Death in Vegas have yet to craft a fitting follow-up to 1999's The Contino Sessions, and while Satan's Circus is an enjoyable album, it is also damningly immaterial.
That Death in Vegas have been consistently underappreciated in America is an unfortunate fact. They've been around for almost a decade, and have produced some of the best electronic music of that period, but they remain a steadfastly invisible presence to many. Case in point: the most recent (as of this writing) issue of Blender, dated March 2005, contains a reference to DiV as a "new" group (it's on page 151). I suppose if your first encounter with them was on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation they might be new to you, but any group that has been around long enough to compile a "Greatest Hits" compilation hardly qualifies as new by any stretch of the imagination.
But therein lies at least part of the problem: their hits disc, entitled Milk It and released in early February in the UK, has no announced American release date. Neither does Satan's Circus, released in Britain in October. It took the better part of a year for their third album, Scorpio Rising, to cross the pond. It's frustrating, from the perspective of a longtime fan, to be unable to purchase the new album from one my favorite groups in my own country. No wonder they're practically unknown in America, even among the type of folk who might otherwise embrace their brand of ethereal, dub-influenced electronic rock 'n' roll.
Satan's Circus represents a significant departure for the group, and although it is overall a more consistent record than 2002's Scorpio Rising, it is nowhere near as satisfying as 1999's The Contino Sessions or their debut, 1997's Dead Elvis. Whereas the sound of their first two records was dark, wreathed in Jamaican dub and informed in equal parts by 1960s psychedelia and Eastern mysticism, Satan's Circus eschews these elements almost wholly in favor of a sudden influx of Krautrock, in particular the twin electronic demiurges of Kraftwerk and their lesser-known but still wonderful offspring / rivals Neu! And while The Contino Sessions and Scorpio Rising also contained strong rock elements, with vocal contributions from Iggy Pop, Liam Gallagher and Paul Weller (among others), their fourth album is totally mute, with nary a single vocal element for the entirety of its 63-minute running time.
As a departure, it feels slightly rootless. Many tracks are so entirely committed to pastiche that they almost approach the level of uncredited cover ("Zugaga" in particular begins with an uncanny resemblance to "Trans Europe Express"). It's not as if they're trying to pull a fast one: one of the particularly Neu!-inspired tracks is called "Sons of Rother" (a reference to Kraftwerk member and Neu! founder Michael Rother). Their cards are clearly on the table here. But in so steadfastly replicating the sound of such a unique influence, they have effectively eliminated a large source of potential dynamism: the conflict between DiV's traditional sound, swampy and sinister, and the austere and frictionless intricacy of their German forefathers. This effect is hinted at on the slightly muddy "Candy McKenzie", but remains mostly unexplored.
The group's house roots are vaguely present on "Reigen", and a more contemporary techno informs "Kontroll" (which sounds for the life of me like an unannounced remix of Orbital's classic "Style"). "Head" is a throwback to the more muscular rock of their third album, with a slight taste of both the Beatles' oft-copied "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the instrumental tracks on Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile. The album finishes with the maddeningly precious "Come on Over to Our Side, Softly Softly", a throwaway synthesizer riff magnified into a three-minute outro.
The best track to emerge out of the sessions for their third album, "Scorpio", was ironically not included on Scorpio Rising (it snuck out early as a one-sided white label and was later pressed as a B-side for "Hands Around My Throat"). "Scorpio" serves as a potent reminder of what, perhaps, Satan's Circus could have been: it's got a strong techno element, very much indebted to the Detroit sound of Juan Atkins and his peers, but that immaculate techno is strapped to the writhing juggernaut of a sinister dub bassline. Those wonderfully evil basslines and the dizzying vertigo they induce are for the most part M.I.A. on Satan's Circus, and the album suffers for their loss.
The album comes with a bonus live CD, recorded at London's Brixton Academy during the Scorpio Rising tour. Although I was initially disappointed to see that the track listing relied so heavily on material from their underwhelming third album (7 out of 12 tracks), I was easily mollified by the quality of the performances. There's no "Rocco" or "Dirt" or "Neptune City" (I was particularly disappointed by the absence of the latter), but there are nice performances of classics such as "Dirge", "Rekkit" and "Flying". Surprisingly, however, the Scorpio Rising material profits the most from the live treatment. I didn't like that album's title track, with its superfluous Liam Gallagher vocal and an unfortunately generic guitar riff, but the live version recreates the tune as a spooky bit of ambient trip-hop that works magnificently.
Death in Vegas have yet to craft a fitting follow-up to The Contino Sessions, which remains one of the great unheralded albums of the 1990s. Scorpio Rising, despite a half-dozen great tunes, never seemed to add up to the sum of its parts. Satan's Circus finds the duo spinning off into strange territory, exploring sonic cul-de-sacs while their signature strengths are ignored. This is certainly an enjoyable album, but as compared to past achievements it is damningly immaterial.