ARGENT: CIRCUS (1975)
1) Circus; 2) Highwire; 3) Clown; 4) Trapeze; 5) Shine On Sunshine; 6) The Ring; 7) The Jester.
So Ballard is out, replaced by not one, but two guitarists — John Grimaldi and John Verity, and thus begins the final, very brief, stage of Argent, almost completely ignored by history. Only one of the band's last two albums has so far been released on CD, and even so, finding it is quite a treat. Unjustly: Circus is really as fine a record as Rod could produce under the circumstances. Working almost alone, with a little help from bassist Jim Rodford (who wrote ʽTrapezeʼ), having to sing much of the material himself, but still refusing to move in overtly commercial directions — and still displaying plenty of inspiration.
As you can see from the song titles, Circus is sort of a concept album, but in a very loose sense. The lyrics use various circus metaphors to convey all sorts of points ("I'm on a highwire, baby, moving far above the ground... I'm on a wheel of fire, spilling my breath into the ground..."), and the music, as far as I can tell, features no circus-related themes whatsoever. If you are nervous about the prospect of hearing a bunch of «creative variations» on ʽEntry Of The Gladiatorsʼ, be relieved — these songs have no comic overtones, most of this stuff is grimly serious, but not tremendously convoluted progressive rock.
With Ballard's testosterone-drenched rock anthems out of the picture, something had to take their place, and the band finds new inspiration in the world of «art-funk» and even «jazz fusion». Both of the long epic pieces, ʽHighwireʼ and ʽTrapezeʼ, particularly the latter (ʽHighwireʼ is still more of a «symph-prog» composition overall), feature lots of syncopated bass, fusion piano, and even shredding-type guitar solos from the new guitarists — all sorts of stuff that one can see, for instance, on contemporary Soft Machine albums.
Both compositions suffer from clumsy, cluttered structuring and lack of individual identity: there are instrumental passages that resemble each other more than they should, and if the band actually decided to stick them together as one eighteen minute-long composition, I'm sure nobody would really mind. But it would be a fun eighteen minute-long composition. The vocal melodies are original and sometimes even catchy, Rod plays everything in sight — electric pianos, organs, Mellotrons, synthesizers — and some of these guitar solos are damn, damn good. And the circus metaphors add a little bit of purpose: you don't get to perceive the tracks as «just» lengthy fusion jams. The instrumental battles sort of symbolize the ongoing battle of life the same way as the «highwire» and «trapeze» metaphors. Ah well.
Of the shorter songs, ʽClownʼ is a serious highlight — a solemn ballad that returns us to Argent's baroque pop sensibilities; although its main leading arpeggiated piano line is rather generic, the whole combination (majestic piano, gorgeous vocal part, «heavenly» harmonies, psycho-fusion-esque synth solo, etc.) works very well. And yes, the clown is sad. If there is any sort of a humorous relief on the entire record, it only comes at the end — ʽThe Jesterʼ is a bouncy, light, but «progressified» music-hall number whose merry piano-banging is only slightly offset by the accompanying «astral» synth parts and a brief, sharp blues-rock solo.
All said, the simple music lover inside myself still regards the only «non-circus» track on the record, the lovely-lovely ballad ʽShine On Sunshineʼ, as its highest point — one of the greatest McCartney piano ballads that McCartney never wrote. Peaceful, humble, memorable, and the falsetto harmonies are killer. The fact that even Rod himself must have regarded it as one of his finest creations has now been directly confirmed by the re-recording with Colin Blunstone on vocals on the latest «Zombies reunion» album — a recording vastly inferior to the original, stripped almost completely of its warm, cuddly charm. By all means, seek out the old version with Rod himself on vocals: the masterpiece.
Summing up, Circus shows that the band did get up on its feet after the loss of Ballard. The fact that it did not last too long on those feet has everything to do with technical matters — lack of promotion, decrease of demand for that kind of music, an intentionally anti-commercial stand — and almost nothing to do with the quality of the music. Except that, as each and every Argent album, Circus is not tremendously original, and, as usual, you can get all of its separate elements (Yes-like symph-prog, Soft Machine-like fusion, McCartney-like balladry, etc.) in various better known, better promoted, and, let's admit it, usually better executed packages. But in some respects, it is still a unique synthesis, fully deserving of a thumbs up.