Circus Devils: Squeeze The Needle [Album Review]

Circus Devils
Squeeze The Needle
GBV Inc. [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

The “comeback album” is a risky proposition. More often than not, once a band has gone on hiatus or broken up it’s hard to recapture the original chemistry. Expectations run high, usually too high for the final result to meet. There are some pretty good comeback albums, but the list of mediocre or downright terrible ones is a lot longer. Even rarer is that musical white whale: the comeback album that not only meets fans’ high expectations but exceeds them, going on to become one of the classics in a band’s discography.

Time will tell, but Squeeze the Needle, the fifteenth album by Circus Devils, might just join those ranks. From the opening guitar riffs of “Honeymoon in Waynesville” to the abrasive screeches of the title track, it feels like the band (Robert Pollard and brothers Todd and Tim Tobias) hasn’t missed a beat despite going on a six-year break. Of course, they’ve all been plenty busy in that time—Pollard has released twelve albums with the current version of Guided by Voices since the last Circus Devils album (2017’s Laughs Last), and the Tobias brothers have been involved in numerous musical projects too. But Circus Devils is something special, a weird, surreal experimental art-prog band where anything goes (and often does), and their absence has definitely been felt (despite the quality of GBV’s output the last several years). And with Squeeze the Needle, Circus Devils isn’t just back—they’re back with one of their best albums to date.

As fans of Pollard’s second-longest-running band already know, every Circus Devils record is its own strange little universe, and Squeeze the Needle is no exception. Each of the album’s twenty tracks (the longest of which clocks in at three minutes) feels like a miniature narrative populated by all sorts of mysterious figures. Egg-renderers, stylistic worm-burners, German scientists, Popeye the drug dealer, the Bad Queen, and the Eggman’s Ego Army come to life against experimental rock songs that run the gamut from Blue Öyster Cult style heavy rock (“Getting Better,” “Street Toughs”) and skewed pop (“I’m A Happy Baby Boy,” “Ferris Wheel”) to gentle acoustic ballads (“The Joke Is Over”) and disturbing sound collages (“Squeeze the Needle”). These different backdrops allow Pollard to play around with different vocal styles, and it’s a lot of fun to hear him embody so many different characters. As the blurb on the cover reads: File under Psychotic Soul.

Squeeze the Needle might not be Circus Devils’ greatest album, but it comes awfully close. The fact that the band decided to make another album at all is reason enough to celebrate, but the fact that it’s as good as anything they’ve done so far is an even bigger surprise. Circus Devils is real—and we can only hope they stick around for a long time to come.

“The Owl Presents” / “Street Toughs” / “The Joke Is Over”

Blue Öyster Cult / Devo / Genesis (Peter Gabriel era)

Laughs Best (The Kids Eat It Up): Best Of Circus Devils (2017) / Laughs Last (2017) / Stomping Grounds (2015) / Escape (2014) / My Mind Has Seen The White Trick (2013) / When Machines Attack (2013)

Official Website | Bandcamp | Rockathon Records

Simon Workman

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