The band is in full tilt as my girlfriend and I enter the Doug Fir’s rough hewn wooden basement venue, which is more sparsely attended and reserved than usual, maybe because it is a Wednesday evening. There is a respectful horseshoe formed near the front of the stage, where frontwoman Haley Fohr is holding court, cutting a striking figure, statue-like and shrouded in mystery, while a golden pageboy obscures her face. Fohr guides the maelstrom with only a 12-string acoustic guitar and her voice, which is probably the most immediately striking thing about Circuit des Yeux. She is also flanked by a mighty backline of top-shelf psychedelic musicians sourced from the Chicago experimental community Thrill Jockey knows so well, which includes Rob Frye (CAVE and Bitchin’ Bajas) on flute, bass clarinet & percussion and Whitney Johnson (of Verma) on effected viola.
Traditionally, Circuit des Yeux is just Haley Fohr. Her recent album for Thrill Jockey, In Plain Speech, is her first attempt at a full-blown collaboration, with glorious results! Most of this Wednesday night performance is comprised of material culled from IPS.
Very shortly after we arrive, the band tears into a fierce, bloodthirsty rendition of “Fantasize The Scene”, an album highlight and my personal favorite Circuit des Yeux track. The lulling pulse and quietude of the audience cast a tranquil spell, letting the air settle, falling into it. When the band hits full stride, it is a glorious thing. Kathleen Baird’s mournful viola saws your heartstrings while the guitar ripples hypnotically, colorfully — all creating a glorious tapestry for Fohr’s vocals to sear and tear. Fohr’s been compared to everyone from Nico to free-jazz vocalist Patty Waters, and all comparisons are apt. There’s a bit of Sandy Denny here, as well, and a little Diamanda Galas at times, as Haley Fohr alternates between chanteuse and high priestess. Fohr’s vocals range from operatic to a dusky neo-noir croon, which drips with opulence and romance.
Haley Fohr and her co-conspirators put us in that place within the first 2 minutes of the show and never let up. There are highs, lows, and heavenly blows, as the band takes turns building delicate structures around Haley Fohr’s sparse guitar and introspective, surreal, stirring lyrics.
Even if you weren’t already a Circuit des Yeux fan, this would be hard to resist. There is that moment of watching a band cresting and riding gentle like waves, sculpting the air like textured amber, where the peace hits. You are riding the endless wave, and it is the only thing that matters. I was reminded, so many times, of some of the finest moments of underground rock of the past 2 decades. There’s the endless raga drone rock of Spiritualized, and the glistening acoustic meditations of Six Organs Of Admittance. There’s the monolithic fuzz of Bardo Pond, complete with flute. The thing with many of those bands is that psychedelia was used as a kind of distance, a feeling of being above it all. Disaffected and detached.
Haley Fohr reclaims these tones and textures, re-incorporating them and freeing their symbology, cracking the surfaces and unleashing their nuclear cores. There is a certain primal, pagan heat that comes from these traditional instruments — the viola, flute, and clarinet. They tend to call up images of desertscapes, meditative wide-open desolation, and the sunburnt madness and wisdom that accompany them. There’s also a hint of European classicism, throwing a bit of Vienna opera house into the mix. And just a dash of underground disco.
Circuit des Yeux seem to inherently understand the poetic implications of their music, and sculpt it to masterful effect, thanks to decades of musical experience and boatloads of soul. The performance is a transportative experience: visionary, emotive, moving, mesmerizing. The band plays pretty much all of In Plain Speech, much to my delight. My girlfriend had never heard the band before, but becomes a rabid convert by the show’s close.