The Show Must Go On
So after a lengthy break of eight years, Swedish heavy prog band A.C.T have finally released a new piece of music, their fifth album, Circus Pandemonium. I found A.C.T through their critically acclaimed 2003 album Last Epic, a ridiculous and fun record, coming equally from rock opera and the bombast of a stage show as it was from progressive rock and metal. The album was hardly a groundbreaking one, but it was impossibly catchy, and actually incredibly unique – I can’t really think of another record with that kind of eccentricity and catchiness in progressive music, although recently Incura have been tackling a similar style (albeit with more of an alternative approach than progressive). A.C.T were not a huge classic band, but they were the sort that were definitely missed in their absence.
So with this new album, Circus Pandemonium, I guess I have to report some good news, and some bad news. And oddly, both happen to be the same thing – this album is more or less A.C.T doing what A.C.T have done. I can’t speak for any of the other A.C.T albums, since Last Epic is the only one I knew before this, but this is more or less the same style, more or less the same melodies and more or less the same excellent fun. Some people will rejoice to this – this album is as accomplished as Last Epic and basically just as good, and some people honestly don’t care if two albums sound the same. I know every single fan of ‘djent’ nodded their head in unison. But others will realise that this really is A.C.T writing on autopilot, with the same style and the same mindset. On this album, as the title suggests, we have the inclusion of some circus-style music, including influences from dark cabaret and different areas of stage theatrics. But realistically, when has A.C.T’s music in the past not sounded like a carnival?
I don’t really mind the continuation of the older style myself, because as I said, this is just as consistent as Last Epic, and the simple fact is that A.C.T’s sound is so unique in the first place, that them playing the same thing isn’t really going to make me mind. The melodies here are just as ridiculously as fun and just as memorable, particularly the infectious choruses of opener “The End” and “Manager’s Wish”. The energy throughout the record is also unparalleled, using fantastic dynamics in a similar way that a stage show would, particularly in the first few tracks here. But although these first few songs on the album all have pretty stellar melodies, I do actually think that they all run a bit long, especially since they rely so much on the one catchy chorus melody, and no matter how catchy a chorus, its charm dies after a few repeats. As much as I enjoy the hook “A Truly Gifted Man”, it really starts to grate after a while, and it has the sort of tonality that would make me go insane if I heard it too much.
But then on the tracks in the middle of the album, the band go in the opposite direction, and we have a string of five shorter tracks, with only two of them really having any real musical substance – the ridiculous and Bungle-esque “Look at the Freak”, and the rather sweet (although a bit cliché) “A Mother’s Love”. The rest of the tracks are all story-building ones, giving us a bit of an insight into the characters and plot of this album, which seems to be about a circus freak with no tongue and an evil circus manager and a girl who tries to save him, and I can already feel everyone rolling their eyes. I honestly wish the story had been left to the background of this album, since it’s so completely clichéd and contains so many archaic plot devices. “A Mother’s Love”, as well as a couple of the other rock-opera styled tracks, has a massive Ayreon vibe, mostly due to the way the lyrics are sung, and the use of multiple vocalists. Although the melody on this is better than anything Arjen has written in years, I still can’t shake the cliché, and the notion that the lyrics feel simply like sung dialogue, making the lyrics pretty weak (ever heard of poetic dialogue?), but also meaning the melodies come second to the story, and when the story is this bad, you don’t really want that.
In the end, Circus Pandemonium is certainly a good addition to the A.C.T catalogue, and long-term fans will certainly be glad for their return, but this really breaks nothing new for the band, and is basically as we should expect from them. Although I’ve said that this is pretty much on the same level as Last Epic, I would still return to that more than I will to this, since I feel a bit of the cliché and cheesy carnival parts of this album detract from the music, and the melodies aren’t quite as good. It’s still a solid record, however, and if you are looking for some bombastic and energetic circus-rock-opera-metal, (and you’ve already heard Incura enough), then this is a must-have.
Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: www.facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog