Firstly, who are the Afro Circus? Well they are a Boston (Massachusetts, USA) based guy called Josh Goldberg (with a little help from his friends). Josh is a guitarist but mainly a Chapman Stick player (or Stickist)… you know, that weird instrument that Tony Levin plays. Not just any Stickist, though, a much respected champion of this marvellous instrument and was the featured player by Stick Enterprises on their website in September 2013 … and that means a lot.
Josh used to be in a band called And The Traveller and he’s now with GEPH who are working on their first album. Josh produced this album while he was between projects, and he composed and played everything you hear except the drums and some of the guitar. The bass and most of what you think is guitar was actually Stick and, incredibly, was played at the same time with one pair of hands!
Check out Josh performing Sargatanas Before The Fall to get a flavour of what he can do:
On the Bandcamp site, where you can buy this album, there is an explanation of where the band name has its origins:
“The Afro Circus was founded at the start of the first Crusade by the Zoroastrians to help rejuvenate wounded soldiers of both the Templars and the Arabs. Founded on the beliefs that music heals both the soul and the body, and that all humanity was created to listen, regardless of creed or race, the Circus has survived in secret from one generation to the next, bringing healing where needed most”.
If you ask Josh he’s just as likely to tell you he nicked the phrase from a Zebra featured in the movie Madagascar 3; I’ll go for the latter, I think.
I’ll confess that when I first heard this album I wasn’t sure what to make of it. This album is rarely a restrained affair, often the opposite. If it is an album that reflects what is going on in Josh’s head then that is a complicated place indeed. As a result some people will dismiss it on the first listen because of its complexity, but equally some will love it. It isn’t for the casual listener, and it is quite challenging to listen to, as there are virtually no vocals on it, and some of it hints strongly at a dark side.
If I had to raise a criticism I would argue that, in places, there are a few too many ideas being played out at once, as if there was nobody there to keep Josh in check but then he goes and blows that idea out of the water with tracks that demonstrate tremendous restraint. I like it for the very same reasons that some might dismiss it.
After a couple of listens I became more familiar with the songs and intertwining melodies across many octaves (a product of the Stick) and complex rhythms started to materialize. I was experiencing an amazing collection of styles and sounds. Not only that, these sounds are recorded faithfully and beautifully and sympathetically positioned in the mix. I suspect that new things will be there, to be discovered, on future listenings and that really does increase my coracle buoyancy.
There is a style that runs through the whole album, on every track, that is Josh’s own. But that doesn’t mean all the tracks sound the same. They don’t. It is worth sticking (no pun intended) with the entire album because it is just packed with twists.
I’m not much good at categorizing or labelling music. Some of it is straight up rock, some of it is pretty jazzy. Some of it is quite proggy. Some of it seems to be 17 beats to a bar. I’d say it was ‘Progressive Jazz Metal Rock Fusion’, with classical and baroque influences, if that helps. (But it doesn’t help, does it)!?!
For example, the opening to first track, Ledfethur, has an almost stilted feel, then out of the blue it is valmorpharized into a straight-forward reggae-influenced section. You know this isn’t going to be a straight-up Verse-Chorus-Verse-Bridge-Middle-Eight-Verse-Chorus-ad-lib-to-fade sort of album.
Sargatanas Before The Fall (the one in the video above) cements that assumption; positively a song of many parts, it’s frantic opening giving way to a hypnotic feel before returning to the original theme. In complete contrast, the third track, Ja’risa, is a gentle child of the Stick. This is one with a beautiful solo. It makes me smile. And so it continues with new twists throughout, an unexpected ’70s jazz funk section here, a psychedelic solo there, a veritable tornado of sound further on.
And the track that wraps it up, Fishaar. If you made Frank Zappa collaborate with Pink Floyd you’d have an inkling of what is in store. And the almost chaotic feel of some of the album seems to melt away with this heavy yet melodic track. The album is worth owning just for this.
I’ve never judged albums on the first or even second listen, because if it is easy to get on with straight away and has nothing left to give after a few listens then it isn’t always going to stand the test of time. This albums will continue to spark my interest for a while yet because there’s a lot to wrap your head around.
You should give it a go!
01. Ledfethur (4:50)
02. Sargatanas Before The Fall (6:20)
03. Ja’risa (5:00)
04. Pajammered (4:49)
05. Gnarsissus (6:31)
06. The Undergod (1:20)
07. Transuranium (4:00)
08. Fishaar (4:27)
Total Time: 37:28
Josh Goldberg – Chapman Stick, Guitar, Vocals (2) & Percussion (6)
Andy Porta – Drums (8), Ending Snares (1), Primary Capture and Mixing
Ritchie DeCarlo – Drums (1 & 3)
Josh Merhar – Drums (2 & 7)
Manny Agurto – Drums (4)
Kyle Harris – Drums (5)
Ben Levin – Guitar Solo (2)
Sam Crawford – Guitar Solo (4)
J Tyler Kent – Guitar Solo (5)
Record Label: Independent
Year Of Release: 2015