Circus Maximus - The 1st Chapter
It was a hot summer’s night and an allegory was trundling along the cerebral pathways, skipping over the lost analogies of yesterday. From its home in the mind rafters, it spun into free fall and hit terminal velocity almost instantly. Within seconds it was presiding over the sensuous caresses and intimate touchings of a late-eve bedroom scene. There under a silken sea of bedding, was an anthropomorphic Dream Theater indulging in coitus with a physical manifestation of Symphony X. Their writhings went on long into the morning like a tacky romantic novel ripped from the shelves of a chain supermarket.
Fast forward in a dissolve about nine or so months, and the sexing couple are now having their progeny exorcised via a crimson-coated caesarean. With umbilicals slashed and King Crimson records under arm, that offspring stands proud and independent of its parentage. That child was dubbed Circus Maximus.
Circus Maximus are a Norwegian ensemble playing progressive metal; and whilst their influences are easily noticed, it’d be unjust to wield the dirty claw of derivation in their direction. Cues are gathered up and lovingly cradled from their two most pronounced influences; musical cues archived and held close to one’s chest. But despite this, the airs of originality descend nevertheless - due to the excellence of the music composed. The form may not drip with ingenuity, but the content provides all that a fan of such genre music would request, while at the same time not wishing an escape to that old copy of Images and Words.
The 1st Chapter is Circus Maximus’ debut album, laid down in audio petrification in 2005, and distributed to the masses later that year. The recording consists of eight tracks, along with a bonus track dependent on your geographical location. But where is this regurgitation of facts leading us?
It leads us down an alleyway marked ‘concision’; a place where the pithy dominate with closed fists of succinct pummellings; oppressing the proletariat who can only say things in the most roundabout way possible, the architects of circumlocution. For the necessity is for me to outwardly express my own inner subjectivity in a vomit of opinions. And this is it.
The album is a fantastic collection of songs. Songs, now there’s a word worthy of deeper contemplation. Songs in the traditional sense; pieces of music you’d label catchy, pieces of music you might even sing along to. The 1st Chapter has them pushing their way out of the jewel case. But alongside these songs are the required oodles of instrumental technicality, all exercised with taste and restraint. Put simply, it’s an excellent combination of the two facets, and an undertaking not easily pulled off. This coalescence reminds me of their fellow-countrymen, the sublime Pagan’s Mind, another band able to showcase dynamic and exhilarating technical prowess, but also having proper songs that’ll remain in the head post-listen.
The 1st Chapter gifts us a varied collection of music here - within the macrocosm of the album as a whole, but also inside that microcosm of individual songs. Of course, the tendency to shift mood and style mid-song is an underlined principle in the prog recipe, and there’s few steps taken away from that here. Not to intimate that as a negative thing, I think it’s one of the defining aspects of the genre, one that undoubtedly appeals to its listeners. Well, me anyway.
The album opens with a heavy chunk of dissonance with ‘Sin’, an intro citing the patriarchy of Symphony X, but also the 7-string bludgeons of Nevermore. Things proceed into palm-muted chuggathon verses, then into big rock choruses. Track six, ‘The Prophecy’, has not only a title that wouldn’t look amiss on the sleeve of a Symphony X album, but the intro has the sort of thickness that’d bring a tear to the eyes of Michael Romeo himself. ‘Alive’ is a melodic and symphonic ode that speaks more of early Dream Theater, and it becomes clear here why vocalist Michael Eriksen is credited with vocal AND harmony vocals. His oral harmonies add another ingredient to this musical sandwich, and may even find themselves circulating your cerebellum when in the shower (as is the trite thing to do).
‘Biosfear’, neglecting the rather silly wordplay, is a tour de force of instrumental wonder. The only instrumental track on the album, it gestures more than once towards the riffs of John Petrucci. It seems to draw on some of the extravagant musicological noodling of the first ‘Metropolis’, or the Scenes from a Memory beast, ‘The Dance of Eternity’. Some of the keyboard patches used here are especially akin to Kevin Moore’s, and later Jordan Rudess’, tinklings. The song comes to a head at the end in a cataclysm of flowing intensity, with some wonderful orchestral keyboard accents backing an intricate display of guitar virtuosity.
The notion of variation once again irrupts, and we see fifth track ‘Silence from Angels Above’, an acoustic and reflective ballad. Melodious and beautiful, this track is able to maintain interest amongst the surrounding cacophony. ‘Glory of the Empire’ was the first song to thieve my attention, with its gloriously upbeat verses and vocals reminding one of some of Geoff Tate’s more optimistic moments.
The centrepiece of the album is the title track, a near-twenty-minute opus that oscillates between inspirational verse and instrumental breakdown with ease. Its lengthy condition is quickly circumvented by the simplicity of an interesting aural environment, rarely have I seen such an elongated song going by so hastily.
In the end, it was a good birth. One to be celebrated with joyous balloons inked with Rick Wakeman’s fingers, party poppers that erupt miniature rushes of Alex Lifeson, and maybe even Russian dolls etched with the smirking grimace of Phil Collins when he was still incarcerated behind a drum-kit. The 1st Chapter is a fantastic album; Circus Maximus are a credit to its parents. Here’s looking forward to their sophomore album.