Robert Pollard, the creative genius behind Guided by Voices, has a pretty interesting habit. As it turns out, he likes to make music – and tons of it. Known for creating a variety of bands and musical endeavors, it should be no surprise that he has, with the help of Doug Gillard and others, created yet another musical project dubbed ESP Ohio. Their debut, Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is complex –filled with a variety of songs and a variety of layers. A solid forty-two minutes of intensity.
ESP Ohio carries some of the eccentricities, eclecticism, and fantastic musicianship you would expect from Guided by Voices, neatly retooled, repackaged, and turned into a sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes frankly overwhelming debut. Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is a fever dream of an album. The instrumentals often hit with a boisterous plentitude –a series of voices work synergistically to flood all the nooks and crannies of silence. The lyrics are sometimes off kilter and generally gruffly sung, normally in a ‘What if your Dad was a cool guy and sang in a whacky rock band?’ sort of way as opposed to a ‘I’m a tough-guy’ way –although if you lose track of the indie-alt roots of the project, it’s easy to be thrown off by the occasional standout line like “I am a racehorse.” The album is sort of hard to hate, for sheer quality alone, and yet prickly and uninviting. ESP Ohio’s Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is an unnerving, auditory circus, built specifically for Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard’s personal enjoyment –and maybe yours too.
Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean begins with an almost 80’s esque, energizing rock anthem, “A Much Needed Shot In The Arm.” The song is sort of catchy but not necessarily enticing on its own. The mix of vocals and guitar-driven instrumentals almost paints a karaoke gone good ambiance. The album cuts to the next track, “The Great One.” It’s a pulsing, short ditty. ESP Ohio keeps the 80’s and adds some flute-sounding, wild backup texture. The ending addition of horns, as a cherry on top, becomes a familiar trademark of the album. Another cut. “Tom Tom Small and Wonderful,” is a grungy, indie jam that occasionally surfs along harder rock boundaries. The back-up ‘la-la-la’ vocals add a sort of playful darkness to the distorted guitar chords.
Three short tracks in and the album is beginning to carve a way for itself. As ESP Ohio’s debut progresses, it continues to cut between a variety of musically driven, encyclopedic entries. “Bird Man of Cloth,” is somber, a quick, emotional and huskily sung track. The vocals come through along the mellow guitars slightly reminiscent of Pearl Jam, later venturing far from. “Intercourse Fashion” proceeds along its own uncharted path, leaping between the rock’n’roll guitar rumble and some bright, vocal driven choruses. It’s a menagerie that puts you on one hell of a wild ride. Still, there’s no real blockbusters and the first half of the album goes by a bit boringly at times –leaving the listener waiting for more for quite some time.
But then it happens! Just past the half way point, ESP Ohio gives us, “You The Earthman.” Perhaps the song stood out for it’s odd vibes. The song sounds like some sort of outside-art-rock-opera. The guitar solo out as the vocals sing of Earthman. It’s goofy and fun and charming. Most of all, it’s maybe the most accessible song of the release and allows the album to segue into a slew of more memorable songs.
“Royal Cyclopean” is one hell of a polarizing song for a title-track. It’s a dark rock jam with a strong horn section. The horns cue a march, the guitars rock out with their distortion pedals, and the vocals carry the tune along. It’s mesmerizing and pulls you in completely. The song demands your absolute attention –and it’s not a bad listen either. The song continues to really picks things up. It’s at this point that Pollard and Gillard’s work really comes together as something really worth listening to. As groovy as the combination is, it’s also a bit overwhelming though. The horns seem like a bit much and can become chaotic. Sadly, this becomes a trademark of the album.
The thirteenth track of Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is a gritty, alt-rock tune. The guitar chugs along an ever moving vocal line that, much like the album, takes the listener through several moods. It’s a bit predictable at points –the distortion and riffs aren’t unique but they work. Despite the amount of energy and ambition behind the song, it still leaves room for more.
Through the majority of ESP Ohio’s debut, I found myself waiting for the punchline. The cookie-cutter nature of some of the rock jams, mixed with an over-the-top oddball nature, makes it difficult to discern just how seriously the album is to be taken. Sure, GBV and Robert Pollard’s works are usually a little out there, but Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is a bit much at times. Worse off, in the eccentric and eclectic assortment, it seems as if the musician’s intentions are lost to a dizzying back and forth between indie rock, 80’s rock, grunge, some horns, and a menagerie that is so nauseating it’s just difficult to listen to.
In contrast to these thoughts, that still didn’t prevent me from disliking the entirety of ESP Ohio’s debut, nor did it persuade me against any particular song. Rather, the album is plagued by a general distastefulness. It takes a bit of effort to survive this forty-two minute trip but rest assured it can be done.
ESP Ohio makes their largest impact in create the illusion of some Twilight Zone American fringe radio station. The band manages to tap into a variety of sources of inspiration, playing in a multitude of loosely interrelated styles that, when compounded together by the GBV-trademarked sudden finish, inspire this odd sense of listening in on some sort of parallel universe’s radio. Grounding this back in reality, Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is a hell of a doozy to listen to but its absurd variety maintains a fantastic atmosphere from start to finish. Furthermore, it demonstrates a certain, rather impressive ability to perform. The musical craftsmanship of Pollard and Gillard is proven time and time again across sixteen full tracks. Often times, the clever ways in which the levels of powerful texture ring together is breathtakingly smart (as much as it is difficult to listen to). It might be some sort of unnerving, auditory circus –but it’s a damn crafty one at that.
Overall, the album presents an interesting dilemma. It’s like a chili that somebody added a little too much of a kick to. The album can be overwhelming, tiring, cacophonous, or just plain unenjoyable. If you can get past the overwhelming spiciness that ESP Ohio presents –you begin to get a richer experience. The songs are often perfectly acceptable, and with the added creativity from years of experience, they become impressive soundscapes made from indie rock and a plentitude of inspiration from the diverse world of rock. It’s a constantly changing endeavor and while not always easy to sink your teeth into, ultimately rather rewarding.
ESP Ohio’s debut, Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean isn’t exactly accessible and yet typical enough to be acceptable. It isn’t refreshing and new, nor does it push the envelope, but it is undeniably creative. And while the album has turned me into a gemini –debating on whether I ought to call it enjoyable or unenjoyable –I still found it charming at the least. I’m hesitant to call ESP Ohio anything more than another of Pollard’s projects, but for GBV veteran fans or people looking for some goofy rock and roll –this might be your chance. Starting Point of The Royal Cyclopean is robust and eclectic –interesting to say the least.