25 Years On: And The Circus Leaves Town By Kyuss Revisited

Dean Brown revisits the stoner rock giants' flawed but rewarding swansong

A couple of initial thoughts come to mind when looking back at Kyuss’ 1995 swansong, …And The Circus Leaves Town. The first being whether the fact that the Californian four-piece split three months following the date of its release coloured opinions of the actual value of the music. Certainly the lack of promotion could easily have been a deciding factor in how the final Kyuss album ended up being less critically and commercially successful when compared to their two albums which helped birth the stoner rock movement – 1992’s Blues For The Red Sun and 1994’s Welcome To Sky Valley.

But another argument could be that …And The Circus Leaves Town wasn’t actually good enough in the first place, due to each member pulling in different directions, both personally and creatively. Perhaps the fact it didn’t get the same promotional push as that of its predecessors didn’t make any difference to how the album came to be viewed, since the songwriting wasn’t as strong as it had been when Kyuss’ cult status was originally forged.

In all probability, the reason why …And The Circus Leaves Town remains an overlooked part of Kyuss’ discography is probably found in the grey middle-ground between the two above points. Fortunately though, the passage of time gives us fresh opportunity to re-evaluate its artistic merits, which actually hold up better than some would lead you to believe.

Because of circumstance, Kyuss’ last album is an underrated part of their small but hugely impactful discography. It is an imperfect collection of songs created by a band who originally formed as means of playing obnoxiously loud music to their drunk and stoned friends but who instead went on to inspire a mass of sativa-stained riff-heads, not to mention the biggest metal band in the world, Metallica, on a pair of disjointed hard rock albums, Load and Reload. (But don’t blame Kyuss for that.)

Drummer Brant Bjork and guitarist Josh Homme met when they were pre-pubescent teenagers and bonded over a love of punk rock bands like Black Flag, the Ramones and Discharge. Both Bjork and Homme then befriended bassist Nick Oliveri and vocalist John Garcia in high school and as fate would have it, the first core line-up of Kyuss was formed following the 1989 Sons Of Kyuss EP; their only release featuring Chris Cockrell. (Oliveri originally jammed with the guys as a second guitarist but he was fired by Homme and then replaced Cockrell on bass as the band shortened their name from Sons of Kyuss to Kyuss.) It wouldn’t be long before these four young musicians allowed the stifling heat and their sun-charred surroundings burn into their jam-based music. Now-infamous desert parties ensued, and Kyuss honed their sound under the open valley skies, playing without time limits powered by big generators allowing for high volume, huge red-hot riffs and hard rock rhythms.

Kyuss’ rough and ready debut, Wretch, was hewn from those nascent jam sessions. Released in 1991 through Dali Records, their first album was a promising start for this group of teenagers. The ragged songs highlighted the punk influence that initially inspired Bjork and Homme but would become primarily drowned out in all but spirit by waves of powerful Iommic riffs roaring from the bass amp-driven guitars. These riffs came courtesy of the naturally gifted Homme, who, oddly, has always rejected Black Sabbath as being a prime influence on his playing – although you can hear their seminal blues-based call in the majority of his scorching guitar work.

It wouldn’t be until Kyuss formed a friendship/working relationship with guru Chris Goss (Masters Of Reality), however, that the standard of their music and popularity began to ascend like the heavenly body named in the title of their second studio album. Blues For The Red Sun was released in the summertime of ’92 and featured Goss as producer. He brought required experience and expertise to Kyuss but each member of the band had improved their craft tremendously at this stage of the game. The results of their inherent chemistry reverberated throughout the second album, from the mystical beginnings of ‘Thumb’ to the turbo-fuelled thump of ‘Green Machine’ and on to the trippy jam of ‘Freedom Run’ and the lysergic howl of ‘Mondo Generator’.

While Blues For The Red Sun didn’t sell a shitload of records (39,000 units according to some sources), the resulting impact it had on the droves of bands that followed in their wake cannot be calculated in monetary terms (or in illegal downloads, as the case may be in this day and age). Blues For The Red Sun also opened up some promotional and touring opportunities for the young band. It took the Palm Desert four-piece on the road and outside of California for the first time. They now had a great command of groove and dynamics; an understanding of the importance of an unbridled, catchy lick; and their ace in the hole: the gritty Southern drawl of Garcia’s voice.

Just before its release, however, Oliveri was again fired by Homme; an event that would repeat itself for the third time years later in Queens Of The Stone Age. The void created by the bassist’s departure was filled by The Obsessed’s Scott Reeder, whose mellow attitude no doubt came as a relief after Oliveri’s fiery antics. This wouldn’t be the only line-up change in the Kyuss camp around this time: founding member Bjork brought further instability just as things were starting to take off in ’93 when he left citing "creative and personal problems" as the cause. Toss in the reality that their label, Dali Records, was in ruins and things were starting to look bleak.

Thankfully, Kyuss were saved when the major label Elektra Records swooped in and signed them. So as the uncertain year drew to a close Kyuss decided to press on, and were rewarded by being picked as a support on an Australian Metallica tour. This upswing was to be short-lived however. Their third album, Welcome To Sky Valley – also recorded with Goss on production duties – sat mouldering on the shelf. Because of the instabilities experienced during the previous year, their major label debut and the last album to feature Bjork’s elemental drumming, wasn’t released until June ’94.

Expectations were beginning to build in the run up to the eventual release of Welcome To Sky Valley but if they were under stress, Kyuss didn’t show it. In Sky Valley they had produced a record that was arguably greater than Blues For The Red Sun. It showed a more psychedelic slant to the songwriting as well and contained their biggest ‘hit’ in the sinister surge of ‘Demon Cleaner’. Take into consideration the burnin’ rubber grooves of ‘100°’, the heaving blues licks of ‘Supa Scoop And Mighty Scoop’, and their crowning achievement, the monumental ‘Whitewater’, and you have one huge creative summit which had been created by a band who were unsure whether they wanted to even carry on, never mind outdo what they had already achieved.

If you read any of the interviews with those who contributed to …And The Circus Leaves Town (Homme, Garcia, Reeder and drummer Alfredo Hernández, who replaced Bjork in ’94), it becomes clear the recording process was rife with mounting tension, making things difficult on all parties. Garcia was even quoted as saying that it was "a horrible fucking record to make" and that "Josh and I were clashing all the time and had creative differences." Sometimes inter-party friction can cause a spark that ignites the creativity but in the case of Kyuss, they went in with the mentality of getting the recording at the legendary Sound City Studios (Van Nuys, California) over and done with – which says quite a bit regarding the general mood within the band at the time.

However, this didn’t stop Kyuss taking advantage of the major label’s money during the recording. Reeder told Roadburn.com back in 2009 that so "much money was just getting thrown out the window. People running around to get you food, cigarettes, anything you wanted." He also confirmed the strained atmosphere that Garcia mentioned, stating: "There was also a bit of bickering going on, and I was pretty stressed. Too many weird vibes. It wasn’t the way things are supposed to be." And also that "everyone was a little too stoned", which he said, "made for a lot of wasted time". Pressure, tense relationships and too many bong hits seems to sum up the experience, and when you cut to the core of the actual music now that 25 years have passed you can hear that this wasn’t the same band – in spirit at least – that wrote Blues… and …Sky Valley.

In hindsight, what made Kyuss so special was how their music sounded so instinctual – an untamed channelling of the world’s vibrations using instruments, amps and God-given talent as the grounding rod. Some songs could flow like torrents of water in any direction the creative current took them, and each member of Kyuss surrendered themselves to the elements. The freedom this imparted meant that though Kyuss were often copied, they were never equalled. For the majority of …And The Circus Leaves Town‘s songs, however, the wildness and open-endedness of the past was curtailed into short, inflexible song structures akin to ‘Allen’s Wrench’ and ‘100°’. It would set the tone musically for what Homme would do with Hernández on Queens Of The Stone Age’s self-titled debut album, released in 1998, as well as the more commercial fare he has released with his current band in the years since Kyuss split. But like Queens Of The Stone Age, …And the Circus Leaves Town had its fair share of strong songs, even if the central format was more straightforward and predictable than what we had come to expect from Kyuss, now sans a songwriter and integral player in Bjork.

‘Hurricane’ got the album off to a great start. Homme and Garcia, who were credited as a writing tag team on the opener, were also responsible for ‘Gloria Lewis’ and ‘El Rodeo’, which are three of the best tracks on the album. ‘Hurricane’ introduced Hernández’s more rigid style of drumming which was less indebted to swing than Bjork’s but still a solid rhythmic spouse for Reeder’s booming low-end. The bass bubbled around the air of effortless cool radiating from Homme’s fuzzy guitars which supported Garcia’ signature fire-spitting vocals. ‘El Rodeo’ stood out as the best of the three songs written by Homme/Garcia; its killer percussion was utilised at the beginning in tandem with some elastic bass-lines from Reeder before Homme side-swiped all with the best riff on the entire album. It was a surging moment of intoxicating intensity on what was for the most part a chilled hard rock album.

Outside of the cover of ‘Catamaran’ by Hernández’s previous band Yawning Man, the other instrumental pieces on …And The Circus Leaves Town – ‘Jumbo Blimp Jumbo’ (Homme) and ‘Thee ‘Ol Boozeroony’ (Reeder) – weren’t as strong compositionally. And because they sounded like filler due to their underdeveloped nature, they acted as a mood and momentum killers: ‘Thee ‘Ol Boozeroony’ stifled the swagger ‘One Inch Man’ thrived on, and ‘Jumbo Blimp Jumbo’ sounded tepid after the raging riffs of ‘El Rodeo’ and the aqueous nature of ‘Phototropic’. What made ‘Phototropic’ and the lengthy but wonderfully engaging finale, ‘Spaceship Landing’, so special was that both songs recalled the superb free-flowing jam style of …Sky Valley, with their loose structures and dynamic interplay. They added to the overall listening experience greatly, and together with other highlights like ‘El Rodeo’, ‘Hurricane’ and the only single from the album, ‘One Inch Man’, they still stand tall today as tracks worthy of the now-lauded Kyuss name. Consequentially, it is songs such as these that make …And the Circus Leaves Town worth reassessing and revisiting by fans old and new.

In the post-Nirvana world of ’95, with Radiohead’s The Bends and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinitive Sadness dominating alternative rock music, Kyuss’ subsequent break-up wasn’t universally seen as the big disappointment that you might presume. The band’s myth was yet to swell to epic proportions. Although, as Reeder once stated, Kyuss’ last US tour was the first time that the shows were packed out and he felt that the band were finally "starting to get the word out". He said to Roadburn.com: "Pulling the plug at that point in time to me was just as senseless as committing suicide to preserve your youth."

The decision to end the band stemmed directly from Homme. Despite the efforts and enthusiasm of Garcia, Oliveri and even Bjork to get Kyuss back together over the years to play the hits to those who missed out the first time ’round, Homme has always staunchly refused and kept focused on the more successful Queens. He was so adamant about shutting Kyuss reunions down that in 2012 he launched a federal lawsuit (backed by Reeder) over the rights to the name, and accordingly he prevented the remaining members who were touring together as Kyuss Lives! from continuing in this manner. The other guys went on to form Vista Chino with guitarist Bruno Fevery taking Homme’s role, and they released their …And The Circus Leaves Town-like debut Peace in 2013, to mostly favourable reviews.

Such bad blood and legal wrangling ensured that the Kyuss story ended on a sour note, focused as it was on money and not art. (Or maybe it was the preservation of art by the rejection of assured financial gain?) But in any event, when you drop the needle onto wax Kyuss, they still live ta quarter century later, as ‘Hurricane”s bluster blows right out of your speakers after the opening drum fill.

There is unquestionable chemistry to be found in each of Kyuss’ four albums, the likes of which each member has been chasing since the band’s demise. Homme has been the closest to re-capturing it in Queens. Twenty-five years on and yes, …And The Circus Leaves Town has some songwriting faults and lacks energy in parts, but it’s still Kyuss and it’s likely to be the last we’ll ever hear from this special band. For that reason alone this album deserves to be cherished as much as the two molten hot records that came right before it. Overall, it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind for a bunch of stoner kids straight out of the desert.

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