Unkle Ho – Circus Maximus (Elefant Traks/Inertia)


I’m going to rate this album as if the purpose of it was to provide a soundtrack to lazy evenings of cocktail sipping inside The Bar At the End of the Postmodern Universe. The kind of bar where mahjong tables nestle alongside dry martinis, and the walls are lined with portraits of fallen Communist leaders. There’s probably somewhere in Sydney just like it. On this level – the level of globe-sampling lounge music – Circus Maximus succeeds beautifully, even effortlessly. A few drinks in and I’d probably get up and sway along to it in a slurringly satisfied fashion. On any other level – and on the level that I suspect its maker wants it to be assessed on, as a serious meeting of musical cultures – it fails altogether.

There’s something so inescapably cheesy about this record, from the song titles – ‘Bar Chutzpah’, ‘Spaghetti Eastern’ – onwards. The main musical tactic is to meld 1920s swing jazz, played on clarinet, double bass and trumpet, to the twanging melodies of the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. Only occasionally do vocals intrude, via the polite-sounding Jane Tyrrell (from The Herd) on ‘Bally Broad’ or the unidentified Asian torch-singer sampled on ‘Hiroshi Waltz’. Mikelangelo (from Mikaelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen) guests on ‘On My Way Home’, where the instrumentation dovetails into a woozy gypsy waltz. Other tracks like ‘Bermuda Rectangle’ bring with them a lazy – by which I mean unimaginative – reggae beat.

I’m struggling to understand how Unkle Ho could have come up with an album this underwhelming given his starring role in hip-hop crew The Herd, who over the past six years have pulled off a series of intelligent, prescient moves on the local cultural landscape. Their cover of Redgum’s ‘I Was Only 19’ was a perfect example of effective pop recycling, giving new context and urgent life to a half-forgotten song. Early single ‘77%’ was a fiery musical polemic, the best this country’s had in years. But Circus Maximus? There’ll be no dancing in the streets to this one.

Emmy Hennings


About Author

emmy likes cats, cooking, zines and anarchism. tea pots, typewriters and vinyl records make her happy.


  1. Tough review! I’ve found it a very difficult album to come to terms with myself, too.

    I found Circus Maximus is a very polished album – certainly packing more detail and better production than his first album. Perhaps that is its first fault – a lack of grit.

    I’d agree that this might be what lends itself to your opening criticism that is all a bit too swish/world-cafe-esque, whereas Unkle Ho’s debut was more interesting and managed to sidestep those kind of immediate cafe associations (was it the beats?).

    The almost throwaway track names are not a good omen – and certainly lead to the impression that this sampling of crosscultural music is less than serious. (Does it always need to be ‘serious’? I’m not sure.)

    I’ve noticed that a lot of other descriptions of the album have focussed on it being ‘exotic’ and this is where it becomes tricky. Is it exotic because of the preconceptions of the listener, or the intentions of the producer, or a combination of the two? Where does ‘exotic’ become ‘authentic’? Can it?

    Again, I’m not sure.

  2. Guessing at an artist’s motivations is one of the hardest – though I think necessary – things about reviewing. Unkle Ho’s album is a conundrum for me because, on the one hand, I don’t think that it’s meant to be a musically “serious” record. As I said in the review, as something to nod along to – easy listening if you will – it’s actually rather nice. And yet I doubt that Unkle Ho had an aim as simple as easy listening in mind when he made this album. I credit him with a great deal more intelligence and ability than as a maker of lounge music exotica. As Seb mentioned, the first Unkle Ho album was really interesting, and so is his work in The Herd of course.

    Maybe I’ve got it wrong (always a distinct possibility!) and an easy party soundtrack is all he ever had in mind for this record. That wouldn’t assuage my disappointment, but it would change the criteria on which I judged this album.

    I didn’t expect it to be a beat-heavy piece of political righteousness, by any means. The first Unkle Ho record isn’t that either, nor should it be. I don’t think that emotional or political “seriousness” would be the way to redeem Circus Maximus. I’m not sure what would be the solution.

    The “smoothness/grittiness” dichotomy is an interesting one. I’m aware of my prejudice towards hearing what is “smooth” as somehow untrustworthy, or inauthentic. I try to be aware of that prejudice. It’s pretty entrenched as a cultural value, particularly when it comes to music.

  3. One last thought. I think that Curseovdialect are a good example of a local group who take that world music sampling approach (for want of a better phrase) and do it well, with great wit – even chutzpah. Wooden Tongues (their 2006 album) was an excellent record. For me the pace and tone of their music – its freneticism – mirrors the “grab everything, everything is up for sale” mood of the globalised world?

  4. Curse Ov Dialect do employ a sample-based approach and the difference with the new Unkle Ho album is that this time around more instruments are ‘played’ rather than sampled – perhaps it is this that, paradoxically, creates that aura of ‘inauthenticity’? (I’m not clear why this is though? It reminds me of the criticisms of drum & bass in the mid 90s when it expurged the sampled ragga voices and replaced them with ‘real’ musicians and ‘jazzy’ sounds)

    Freneticism – yes, this is the same element that makes Filastine and a bunch of other producers working in a similar space interesting. Freneticism, dirt, blood and grit is all what the pointy end of globalisation is all about – the soft end is imported fabrics, designer stores, fruit that is ‘always in season’.

    From Filastine’s latest mix the blurb articulates urgency and the implicit politics well –

    Hot off his debut album on Soot Records, Filastine’s first solo DJ session displays him blending mental Balkan brass in odd time signatures with dubstep, breakcore, a murky Romanian diva, and Turkic hiphop. The mix bumps with exclusive and vinyl only Filastine remixes & riddims by international beatsmiths, laced with Filastine’s personal field recordings gathered from Budapest to Istanbul.

    Why the fistfight? The region where brass orchestras swap sounds with Islamic troubadours and gypsy bands has recently seen the far-right pushing hard with concepts of ethnic purity and nationalism. In response, Filastine slams us with a conceptual counter-punch. Like his fan-winning stage performances blending future beats and live percussion, it’ll blow your mind wide open.

  5. I agree that a thoughtful analysis of the artist’s motives are an important ingredient to a good review – however it does mean you take a leap of faith (into your own expectations) somewhat. On one level, I think you’re correct, in that Unkle Ho does want his music to be a meeting of many cultures.. not just easy listening cafe music. But if he wanted the latter, he could’ve easily stuck to traditional sampling and the addition of jazz session musos. It just so happens, that Ho’s Chinese background informs his own interest in music from around the world – rather than the fad of ‘global sounds’.

    The point about cheesy track titles is an arbitrary one – and at best a blurry indicator of a good or bad omen (name me an instrumental artist and I’ll name you a cheesy/goofy/unoriginal track name of theirs). What is it about ‘Diabolical Dual’ or ‘The Lost Forest’ (both from Roads to Roma) that is so different from ‘Spaghetti Eastern’?

    But it’s an interesting point and ummm, I’ll be honest, the subject is often a laughing matter here at the label – we’ve also joked with hermitude about some lazy track names (I’m trying not to be too defensive here :) Is an instrumental artist gonna name a song after a sample they used? The vibe of the song? Some crackpot conspiracy theory? Something completely random? Any of the above? Or in the world of the highly esteemed deadly serious (gush) *artist*, is there a profound purpose-built name for said pieces?

    To me, Curse are a great example of many great and interesting ingredients that result in a confused chaotic creation. Does it’s chaos mean its original? Hmm.. I’m not so sure.. to me, they’ve got dope beats with frenetic raps that sometimes go together nicely. Sometimes the craziness seems to be prioritised over the storytelling – and that can simply be a mask. Their production really isn’t that different to a whole lot of other hip hop I hear.

    Then again, maybe it’s not that in a globalised world “everything is up for sale’… perhaps it’s just that it’s of ‘interest’.

    If this music is the soundtrack to ‘The Bar At the End of the Postmodern Universe’ – fuck it, pour me a drink and I’ll toast to whatever you wanna call it.

  6. Stephen Feld’s article, ‘A Sweet Lullaby for World Music’ is relevant to this – http://unjobs.org/authors/steven-feld, (top link). Deals with globalisation, postmodernity, authenticity etc. in the context of Deep Forest… yes insert groan here. Specifically their sampling of field recordings from the Solomon Islands, their reluctance to compensate the originators, and more broadly the implications of the marketing category ‘World Music’, might sound boring but I found it really interesting.

    What’s the difference between Deep Forest and Unkle Ho? Whole bunch of things I’m sure, I’m reluctant to comment directly having not heard the new album yet but I think the intention of the artist has to be somewhere in the mix… I agree with Tim about Curse and the sampling issue more broadly, not a criticism of them specifically, like their music and what they’ve done, but I’m not sure that sampling a sound from another musical tradition necessarily represents a meaningful engagement with another culture, or equates to good music in the end.

    Is it possible to ascribe new meaning to a sound by putting it in a new context? How does an artist deal with listeners’ latent interpretive habits? Do live instruments complicate things? Probably, like you Seb, I’m not sure on this one. Though when used lazily in reviews and things, ‘exotic’ to my mind usually reads like a euphemism for one culture misunderstanding and commodifying others.

  7. Personally i’m a little mystified why you stack this album up against Unkle’s Herd work (rather than his last album). They are two entirely different beasts. Could it be (smack my own hand for even thinking it) that you wrote a kinda lazy review ? Good reviewing usually rises above mere statement of preference, but thats pretty much what we have here – you like banging weirdness a la Curse, which is all well & good, but comparing that to this ? Hard to take that comparison too seriously.

    I will agree that Circus Maximus is maybe not as strong or dynamic as Roads to Roma. That said its also got a better flow as an album than Roads, a more laid-back groove albeit with moments of frentic madness. Where Roads was all about slapping heavy metal riffs up against trumpets and mid-eastern sounds to see what happens, this one contructs a bit more flow and consistency. It does seem that you kinda missed the point of the Unkle vibe, if you were expecting serious world music or Yo Yo Ma or whatever. Unkle’s off kilter bag of 5/4 time eastern oddities make the world a richer & funkier place altogether..