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Circle X - Prehistory

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Artist: Circle X

Album: Prehistory

Label: Blue Chopsticks

Review date: Oct. 15, 2008

Filled with buzzing, dank textures and incantatory vocals halfway between Biblical allegory and revolutionary incitement, Prehistory was inevitably destined to be a lesser-known issuance of New York’s post-No Wave period. Recorded in 1981, it was contemporaneous with the first EPs from Sonic Youth and Swans, and echoed the few releases from No Wave’s best-known figures such as DNA and Mars. But while the former two went on to renown and the latter became highly influential (if not actually oft-listened-to), Circle X has remained little-known over the years, a big reason being the band didn’t release their next album until the following decade (1994’s Celestial), then promptly called it quits.

This album was oddly ahead of its time, immersed in industrial atmosphere while lacking the in-your-face attitude of the No Wave crowd - odd, since Circle X emerged from the Louisville punk scene in 1978 before moving to NYC. It has its moments of abandon, such as the initial intro to "Culture Progress,” but spends most of its time reeking of factory-floor grime and apocalyptic gloom. Moreso than their NYC fellows, Circle X’s closest comparison is the west coast Factrix, who also merged night-dwelling experimentalism with distorted guitar fragments and tribal rhythms (and likewise received far less attention than they deserved). It’s also clear that later bands like Missing Foundation were very much aware of Circle X’s activities.

When vocalist Tony Pinotti is shouting, speaking or chanting, the band manifests a somewhat political presence, though any precise message is buried beneath abstract phrases and surreal imagery. What is one to make of "I was Mao’s dog / a worker commands / When Mao said bite / I bit / She is biting / the worker condemns" (from “Culture Progress”)? Or "History falls like / most of the people / are here just to survive / if only the bones were here” (from "Prehistory Part I"). The most affecting song here is oddly enough also the most disjointed: closer "Beyond Standard.” It really shouldn’t work, with its faltering drums and clumps of fuzz guitar swelling and fading seemingly at random. But Pinotti’s vocals mix the personal and the political without awkwardness. The lyrics read somewhat obviously, but the performance works a bit of magic.

Throughout the album, David Letendre’s drums and percussion just barely manage to keep things stumbling forward, while the guitars by Bruce Witsiepe and Rick Letendre alternately lacerate and mumble. The opening song, "Current," is the only one with bass, and Pinotti’s circular riff pins the track more firmly than the others. For the most part, though, chaos wins over structure and the music’s trajectory is resolutely set in a downward spiral away from any redemption.

Closing the gap between seemingly disparate name from PiL to Bauhaus, Throbbing Gristle to Sonic Youth, Beirut Slump to Crash Worship, we can hope that many more people get the chance to appreciate Prehistory than were given the opportunity 25 years ago. It’s a gritty reminder that great albums have always slipped through the cracks.

By Mason Jones

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