First off, I'd like to thank Frontiers for giving me the honor of being the first reviewer of this fine album by allowing me to listen to this album before the release date.
Five years. That's how long I have anticipated this album. I'll get this out of the way and give the readers the disclaimer that I am a fan of this band - having seen them live twice has convinced me that they are a stellar band and no one can convince me otherwise. HOWEVER, and PLEASE continue reading...five years of anticipation did not prepare me for what was to come. As I eagerly began the album in my car, I was completely blown away as I turned my stereo DOWN...something that rarely happens in my car. I thought "wow...I didn't know my speakers were capable of this...what IS that sound?" Let me just summarize here by telling you that the production on this album is stellar - Circus Maximus has obviously earned enough respect that Frontiers Records is putting more money into mixing and such than Sensory records were willing/able to spend on them. And it shows, because the album sound is top notch. So back to my story - I had just turned my stereo down and I'm thinking "what IS that sound?" I immediately realized something, and it is a conclusion that did not change throughout the album - 5 years between albums showed. If you have picked up one or both of Circus Maximus' other albums and thought they were ok, but weren't crazy about them, you might want to think about picking this album up anyways, because it is a totally different experience. This isn't to say that CM fans will be disappointed - no, the sound is still recognizable. But they sound all grown up. They aren't trying to prove anything anymore - they're comfortable with the fact that they've already proven themselves. Yes, you will still hear impressive riffs and instrumental wizardry. But they hang back at times and build suspense, so that when they come crashing in with their thunderous heavy metal chords, it sounds all the more heavy. And let me tell you, because of the production I mentioned before, the pounding bass and drums, the otherworldly keyboard sounds, and the crashing electric guitar are going to reach out of your speakers and slap you right in the face. But the really exciting thing to me is how much they've changed since the last album - don't get me wrong, I LOVED both of their earlier works. But this album, while being fully recognizable as Circus Maximus, has sections that I am sure I could play for a CM fan without telling them who it was, and as long as they didn't hear the familiar tone of Michael Eriksen's singing, I'm willing to bet they would not recognize the band. With this album, Circus Maximus builds off of the foundation they've built in the first two albums and explores new territory, and it is a very exciting thing to hear. So I'm going to do something I have not done before in a review and go through this album track by track:
Forging - this is a 76 second instrumental intro, so there is not much to say about it, although it serves it's purpose by building suspense with some dark keyboards, like walking through a heavy fog.
Architect of Fortune - well, they definitely start things off with a bang on this 10 minute plus epic. The piece starts off with a sound that will leave CM fans thinking "did I put the right CD in my player? Is this Circus Maximus?" An eerie whine, like a far off siren warning of danger, is backed by unbelievably thunderous bass and drums, and then the guitar comes crashing in and you know "yes, this is Circus Maximus." But what makes this epic so special is the fact that musically speaking, it is all over the place while still feeling seamless. It is unmistakeably one piece, and yet so very diverse in tone, tempo, and volume. It's like being taken for a ride, and not realizing how far you've come until the end when you look back and see just how far away the starting point is. This song will leave you shaking your head in disbelief after the journey is over.
Namaste - ok, now that we've told you a nice long thrilling musical tale, let's pound your face for a while - hear us roar! That's what I imagine them saying at a concert if they played this song immediately after the previous. This song demands respect from their heavy metal fans. And yet they still manage to throw in some musical curveballs, while keeping it somewhat subtle.
Game of Life - ah, now here's that melodic metal sound CM fans are used to. This is where CM show how they can throw hooks like anybody, and yet still have the chops to shred your face off. Michael Eriksen is going to show his amazing range, while never hanging out in the stratosphere for too long (as is an unfortunately all too common habit of too many metal acts, in my opinion) but just enough for you to know he can hit those notes like nobody's business. And Mats Haugen is going to build a guitar solo that will show you he can shred your face off with the best of them.
Reach Within - this song has the very interesting quality of feeling heavy and soft at the same time. While Michael Eriksen gently sings the verse, the bass line pounds beneath, and creates an interesting contrast. This song has a "single", radio-friendly feel to it, and yet there are subtle progressive undertones. Once again, Mats Haugen throws in a souring guitar solo, though this one I find reminiscent of Joe Satriani.
I Am - The opening of the song tricks you into thinking this is going to be a pop-oriented, single-worthy type of song, but then they throw in time-signature changes and stop/start rhythms. There are some very nice keyboard parts to this song that give it a lot of character. And of course, they throw in a nice guitar solo with some guitar and keyboard unison soli. All in all a joyful/triumphant prog romp.
Used - This track is a nice change of pace, as they show off their headbanger side. This is a rough and tumble heavy metal romp. But don't be fooled by the opening 4/4 time signature - they're going to throw off your headbanging with their masterful quick time signature changes. It's so easy to think you know exactly where this band is going with a tune, and then to be completely thrown off guard and I love it!
The One - The opening to this song tricks you into thinking it's an "I'm sorry" type of song, but it abbruptly changes to a more stern/angry tone that will have you banging your head in agreement. Again, Lasse Finbraten's keyboards add some great atmosphere to the song that is the difference between good and excellent.
Burn After Reading - So, at this point, you might be thinking "hey, out of all the songs on this album I've heard so far, only one is more than five minutes long - where are all the epics?" Never fear, for CM has saved two very, very special treats for you at the end of the album. I think this may be my favorite track, though it's hard to decide. The piece starts off with some very nice acoustic guitar parts, that have an upbeat tempo that tells you something bigger is coming - you just know it. But CM masterfully builds the suspense in this piece - just as you think things are going to get loud, they pull back again, teasing their listeners. I found the vocals in some of the quieter parts to be very interesting as they reminded me of Muse, or Freddy Mercury - once again I found myself asking (in a good way) "who IS this band?!" In a rare turn of events, I found myself paying a lot of attention to the lyrics of this one - they are a lament over the mistakes made over the course of life resulting in lost relationships, and the chorus is a real tearjerker: Every shimmering rock I've collected Kept weighing me down Pulling me to the ground All that I have left of us is a memory A picture of you and me
The song builds up to an instrumental section that is just the kind of monstrous prog hurricane you would expect from this band, the trading off and unison section between Mats Haugen on guitars and Lasse Finbraten on keyboards, and the twisting and turning changing key signatures are astounding. And then they throw the listener for a loop when this instrumental section stops instantly, leaving you stunned as Michael once again sings oh so softly, gently, in a section that once again reminds me of Muse. But they don't stay here, but crank it up before fading away in the end. Brilliant epic piece by the Circus.
Last Goodbye - Another brilliant epic. The song starts off with some keyboard sounds that are a very, very unusual sound for this band - I can only describe it as a spacey-80's sound. Of course they don't stay there, but build up from there. As the song's title suggests, this song is a last goodbye to an old friend. But it is a real tear jerker for me as, instead of coming off as mournful, it is more of a joyful celebration of the times shared together - at times coming off as...triumphant. This makes the gentle sadness over the departure all the more emotional, and it is a wonderful finish to the album, leaving me thrilled and spent after the roller coaster of this album.