20 Years Ago: ‘…And the Circus Leaves Town’ For Kyuss
Rarely has a band used an album title to comment on the state of their career as earnestly as Kyuss did with 1995’s …And the Circus Leaves Town. The record predated the stoner rock pioneers' sudden collapse by a matter of months. Only shortly before then, their future had looked as bright as the molten sun that sets daily over the sparsely populated California high desert out of which the band was spawned, along with their peculiar and visionary sound.
Originally going by the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired moniker of Sons of Kyuss (and, before that, Katzenjammer), vocalist John Garcia, guitarist Josh Homme, bassist Chris Cockrell (soon to be replaced by Nick Oliveri), and drummer Brant Bjork unknowingly benefited from their isolated upbringing in that their random musical influences mutated into a post-hardcore bastardization of heavy metal. It was a sound that sounded simultaneously retro and modern.
This musical soup unfortunately failed to coalesce entirely on Kyuss’ independently recorded debut, 1991’s Wretch. But securing Masters of Reality frontman Chris Goss as producer for the following year’s watershed Blues for the Red Sun proved to make all the difference. It resulted in a truly groundbreaking and devastating signature sound quite unlike anything heard before.
As a result, Kyuss became overnight critical sensations within the well-informed heavy metal community. They signed a major label deal with Elektra Records and doubled down on their creative breakthrough with 1994’s equally inspired and celebrated Welcome to Sky Valley. But not even their new record company’s promotional muscle was enough for mainstream music listeners to see the light. Kyuss were, in retrospect, ahead of their time, and now running out of time.
Even before Blues for the Red Sun’s release, Oliveri had rolled off like a tumbleweed and been replaced by Scott Reeder. And after the dispiriting sales of Sky Valley, it was drummer Brant Bjork’s turn to walk off into the rising sandstorm. Garcia and Homme brought in Alfredo Hernandez for the sessions of their all-important fourth long player.
This, from all outwards appearances, still looked and sounded like the next chapter in Kyuss' stoner rock revolution, retaining and even cautiously expanding the band’s signature sound. And yet some of the magic was missing, and some puzzle pieces did not quite fit.
New songs like “Hurricane,” “Thee Ol’ Boozeroony” and “Catamaran” retained the same spooky atmospherics, cryptic titles, and half-thrash, half-space rock elements of old, but ultimately with less inspired results. Others like the groove-focused “One Inch Man,” “Gloria Lewis,” “Jumbo Blimp Jumbo” and “Size Queen” now sound like promising rough drafts for Homme’s future vehicle Queens of the Stone Age.
But the sparks flew whenever Kyuss managed to compress the extreme soft/hard dynamics at their disposal into novel forms. This was apparent on album standouts like the syrupy “Phototropic,” the ying-yang colossus “El Rodeo,” the galloping “Tangy Zizzle” and the sheer tectonic rumble imparted by aptly named closer “Spaceship Landing.”
At the end of the day, …And the Circus Leaves Town may not have been perfect, but it was only disappointing insofar as it wasn’t quite the masterpiece that its two immediate predecessors had been. Once its sales fell well short of expectation yet again, the four men of Kyuss suffered a mid-tour bust-up from which they sadly could not recover.
As their circus left town for the last time, new ones sprung, first in the shape of its former members' new bands like Slo Burn, Unida, the Desert Sessions and the aforementioned QOTSA. But secondly and, perhaps, most importantly, in the countless acts around the globe that were spawned from the seeds sowed by Kyuss during their brief but explosive flight across the ‘90s alternative metal firmament.
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