Something of a well-kept secret, Circus Devils have quietly (but noisily) released fourteen full-length albums over a period of sixteen years. Notably featuring Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, the trio formed in 2001 and have drifted from label to label offering their briefly bizarre output to the world, perhaps most notably (it would be impossible to recommend 'George Took A Shovel enough'), issuing on the excellently eccentric Sgt. Disco via Mike Patton’s Ipecac Recordings in 2007.
Unfortunately, Laughs Last will be Pollard's and company’s last hurrah under the Circus Devils name. The group never really appealed to the GBV fanbase or appeared to generate much widespread attention in their own right, but all the same, they have continued to unapologetically offer albums packed with jingle length songs which are as eclectically intelligent as they are downright silly.
The group’s traditional mix of Horror, Sci-Fi, nihilism, sonic dissonance and novelty pop are on full display here. Whether it’s the troublingly touching 'I Do the Nixon,' the taunting 'Crucified By the British Press' or the ghostly 'Time Trapper' - this is pretty classic Circus Devils. An untempered flow of ideas, expression, experimentation and gags, delivered, somehow, with class and precision.
It’s perhaps true that Circus Devil’s approach isn’t necessarily designed for them to form an adoring and emotional connection with their audience. Circus Devils seemingly don’t set out to write songs for anniversaries, first dances or a lover’s mixtape. They could be argued to exist in a bubble of irony and apathy with artists like The Melvins or Mike Patton, making beautiful and brutal music that often expresses as little as possible. If Top 40 radio is manufactured to elicit a base level emotional response, Laughs Last is manufactured to confuse, amuse and irritate. But as Pollard puts it: "Circus Devils is fun."
It’s notable how even in this review, founding members Todd Tobias and brother Tim Tobias don’t get nearly enough credit for a group they co-founded, despite it feeling very little like a side-project or solo outlet of Pollard’s. This was likely never designed to replace, compete or even coexist with GBV. Some may hate it, a few may prefer it and most will never hear it but the originality and value of Circus Devils is hard to question.
Ultimately, it’s a shame that a project as unique and creative as this should ever have to stop but going out on an album as strong as Laughs Last and coupling it with the career-spanning compilation Laughs Best is no bad way to say goodbye. If you’ve enjoyed Circus Devils in the past then you shouldn’t be disappointed by this final entry. Alternatively, if you’re unfamiliar but enjoy poppy Psychedelia or just like to see strange ideas well executed, then you could do a lot worse than to give one of this band’s records a listen. The circus is leaving town, so go laugh at the sad clown while you still can.
Laughs Last is available via Amazon.