Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean
(2016, Guided by Voices Inc.)
2016 was a relatively quiet year for Robert Pollard, that is, in terms of released material. The year opened strong with Pollard's solo outing, Of Course You Are, and continued with the return of Guided by Voices in Please Be Honest. So after, only 2 LPs worth of material (both with insipid, un-Pollardian album titles), the record store shelves and internet went dark with Pollard LP news for months. 2014 and 2015 combined saw nearly 30 releases (28 of which found its way onto this blog in separate reviews), while October 2016's Pollard release count sat stagnant at a mere two!
It's not as if Pollard wasn't keeping busy. For the first time in two years, Uncle Bob hit the road with his newly branded Guided by Voices line-up, making festival stops around the country (and across international boarders), making stops on the west coast and the deeper south. So when word got out that not only was Doug Gillard BACK in Guided by Voices following a mid-summer dispute/mutual departure with guitarist, Nick Mitchell, camp Pollard quickly announced the release of the new side project, ESP Ohio.
The announcement couldn't have come at a more convenient time. With the formerly mentioned addition of Gillard to GBV, the faithful couldn't help contain themselves over the possibilities that might lie ahead with Gillard back in the fold. Less than a month into his presence, and already a new LP had been recorded? In reality, ESP Ohio's first outing was put to tape in March of 2016, anchored by new addition, drummer (and engineer), Travis Harrison. On bass, Mark Shue, the newly acquired GBV's bassist makes his first recorded appearance on a Pollard recording as well.
Most importantly, this finds Pollard and Gillard working together again for the first time since 2011's Lifeguards' LP, Waving at the Astronauts. As expected with any Pollard/Gillard release, the prog takes front and center. Gillard, never one to shy away from guitar heroics, adds an overtly sleeker, sometimes underlying sleazier, side to Pollard's instinctual pop chops. With the return-to-form naming of Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean, the record as a whole may arguably be Pollard's personal dream release of the year. Rock, pop, and prog loaded, the LP is a promising first showing from another Pollard vehicle we can all hope ventures forward, in both name and spirit.
Also, two trivial aspects to touch on: Pollard originally was going to release 2013's Circus Devils' LP My Mind Has Seen the White Trick under the name ESP Ohio, but decided against it at the last minute. In contrast, that Todd Tobias/Pollard showing has little to nothing in common with this record. Also, speaking of Circus Devils, Pollard is most certainly the only rock musician (or person), to use the word "Cyclopean" in not one, but two, great songs in his career (check out "Cyclopean Runways" off Capsized!).
A Much Needed Shot in the Arm- 4 The song opens with hopefully mobile guitar jabs from Gillard as Pollard recalls an old melody that's hard to place but wholly familiar. The build-ups to the chorus really open things up until the song tightens a bit into darker territory. Before you know it, we're off and flying free again. The whole shebang stirs up late period GBV, when Gillard and Pollard were out take the world in their TVT Records days.
The Great One- 4 A somewhat idiotic vocal line opens up over what sounds like a wind-up, monotonously poppy march. Then a "fiddle" effect comes in for a few bars and absolutely crushes. The rest of the verses are a pretty bland mix of idiotic bomping. Fear not, for the song switches gears and carries us out into a first raising redemptive "chorus" that leaves you wanting more.
Tom Tom Small and Wonderful- 4 A bleaker, stranger trip down a dark hallway, stupid title and all. The echoing "la la la" vocal parts are straight haunting, but the whole song has a subtle vocal hook to it that really sinks its teeth in after repeated listens. Reminiscent of something off Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair. Again, the closing shines and leaves you in need of a revisit. Pollard is using his fadeouts to the height of their powers on this LP.
Miss Hospital '93- 3 Sounds a bit lifeless both vocally, and musically, at first (reminiscent of some Tobias recorded stuff from Pollard's solo Merge period). The chorus raises the bar, but the hook just seems to miss its mark. Pretty standard fair, garnished with some welcomed and appropriate trumpet fair toward the end. Abruptly ends and unwittingly shifts into....
Bird Man of Cloth- 3 Oh man, what a transition! It's 2016, but it's like listening to Moses on a Snail all over again. The verses are like straight frowns put to tape. The chorus brings some rays of light, before pulling the curtains shut again. Pollard, his unsteady hand on the dial, can't help but keep turning up the prog factor on this as the song progresses. Unsteady, but rather solid.
Intercourse Fashion- 2 Always one to dabble in both bad titles, and attitude laced rockers, this song delivers both. The verses show glimpses of stiff-upper-lip guitar chug rock, followed by some eye-roll worthy lyrics in the choruses. Speaking of said chorus, they are the complete, airy opposite of the verses. Still, the song feels more like 2 ideas interconnected haphazardly without a direct payoff.
You the Earth Man- 2 Another slogging attitude rocker, thanks in part to that "oh that's Doug Gillard playing that, right?" guitar parts. This is the Lifeguards' song that got away on, say Mist King Urth. The verses are straight cornball, including Pollard's vocal delivery. The choruses save it, but the lyrics are straight from the scrap pile. If you can get past the schlock, and Gillards' ridiculous guitar bends, you'll be in for the track of your life.
Flowers and Magazines- 3 This one has the potential to really burst out at the seams as a true gem, flirting with cutting loose from time to time. However, this closer to Side A is progged as all hell thanks to Mark Shue's heavy melodic bass noodling, and Gillard's '70s guitar leads. Weird, short, catchy, and worthy of repeated listens.
Royal Cyclopean- 5 Released as one of the two singles off the LP, it is clear why. Everything about this track screams NEW Pollard classic! Yes, it recalls a lot of what made Pollard a household name in our hearts. A slow guitar chug holds this all together, as Pollard gives his melodic declaration before the song opens into anthem territory. Oh yeah, we're also treated to a ridiculously simple and empowering trumpet lead line through the verses. The blink or you'll miss it "chorus" is to die for. Gillard's lead guitar flourishes are top notch. To be loved for ages.
Weakened By a Logical Mind- 5 Light opener following the opening blazer to side B. Pollard's vocals mirror the guitar stop start rhythm, but it's all works quite handsomely. The chorus is catchy as a bag of fish hooks in an overcrowded pond full of starved fish. Gillard's guitar leads, although subtle, are a highlight in this short outing.
Girls' House- 4 Feels slightly off-kilter but unfolds into rather pop standard fair. Gets catchier with further revisits. The only bruise on the whole thing is Pollard's baritone "in a girls' house" vocal interjections toward the end. Great, short instrumental section sees us out.
This Violent Side- 4 Between the guitar stabs, the drum machine sounding beat, and the high end bass melody line, this feels more like Interpol goes pop than Pollard. The song breaks off into bleaker territory, before returning to its sweet, but thin, form. Yes, short and oh-so-sweet.
The Ticket Who Rallied- 4 Guitar rock, set-on-destructionm opens it up complete with nicely placed cowbell hits. How 'bout that? Ever shifting gears between prog-stadium sections and punchier punk territory, the song pushes forward. Each shift in mood is another short burst of excitement, even when you know it's coming. Pollard drops plenty of melodic interjections throughout, especially mid-section. Another brief Side B inclusion that cohesively holds the whole side together.
Sleeping Through the Noise- 3 Overall cold atmosphere, complete with Circus Devils' ambiance in the background. Pollard languidly gives a solid vocal showing more akin to melodic spoken word over this swamp of mood and short bursts of caffeinated aggression. Sounds like a lost Lifegaurds' track. Far from memorable in the scheme of things, but a quality mood piece tacked in for good measure.
Lithuanian Bombshells- 5 The second of two singles released off the LP. Like "Royal Cyclopean," it's easy to see why. Is that vintage crowd friendly melodies I hear opening up the song? Better believe it. Could this be the great Ricked Wicky song that got away? For good measure, the song shifts gears following one of the greatest pop-oriented verses Pollard's written in a while. One of those rare times the verse outshines the chorus. But damn, do we need that downward shift in the chorus to make us appreciate the some of the finer points in life.
Grand Beach Finale- 5 Great title! And a GREAT closing track. With a million and one chances to close his records on a high note, Pollard's missed the opportunity more times than not over the years. Here, at nearly 5 minutes, you've got to let it all play out. Wholly unimpressive at first, we slowly drown in sparse guitar work mixed with stomping drums as Pollard sings on assuredly. A slow burner that keeps it mid-tempo throughout, but let it works its mysterious ways on 'ya. The subtle harmonizing, backed with guitar pulls, leads into the "check them out.." parts. Play on and revel in one forceful track full of understatements and patience.