Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Circus Maximus' 'Havoc' - Album Review

Norwegian band Circus Maximus, once the up-and-coming darlings of the progressive metal world, are back with their fourth album Havoc, which further continues to develop their own unique sound and identity. Since forming the 2000, the band have had a slow and steady career, with albums and tours coming relatively infrequently, only making them more special when they do. Their debut album, The 1st Chapter from 2005, was Dream Theater worship as they borrowed elements from the American band's songbook to create an enjoyable piece of work. Two years later, Isolate was released. This one was more streamlined and atmospheric, with big doses of Kamelot's melodramatic sound. Both of these albums are very good, but they are also quite derivative. I often find it funny that things classed as being 'progressive' are actually very similar to other bands. Five years later however, Circus Maximus realised their true progressive potential and released Nine, an album that sounded like no other band. Circus Maximus had taken the progressive metal sound of their influences and turned it into something that was truly their own. Mixing the twisting, heavy instrumentation of progressive metal, with spacey synthesisers and floaty song structures, Nine was an album that really stood out. Ironically, the flat-earthist end of the metal world did not like Nine as it was 'poppy' and 'not like their old stuff' - showing the attitudes of some prog fans can be anything but progressive. It is safe to say that Circus Maximus are no longer the up-and-coming darlings of progressive metal but, in my opinion, this is only a good thing. The world does not need another Dream Theater or another Kamelot; but it does need a Circus Maximus! Four years after the impressive Nine, Havoc has been released. Those who hated Nine, will also hate Havoc as the band has developed that sound and taken it even further this time. Those who loved Nine, and there are thankfully quite a few, will be interested to see how that sound has evolved here. If anything, Havoc moves further from the band's earlier sound than Nine did, and showcases the band truly standing on their own two feet. Christer-André Cederberg, now known for his production work with Anathema, mixed the album and I believe his influence has rubbed off on the band. There is definitely something about Anathema's approach to melody and song structure here, but with Mats Haugen's snaking guitar riffs and Michael Eriksen's super-smooth vocals driving things. Keyboardist Lasse Finbråten also has plenty of chance to shine, with some stunning synth work throughout that relies more on atmosphere and mood than the usual prog showboating.

Opening with a pulsing heavy guitar pattern and synth backing, The Weight picks up right where Nine left off with a good mix of crunch and atmosphere. The song's verses have a slightly strange rhythm, but the twinkling piano lines that cut through Truls Haugen's restrained but still frantic drumming provide excellent, subtle melodies. Eriksen owns the song though, with his soaring vocal display, especially during the slightly dramatic chorus which is a bit of a throwback to the Isolate album. A simple, atmospheric guitar solo is well-placed for maximum effect. It starts out with some long, sustained notes but it does get more technical and traditionally progressive as it moves along. Mats Haugen is a very underrated guitarist and songwriter, and his unique approach to his craft is well demonstrated throughout this album. Bassist Glen Møllen starts the heavier Highest Bitter with a growling bass melody, which sets the tone for the rest of the song. It is quite a downbeat number, with Eriksen using the lower register of his voice for the slow verses that are backed by some off-beat drumming. The chorus is more typical of the band however, with some driving power chords and big vocal notes. The downbeat vibe continues throughout, including a moody instrumental section that sees guitars and keyboards working in perfect harmony over some more inventive drumming. The album's first real curve ball comes with the short, hard-hitting title track which has a real alternative metal vibe, and a riff and vocal melody that could have sat quite easily on an early Marilyn Manson album. On first listen, I really was not sure about this song, but over repeated listens I have grown to enjoy it. It is packed full of energy, and Møllen's bass playing really stands out. It is totally different to everything else on the album, which makes it stand out. I think this song will be quite divisive, and lots will probably hate it, but I think it serves to add some energy and simple riffing to a complex and atmospheric album. Pages is a slow number, with more excellent bass playing, and a grinding, doomy riff that really oozes out of the speakers perfectly. Eriksen's vocals take on a howling quality for parts of the song, but the floaty chorus actually sounds a little like HIM which adds a level of accessibility to the song. Mats Haugen's solo in the song is really impressive too, with lots of twists and turns. He can do the traditional prog metal shredding so well, and the solo in this song demonstrates that many times over. This is very effective song, and the foreboding atmosphere it creates mixes well with the subtle melodies to make something extremely melodies. After a few heavier tracks, Flames returns to the more atmospheric rock of the opening number. Swirling synths lines characterise the song, and Eriksen's playful vocal melodies really captivate the attention. It is another quite simple song, but it works well as a good mid-album break with some AOR-tinged rock.

The album's second half contains the most epic songs on the album starting with Loved Ones. The big guitar/keyboard intro is extremely majestic, and gives the song a very traditional prog metal feel. Melody is the order of the day during the song, and everything about this song is catchy or memorable. The keyboard work throughout this song really stands out, with plenty of traditional leads and riffs to make a change from the band's usual guitar-driven sound. There a few little homages to their past sound and their influences in this song, with a very Dream Theater-like instrumental section where the guitars and keyboards play off each other in a melodic but technically challenging way. This is the sort of song that could push Circus Maximus into the big leagues of progressive metal, as it has all the hallmarks that are great about the genre, including a soaring chorus and a delicate piano-led outro. After the Fire is another lengthy song, and the synthy intro gets it off to a good start with some 1980s-sounding keyboards that fit well with Eriksen's staccato vocal delivery. This song is similar to the previous one in the sense that it is more traditional prog metal than the rest of the album, and uses lots of excellent, overdriven guitar sounds to create a heavy sound. Not to be outdone Finbråten's keyboards are also dominant in places, with plenty of speedy melodic arpeggios and sweeping orchestrations. Mats Haugen steals the show again however with an absolutely barnstorming solo that starts off with an Eastern flavour, before exploding into one of the most technical workouts on the whole album, and possibly of the band's whole catalogue so far. Remember, which the band shot a strange but captivating video for, is the song that probably best sums up Circus Maximus' unique and atmospheric sound. Finbråten's driving piano melodies are excellent here, and the swirling verses are packed full of the band's trademark floaty feeling. The song's chorus is a real winner with Eriksen showing why his one of the best vocalists in the genre. He never really hits and stupidly high notes or falls into many of the generic traps of other melodic metal singers, he just uses his natural smoothness and emotion to deliver stunning results. The album's final song Chivalry opens with a very Pink Floyd/Anathema-esque atmospheric section, with just the right amount of effects on Eriksen's vocals to make them stand out without ruining his natural sound (there's even a spoken work section that could be from either of those bands' work!). The song does pick up however, and there is still plenty of 'metal' to be found here. This song really emphasises the band's progressive and atmospheric sides however, and the Anathema vibe continues into the latter part of the song, which sees everything slowly build around a simple, repeating guitar melody. It ends the album on a true high. Overall, Havoc is easily Circus Maximus' strongest work yet, and will probably be the album that defines their career going forward. There is not a bad song to be found here, and the band can be proud of creating something original and forward-thinking.

The album was released on 18th March 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Remember.

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