Review Summary: Watch the magic puppet!!
To hear Michael Gira speak about New York in the 80’s is akin to hearing a grizzled old protestant rant about immigrants, ‘coloureds’ and all the unseemly elements that had swept over the drug-addled city that decade. And so in the face of the dismissive tack he took to the city, it’s all too easy to forget the short stretch he spent trying to play along with its exploding art scene. Circus Mort
came about just as the seminal Eno-produced collection No New York
shredded the last scraps of rock’s carcass, briefly establishing new boundaries and standards of just what it meant to make noise. The scrappy four-track EP still stands as one of the early highpoints of that period, spasming in step with James Chance, Lydia Lunch and Lizzy Mercier Descloux.
A hysterical Beefheart-esque rhythm section jerks “Watch the Puppet” into a manic state, propellant vitriol makes a roughshod hymnal out of “Yellow Light,” and the odd-angled arpeggiated bass exercises on “Children Remember” even bring to mind the sort of controlled fits Tina Weymouth brought to the Talking Heads’ live sets. Blocky synths get spliced into every empty space on the EP, and all of it clicks.
For all the prolonged onanisms in unadulterated ire that Gira would go on to orchestrate with Swans, there are points when Circus Mort
sounds more immediate and unsettled. That palpable anger that he would soon build narcissistic towers around still sits all over Circus Mort
, albeit glitzed up in some comely post-punk synths and experimental diesel oil. Never as oblique or gigantic, it moves like a drunken boxer, hard on the punch and loosely coordinated.
After Circus Mort gave up the ghost, twin brothers Josh and Dan Braun would go on to form the Del-Byzanteens, a short-lived no-wave act fronted by future New York art crème, painter James Nares and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. They’d kick around the Bowery scene for years afterwards, never quite rising past local icons status. Gira would incubate his vision for a year or so, before shaping the first formation of Swans, ditching the gaunt Ziggy goth look for a denim demon.
The hectic theatre of no-wave fizzled predictably quickly, but its aftermath is still felt in underground music. At a time when music’s commercial aspects were looking for new rooms to loot, it was a momentary lapse, one of esoteric visionaries being suddenly thrusted to the sub-surface of popular trends. None of it was going to last. As such, this EP, this boundless little avant-garde marvel, remains a humble footnote in the history of a budding obelisk.