“Eclectic” is a word beloved of music writers, but sometimes, like the superlative adjectives, it manages to escape the prison of overuse and actually apply to something in a totally appropriate and valid way. The Vermont collective Jack O’the Clock, now nine albums into an almost wilfully obscure career, is the something that our word eclectic adheres to, and then some. With their new album The Warm, Dark Circus they have taken their ostensibly folk-prog template – and I do it a great disservice there, I have to say – and pushed the tattered envelope right off that Appalachian mountainside, from whence it flutters contentedly into the blue abyss.
Take the opening track The Ladder Slipped, which starts huddled around that Appalachian campfire with a harmonica and a banjo, and extrapolates into Chris Squire basslines and full-on, if not trad prog, at least something that bears its influence in its own peculiar fashion. Lyrically, band leader, songwriter, and musical director Damon Waitkus is not to be left behind by his odd but beguiling musical smorgasbord, as the subjects broached here with poetic candour and an economy of style at odds with the music, are never throwaway. That opening track is about the effects of a serious accident on the protagonist, and a looming decision of whether or not to carry on, as “I will be tempted to reach in between the seats and feel the heft of my just-in-case.”
Dürer’s Rhinoceros alludes to a well-known 16th Century woodcut of the noble beast by Albrect Dürer, who famously never actually saw the animal. A neat metaphor for art being formed of imagination over experience. How much that applies to Damon’s muse is anyone’s guess. Division Blues is a short, fractious and angsty funky beast, featuring the always unsettling use of microtones! Nothing is quite what it seems with this band, which is what attracts me. Dislocation and displacement are themes writ large in this circus of misfits and outcasts, as Stuck Inside of Elvis illustrates:
and felt a kind of click that seemed to set the world askew.
You know that kind of click: you meet your own impersonator,
become a spectator captivated by the cold precision
of your own dead-end ways.”
It would be tempting to fall into the dreaded and dull track-by-track description trap here, as every song has its own quirky character, illuminated by imaginative instrumentation and sharp lyrics, but you can find all that out for yourself by hitting the Bandcamp link. I will leave you with a precis of the two-track epic near the end of this strangely Gothic journey, which harks back to the title of their second album, released in 2011. How Are We Doing… …And Who Will Tell Us? is a pair of labyrinthine and fantastical journeys to the other side of a valley guided by psychotropics as Henry Cow dances around the maypole with Gryphon on the deliciously avant How Are We Doing. These two multi-faceted epic songs have apparently been in construction as long as the band has existed, and the craft and care taken with these arrangements is obvious.
Is this prog? You bet your bottom dollar it is, and progressive in the true sense of the word. “Everyone in town was walking backwards”, Damon multi-tracks as things take a turn for the edge on …And Who Will Tell Us?. Damon’s musical influences are all-encompassing, but as a schoolkid he was apparently into prog while his peers were all smelling the teen spirit, and it shows. My guess is Yes featured fairly regularly. There are moments in …And Who Will Tell Us? that will make the more Topographically Relayered Yeshead smile wryly to themselves. Never “like Yes”, but certainly wielding their influence in strange and unexpected ways, on top of a myriad of other ideas, the only thing you’ll want to do when these two tracks are over is play them again.
Jack O’the Clock are one of those bands that seem to be a closely guarded secret by those in the know, which is a real shame as the sheer scope of The Warm, Dark Circus shows that Damon Waitkus is a man with a unique and thoroughly entertaining musical vision that gets more widescreen with each release.
01. The Ladder Slipped (7:27)
02. Division Blues (2:21)
03. Stuck Inside of Elvis (4:45)
04. Sage’s Song (0:48)
05. Dürer’s Rhinoceros (12:54)
06. This is Just What it Seems (3:29)
07. How Are We Doing… (13:15)
08. …And Who Will Tell Us? (8:21)
09. Snowman on a Ledge (3:30)
Total Time – 56:55
Damon Waitkus – Vocals, Guitars, Hammered Dulcimers, Piano, Flutes
Emily Packard – Violin, Viola
Jason Hoopes – Bass
Jordan Glenn – Drums, Accordion, Synthesiser
Kate McLoughlin – Bassoon
Thea Kelly – Vocals
Victor Reynolds – Guitars, Recorders, Harmonica, Vocals
Ivor Holloway – Saxophones
Jon Russell – Clarinets
Keith Waters – Baritone Saxophone
Karl Evangelista – Electric Guitar
Art Elliot – Piano
Josh Packard – Cello
Ben Spees – Microtonal Guitars
Myles Boisen – Pedal Steel
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 27th October 2023