effort, it is this very quality that makes it appealing. In listening to the album, it often seems as though Pollard's contributions were a mere afterthought to the musical universe dreamed up by the Tobias brothers. Whereas the music is intricately constructed (or deconstructed in some cases), Pollard's vocals seem almost sloppily off-the-cuff at times, as though he didn't have a chance to fully absorb the arrangements before belting out his lines on top (this same problem also marred the Airport Five releases, although, perhaps to a lesser degree).
Presented as a concept album detailing the memorial service of a Las Vegas biker named Harold, the sophomore effort by the Circus Devils forgoes some of the more abstract and fragmented experimentation of Ringworm Interiors in favor of more traditionally structured songs. Pollard's patented vocal hooks are sprinkled throughout and vicious guitar solos courtesy of Tim add to the Devils' sweeping sense of barely controlled chaos (the fine solo that closes "May We See the Hostage" springs most readily to mind). The tone of the album remains dark and is again done on a grand soundtrack scale, but whereas Ringworm Interiors had a menacing, unsettling, perhaps David Lynchian feel, The Harold Pig Memorial has a more unifying, often suitably funereal (but still unsettling), musical theme woven throughout. Baleful organs spot the musical landscape, most effectively during the bookend pair "Alaska To Burning Men" and "The Harold Pig Memorial."
Those looking for the 90-second pop gems that Pollard has become known for will not find them here in full force, although prime hooks do show through -- as though briefly pulling their heads above the water of a turbulent psychedelic ocean. The refrain of "Last Punk Standing" rates among the finest moments here, though the more sinister passages of "Pigs Can't Hide (On Their Night Off)," and "Exoskeleton Motorcade," the strangely primal ravings of "Saved Herself, Shaved Herself," and the genre-defying rock of "Bull Spears" and "Do You Feel Legal?" are appealing in that they are so far removed from Gem/GbV's usual pop/guitar rock romps. The creepy, one-man-radio-play of "The Tulip Review" is at once unsettling and amusing (as the background noises give the impression that Pollard is in a room full of people gabbing, but has moved himself to a lonely corner to record his vignette).
The Circus Devils are the sound of three musicians escaping the orbit of their other, more traditional, outfits and while the results aren't always easy to get a handle on, the challenge of the listen is half the fun, and the listener truly doesn't go unrewarded. Perhaps this is what happens when mild-mannered indie-rockers take bad acid and listen to too much Devo, Captain Beefheart, and beat poetry. Dig it.