2 x Vinyl LP
It’s a testament to Circus Underwater’s foresighted music that if their self-titled debut album were released today, it might sound a little old hat—the response might even be something along the lines of “so what?” As it stands, these thirteen tracks are a Rosetta Stone for ambient music, dub techno, electronica and beyond. In Circus Underwater, you might hear traces of Four Tet’s crisp folktronica, Craven Faults’ widescreen atmospherics, or even Drexciya’s pulsing, aquatic-themed electro. In Circus Underwater, you can just about sense in embryo new forms of switched-on music yet to come, clamoring to be heard.
Circus Underwater were a Maryland duo made up of Richard Sales and Jay Yarnall. Initially Dead Heads and hippies, in the early 1980s they applied the sonic boundary-pushing attitude of the 1960s to the new possibilities offered by the developments in electronic synthesis. (This is a leap that many in the 1960s failed to make). The result was a collection of pieces that meld futuristic drum machines, synthesizers, and electronic textures with the heady pulse of prog and the organic rattle and roll of American primitive guitar. Imagine Bobby Frank Brown being produced by Tangerine Dream, and you’re halfway there.
The through line between this confluence of sounds is a sense of the hypnotic. Whether it’s the droning synths on “Entrance of the Deacon”, or the spiraling guitars on “Thunder Daughters Underwater”, or even the depths of reverb on “Weeping of Electric Sheep”, Circus Underwater create immersive worlds that slowly pull you under—after all, things only swim into view when you submerge yourself completely.
The most tantalizing track here is “The Surface Of The Water”. A dub odyssey with cascading, Beach Boys-esque harmonies, fathoms-deep bass, and a gentle, almost aching wistfulness, it’s probably the best thing on here, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of what a vocal-led album might sound like. Sadly, we’ll never know. Circus Underwater ceased to be after the release of their debut. Although this music might, to us in 2023, seem chunky and old and lovely, like a boxy television that needs a minute to warm up, with exposed diodes and resistors and a big, saturated, technicolor screen, for those select few who were listening in 1984, Circus Underwater might just have sounded like the future.