The Personal Classic There are those albums. You know, those ones. The ones that you listen to to take you back somewhere, or to make you feel something that nothing else can make you feel. The ones that bring unfiltered amounts of nostalgia, because we all know that music is second to none (ok, maybe smell) in terms of nostalgic value. A few weeks ago, I finally managed to review Hospice, the timeless classic of a feelings album from The Antlers. And when I reviewed it, I mentioned how I felt the need to avoid talking about the music, because the album is just so special that it becomes hard to talk about the reasons why. Nine is one of these albums. But unlike Hospice, Nine doesn't have any of the historical significance or critical acclaim surrounding it. Why this album isn't considered one of the greatest records ever conceived is beyond me, let alone why some people prefer the Dream Theater worship of their first two records to the emotional brilliance of this album.
So really, like Hospice, I feel I need to give this one a hell of an introduction, because this is really quite a significant record to me personally, and there is a very specific reason I am reviewing it today, on the 27th of March, but I shall not go too far into my personal stories out of fear of people disregarding my opinions due to my nature as an emotional teenager. But I will say this:
This I one of the greatest records I have had the pleasure of hearing.
But I should first point out something that may have been misconstrued from my introduction ? this is no depressed emotional wasteland of feelings. I mean, it's a progressive metal record, for [%*!#]s sake, not a monolithic barren indie slowcore wasteland. So despite having several moments of raw beauty and emotion, this record does a whole lot more ? a reason why this album pushes beyond a whole lot of strictly emotional music, because it has the complexity and the intricate parts and the big riffs that progressive metal is usually fluid with.
When I first started to get into this record, I was completely shocked. Not just because this is, as I said before, an all-time classic, but also because there was nearly no suggestion of this brilliance on the band's previous record, Isolate. I had heard Isolate a couple of years earlier, when my friend and I were starting to get into progressive metal initially. Circus Maximus were one of the very few bands that he found before I did, and Isolate impressed us at the time as much as any Dream Theater or Symphony X record did, but time taught us that none of these were truly significant. When Nine was first announced, I really didn't go out of my way to hear it. It was on my radar, and I did spend a bit of time looking for a link to hear it, but for a while I just brushed it off as "it'll sound like Isolate".
But what really is a step-up here, and this is truly the biggest step-up I have ever heard, is that not only have Circus Maximus shifted their focus from technicality and shred-core to emotion and lyrical profundity, but the progressive metal portions of the music are also so much more refined and cohesive. Something must have truly happened during that five-year break to these guys, because gone are any hints of power metal, gone are the song-length shredding duels, and any moments when soloing does begin is done tastefully and with some utterly brilliant melodies. Take a track like "Game of Life". Is it a trve prog metal song? Does it have ridiculous signatures and a fourteen-minute solo? No, it's actually more or less a pop song. The chorus on this track is one of the most infectious on the album, the sort of thing you'd sing at the top of your lungs whilst cruising in your sick-as 1955 Morris Minor, and the rather cheesy feel-good lyrics could cause some cynical progheads to compare it to Disney-pop. But I love the melody here, and as I will discuss later, I love the lyrics even more. And while Isolate and The 1st Chapter were prog metal albums, with the prog and the metal underlined in bold, Nine, especially with a track like "Game of Life", focuses on making a song first, before adding the Circus Maximus twist on after.
And it is a fine twist. The song may be pop at heart, but that lead riff, particularly due to the thick and meaty tone on it, is absolutely awesome, as well as the solo, which really showcases the brilliant melodic ear that these guys have developed in the time between Isolate and Nine. There are plenty of solos here, both of keyboard and guitar, and nearly every one is memorable and brilliant. Anyone who knows my taste in music knows that I am no fan of instrumental wankery, and prog metal is one of the worst offenders of this crime, to the point when many, many bands can thrill me in their verses, and bore me out of my mind in their soloing. But Circus Maximus' solos are [/i]different[/i]. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think that the term I would use to describe them is melodic.
Now, now, to all the Dream Theater fans who just shouted "BUT PETRUCCI IS MELODIC; HE USES SCALES AND MODES AND SHIT" at my hatred for DT's soloing, that's not what I mean. I mean that with basically every solo here, you can remember it. I can basically sing any of the solos on Nine out loud, right now. Sure, a couple of them are in the same key and I'd probably get them mixed up, but the point is that I can remember them, completely. And I think it's Mats Haugen's brilliant sense of melody that creates this. The solos here are crafted in the same way that a vocal melody is crafted ? to be memorable. I don't know anyone who remembers any Petrucci solo with 150 notes a second (except for fanboys), but most of the solos here sound like the sort of thing Michael Eriksen would be singing for that section, with a few more notes in between. Haugen does use sweeps and slides and whatnot, but they're not blatant wank. He has a destination note to get to, and a note he starts the run on, and he rarely will play faster than 32nds, and rarely will play them for more than a couple of measures.
And as well as being a better progressive metal band than most of the leading prog metal giants, Circus Maximus certainly stand out massively in another regard ? their lyrics. I don't usually talk about lyrics when I review music, especially not with progressive metal, but I really just feel some of these lyrics are just so good that I need to mention them. I like to think that I'd still like this as much even without the great lyrics, simply because of how well written the music is, but I'm honestly not sure, because the lyrics are what really drew me to the album this time last year, and are what convinced me to write this review today. I've talked for hours about "Reach Within" before, but I still should give it a brief mention, because it was my theme song at the time, the song that defined my mindset and life, and ultimately it was what brought me down, because showing my feelings and becoming "the one you locked away for years" caused some unfortunately bad things to happen, but the message still remains. Many, many people will mock these lyrics and laugh at Circus Maximus appealing to their teenage fanbase. And I guess so, because these lyrics really do appeal to me. They're meaningful and about real things and real experiences, not about spaceships or the government.
Aside from "Reach Within", I guess the opener "Architect of Fortune" tackles a similar sort of topic. I distinctly remember the day I first realised what this song was about, long before any of the events I am now alluding to, and in even worse context, but it was such a punch in the gut. "I never knew I could map out my life." I mean, if this isn't something that makes you sit and think "damn", I really don't know what is. It's weird, how if I subconsciously think about my worldview today, about how I am aiming so high in every field I am attempting to be in, about how I am trying to be something no one has ever been before, and then think about what I was like before Nine, I really start to realise the impact on my personality that this album has had, and I really can't say that about any other records, at all. It's even shaped my direction, musically. This album taught me that to make prog metal, you didn't have to write about spaceships or terrorism, and to write meaningful and lesson-based music, you didn't have to sound like Linkin Park.
But it's not as if it's just the lyrics that make "Architect of Fortune" one of the best songs ever composed. In my mind, this is an example of the perfect epic, structured so immaculately and flowing so smoothly. I even feel, in this regard, it's better than the closer "Last Goodbye", but as I will talk about later, that song is something else. I absolutely love the mood of this track, the uplifting revelation tone, quadrupled by the near-symphonic keyboard parts and thunderously pounding drumming. This song, heightened by the lyrics, feels like a blissful realisation of the universe, like a manifestation of a spiritual experience, in song form. The verses are introspective, observing the narrator's current worldview in a new light, but the chorus is euphoric, immense, uplifting, inspirational. It's beyond anything I could put into words here, yet somehow it's not even the best part of the album.
Or even the best part of the song. No, there is something even more beautiful later on. This is one of those moments that, on first few listens, I would always go "Oh. Oh. I forgot about this part.", and the song would raise tenfold. I'm referring, of course, to the absolutely crushing little piano melody that comes into the bridge about six minutes in. It's so simple, yet it destroys you, emotionally. And then when it comes back, full blast on the keyboards in the most rich synth tone, it lifts you back up into space. The mood lifts so perfectly for Haugen's second solo of the track, even better than the first, yet still not even the best on the record. I'm sure if I were to list my favourite guitar solos of all time, at least half of the top 10 would be from this record, and the second solo on "Architect of Fortune" is certainly one of these, especially in the way it leads into the final chorus. Needless to say, this song is phenomenal. (Obligatory comment about how it still isn't even the best).
Oh wait. Damn, I forgot to talk about the awesome 11/8 riff in Architect, one of the best uses of 11 ever, and the default riff I drop to when I want to show off that I can play in 11. I also didn't even mention the basslines, or the first solo, or actually a whole lot of it. But I really don't want to ramble. The point is ? I could talk about many specific parts of this record for hours, and I feel I need to cut down. So I'll try to focus a bit more.
The last two tracks here, being the other epics of the album, are probably the ones that need discussion the most, and Circus Maximus have certainly made these tracks stand out from the shorter stuff; they really feel like they were meant to be long, not just long because prog dictates they must be. I really like how "Burn After Reading", when you first hear it, sounds like it could be a short acoustic interlude. In fact, you nearly expect it, since that's a regular practice in prog metal, but the song slowly develops around the simple acoustic guitar melody before exploding into one of the biggest riffs on the album. I'll admit, the midsection of this song is the only time on the album when the soloing verges on the wanky mess from Isolate, but there are enough moments on either side to rectify this, especially the final chorus. Yes, it's hard to really use my superlatives well enough to separate awesome moment from awesome moment on this album, but let me say this ? this chorus is awesome. Italicised. And to go back to the melodramatic reasons for my nostalgic review today, it really does mean a bit to me lyrically. "Every shimmering rock I've collected kept dragging me down." As well as the obvious "All that I have left now of us is a memory" and the title, Burn After Reading, about truly moving forward from something that you have been dwelling on. Because no matter how good it once was, reminiscing about better times will always bring you down in the present.
But this entire album is really just building to an ending. Yes, "Burn After Reading" would be one hell of an ending and would likely still plant this album in my top 20 if the album finished there. But it doesn't, because everything on this album pales in comparison to the final track, "Last Goodbye". The odd thing about this song, which is in my top 15 or so songs ever written, is that I've never really liked the verses. At all. I just think they're a bit weak in comparison to most of the album, and especially weak in comparison to this song. I like the lyrics during them, but the syncopated guitar and vocal melody doesn't really fit them, or mesh with the rest of the song awfully well. But you know what? I don't care, because the rest of this song is that good. I can just ignore them.
The song opens with my favourite guitar solo of all time. Yes, the best, in my ears. It starts so subtle and beautiful, gliding gently over the rather odd 7/4 acoustic guitar. At this point, the song reminds me a bit of opener "Architect of Fortune", although that track opened up bombastic, this one starts of solemn, building the intensity throughout the intro. When the distorted bass comes in, I hear hints of that wonderful riff in the intro of "Reach Within", but with so much more intensity. But it's only when the guitar soars up to play the chorus melody over the intense drums that the goosebumps come in. And it is really quite spellbinding. The lyrics on this track hit an even more personal note, writing about the loss of a close friend, but rather than crying about it in a depressed emo way, this song is euphoric and uplifting, feeling like a celebration rather than a mourning. Yet it is somehow just as beautiful. I love the ending of the track, how long after the song has died, we have the long and fading outro, with "this is our last goodbye" softly fading outwards. To bring this album back to Hospice in comparison, this definitely reminds me of the ending of "Epilogue", but in nearly the opposite way. "Epilogue" was a slow and painful death, with her memory drifting out and his life force with it, "Last Goodbye" is a tribute; a final message before passing, and the passing seems actually quite pleasant, because it's not an ending, it's a new beginning.
This is about the point when I talk about the letdowns on this album - the things that stop it from being perfect. And yes, there are some, but I think they are so minimal that they can be completely ignored. I didn't mention many of the tracks in this review, but even they are pretty damn good. The weakest on here is certainly "Used", but that has an absolutely bitchin intro, the most headbanging thing on the record, and is actually tons of fun to listen to. "Namaste" is weak in comparison as well, but it has a fantastic intro, as well as the obligatory catchy chorus. "Burn After Reading" has a fair bit of wank in the solo, and a couple of the verses, including the aforementioned slab of perfection "Last Goodbye" are a bit lacklustre in comparison to their choruses.
It's hard to really write a cohesive opinion of a record like Nine without losing myself to a mess of superlatives and listing things that are awesome or awesome, but I really felt this record needed someone to point out just what a classic it is. Of all my favourite albums, I've seen at least a few others agree with me that they are classics, but not really this one, which seems a bit odd. This may not be my favourite album of all time (although it's damn close), and it's not even my favourite from 2012 spoiler: click to read, but this is certainly one of the most influential records on my life, and I can definitely tell that that was what Circus Maximus were aiming for with this album. It's profound, it's beautiful, it has moved me to tears on many occasions, and yet at other times it's ripping, it's fun, it's catchy. It goes through so many moods, yet keeps its backbone meaning and style. It has both emotion and technicality; ambition and tribute. And at this point of my review, I'm really starting to wonder about that rating I've given at the bottom, and whether it is truly high enough.
I never really found out what Nine meant. The title, I mean. There are 10 tracks here, none of them hit are nine minutes or have nine anything, although I guess track nine gets the closest. I suppose, if you were to drop the intro, we would have nine tracks, but that leaves the question of why did they split it at all? My friends and I used to joke about how Nine was subliminal messaging for reviewers, to subconsciously give it positive reviews. Well, your devious plan has failed, Circus Maximus, because this isn't a nine, it's a?
Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: www.facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog