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.