Album Review: Circus Maximus – ‘Havoc’

I’ll admit, Circus Maximus are a band who have been on my radar for the last few years, but I’ve never really taken the time to check them out for a while. Back when I was making a more serious attempt to get into progressive metal in 2012 after having written most of it off as pretentious nonsense (this was before I actually listened to it properly, in fairness!), one of the bands that I heard great things about was Circus Maximus. Unfortunately, they made a bad impression on me right off the bat due to their first record’s cover art using the same kind of idea that Dream Theater’s A Dramatic Turn of Events did (no prize for guessing my thoughts on that album…) and what I heard of the record at the time didn’t impress me enough for me to even get halfway through it. I’ll admit, I probably should have persevered with the band, with the benefit of hindsight, as part of the reason I came to appreciate progressive metal was because of Seventh Wonder’s Welcome to Mercy Falls (which took about a year before I finally really fell in love with it) and Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime (which I fell in love with fairly quickly!), but, at the time, I thought Circus Maximus just weren’t ever going to be my cup of tea.

I know, I was a narrow minded idiot back then…so fans of the band will probably be pleased to hear that my response to the promo for this album arriving in my inbox was to yell “YES!” at the top of my lungs. Yeah, seriously: I was legitimately excited to cover this album! Put it down to me growing older and more appreciative of what progressive bands are trying to do, but I felt that I had potentially unfairly judged the band and was considering giving them another shot, so the arrival of the promo to their new album was pretty much a case of perfect timing!

Anyway, to get everyone up to speed on the band, Circus Maximus are a power/progressive metal band from Oslo in Norway that formed in 2000 and have previously released three albums, 2005’s The 1st Chapter (their first and only album with now ex-keyboardist Espen Store), 2007’s Isolate and 2012’s Nine. The band’s lineup has been completely stable aside from the departure of Espen Store (and his replacement has been in the band since 2005), with the lineup currently comprising bassist Glenn Mollen, Truls Haugen (who is also the vocalist and bassist Zierler), guitarist Mats Haugen, vocalist Michael Eriksen and keyboardist Lasse Finbraten (who has also contributed keyboards to releases by the bands MindTech, Tritonus and Section A). Among prog circles, Circus Maximus are highly regarded and, I’m not going to lie, my listen to their album Nine as part of my prep work for the album demonstrated exactly why: they are able to do technical material incredibly well, yet they can also trim the technicality out when necessary to allow the songs to stand up on their own (case of point, ‘Namaste’). It’s pretty much the same thing Seventh Wonder can do, funnily enough, although I’d argue Circus Maximus can trim the technicality out to a greater extent than Seventh Wonder do, so I imagine that, had I started out with Nine by Circus Maximus all those years ago, I might well have clicked with them!

However, we can’t speculate on what could have been forever. Havoc is the band’s fourth offering and, to be honest…I feel that I should like the album more than I actually do. Don’t get me wrong, I do like it and I will admit that there’s a lot about the record which is commendable, but I can’t say that I’m particularly enthusiastic about this record either.

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Let me start with the band’s sound. One of my friends who heard the single for this album commented that it sounded like the band were going for a Marilyn Manson vibe on the record, so I would like to somewhat reassure everyone’s fears by saying that the band do not sound like that…entirely. Honestly, I’m somewhat reminded of Queensryche’s Promised Land in some ways, as it’s a much darker record sonically than the previous album in each band’s discography. Unlike Promised Land, though, Havoc doesn’t feel like the band have entirely removed their old sound from the record, although you wouldn’t think this if you only had the singles from the record to judge from (‘The Weight’ is actually the closest to what the record sounds like out of all of them, and even that’s still not entirely accurate!). There’s a lot of surprisingly gentle moments on the record which show themselves towards the second half of the record while the heavier moments mostly are connected to ‘Highest Bitter’, ‘Havoc’ and ‘Pages’, with a few dips into that sound during the other songs on the record, but nothing to the extent shown on there. I’m honestly kind of bemused that the singles picked were mostly from the heavier side of the record, because they set up the expectation that the record is going to sound like that when, truthfully, the sound is a lot more atmospheric and softer than they would have you believe. The new additions to the band’s sound might take a while to get used to, but, honestly, I can’t say it doesn’t work, just that you might need to give it a few more listens than usual to get used to it if you’re approaching the record as a previously established Circus Maximus fan. This probably will make this a love it or hate it record for the band’s fans, but I can’t say it’s badly done on its own merits.

Anyway, the songwriting is actually pretty great. Even on the title track, there’s a lot of interesting ideas on display across the record and it’s all backed with some genuinely good songwriting, with a decent amount of complexity to it that keeps things interesting overall. I would say that the songwriting doesn’t grab me quite as quickly as it did with the previous record, but nothing is bad either (I would certainly say that ‘The Weight’ is really enjoyable and ‘Highest Bitter’ is actually kind of cool, though the chorus is a bit too repetitive for my liking). I honestly think that the band’s done well on the songwriting front overall, but you might need to give it a few listens for everything to click (certainly, when I first listened to the record, I wasn’t overly impressed with it and it was only on repeated listens that the record went from “man, what a disappointment” to “OK, this isn’t actually that bad” to “You know what, this is actually pretty good once you warm up to it!”).

The performances on the record…well, it’s progressive metal, so you probably are expecting high levels of technical skill from the start if you’re already into the genre. In that aspect, Circus Maximus don’t disappoint, although they don’t rewrite the rules on anything on the performance front. It’s basically what you’d expect of progressive power metal at the end of the day, so, while everyone does a better-than-average job by the standards of non-progressive genres, there’s nothing progressive metal fans won’t have heard before. I do get the feeling that Finbraten is going to have a lot of fun touring for this record, though, as there’s a lot which he does on this record and there’s some pretty interesting moments which give him an opportunity to show his excellent keyboard playing.

Eriksen’s vocals honestly remind me a lot of Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, as he has a somewhat similar way of phrasing his words and his voice is in a similar range to LaBrie’s, yet a few elements of 90s Geoff Tate can be heard in his voice at points as well. Considering Circus Maximus originally started out as a cover band for progressive metal bands like Dream Theater and Symphony X, this actually makes a surprisingly large amount of sense on the Dream Theater front! Honestly, there’s nothing I can fault his voice for at all: he has a great vocal tone, can sing with a decent range (he doesn’t sound like he’s going to any real extremes in his voice, but he has a lot of control over his voice, so he’s probably just singing in his comfort zone) and his diction is great! Just an all around great vocalist, nothing more, nothing less!

The production…I’m in two minds on it, if I’m honest. On the one hand, the mixing is great: the bass is very audible and I don’t feel anyone needs more or less presence in the mix overall. On the other hand, something about the mastering bugs me. It’s quieter than the previous record (I did a check to be sure), but it actually affects my ears worse than Nine did. Maybe it’s got something to do with the mix, admittedly (it’s somewhat bass heavy), but still, it’s weird, because it seems like an improvement on first glance, yet it actually isn’t. I’m not sure whether it’s a good production job overall, but I would say that, if nothing else, the mixing is pretty good, so, for that at least, it deserves a lot of praise!

Ultimately, despite all of the positive comments I have about Havoc, I can’t say I love it. It’s definitely got some good stuff on it and, to be fair, there’s nothing about it that’s bad, but it feels like the band have taken a step back since Nine to me. Not a huge one, admittedly, as there’s still a decent amount to enjoy about the record, but a step back is still a step back, at the end of the day. I’d say it’s worth a shot if you can approach it with the right expectations (read: not those built up by the title track and ‘Pages’, but by ‘The Weight’), but I wouldn’t say this is the follow up to Nine that fans were expecting and I wouldn’t be too surprised if the Circus Maximus fanbase doesn’t take to this record quite as well as it did with Nine.

Havoc will be released on the 18th of March by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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