Review Summary: You've heard this all before if you're into this type of music, but you're still gonna want to check out some of these brilliant tunes nonetheless!
The word "progressive" is a funny thing. Bands that get tagged with the dreaded/loved "prog" label, often get tagged as prog because of their technical compositions; bands that sound dated and unoriginal get tagged as "progressive" without "progressing" the music at all. Progressive metal is littered with bands like that, such as the mighty Symphony X or the Germans of Dreamscape, when truly progressive bands (Pain of Salvation) fly under the radar. Circus Maximus are a band of guys that are skilled with their instruments, come from Norway, and are really happy to let you know they are fully in love with the technical prog side of things. Comparatively new on the scene, having only released their debut album "The 1st Chapter" in 2005, they still are one of those bands that sound decidedly retro; like they still come from the age of Fates Warning and Dream Theater.
And their music sounds like it, too. The guitar tone on their latest offering Isolate
is very reminiscent of one of the seminal prog albums, Dream Theater's Images and Words. The vocals are the typical heavy metal-high-range-got-my-balls-in-a-vice kind of affair, and the keyboards alternate between playing atmospheric moody melodies and hideously complex keyboard solos. The rhythm section likes playing in odd time signatures more than keeping to a set tempo. All in all, the ingredients for a nice good old bit of wanking are completely in position, and this could be an utter mess (song lengths over 10 minutes? full-fledged instrumentals?), were it not for the one thing that discerns this band from some of the other technically outstanding progressive bands.
Songwriting. This band writes tunes! Prog purists will now yell at me and scream that progressive music doesn't need any humming melodies, it needs melt-yer-face shredding guitars and more complex time signatures! Well prog purists, it's still full of that, but this time the melt-yer-face shredding and complex time signatures are integrated into true songs! The chorus of "Abyss" is wonderful, and Arrival of Love's opening keyboard line may be cheesy, but anyone could get that little ditty of a melody into their head. And there are some really powerful riffs, like on "A Darkened Mind" or "Wither", which show that the band aren't completely about the shred; they can rock like a man when they want to. This is very important, because one thing prog metal bands usually lack the balls to write a really heavy riff, but there are plenty of them on this record.
The only downside with this record is the bloody cheese. The vocals aren't offkey (thankfully), but they do sound extremely metrosexual. Think James LaBrie, but slightly higher and constantly using that high range. It's technically competent and fits the music for sure (prog metal has always been about pomp and cheese), but it may be a turn off for the proggers who need more manly vocals with their music. The other issue is the power ballad Zero, which is, well, err, let's just take a snippet of the lyrics for you lot to chew on: "Even if the stars remain / Baby
, I know that you and I will meet again". Yeah. They just used the word "baby" on this record. Now there is a bit of an AOR influence in the guitar playing and the vocals, but these guys are still a metal band, not Bon Jovi, so using the word "baby" on a metal album still remains forbidden, forever. The song does pick up with an extremely cool melodic solo two minutes in (and is worth listening to just for that), so if you wanna try your luck, dear readers, go ahead. Just know that you'll get more than your daily recommended dosage of dairy from this song.
Circus Maximus still are the coolest when they aren't writing the longer tunes (conveniently stacked towards the end of the album), and write more concise and powerful metal anthems. Mouth of Madness has some great musical playing buried in its 12 minute runtime, but it's not worth digging through all the boring acoustic intros and wankery for. And Ultimate Sacrifice boasts a worthy chorus, but it still feels a bit too long at nine minutes. Just put that in contrast to the precise, hairpin-turn riffs of Abyss and Wither and you're left with the feeling that 55 good minutes of prog metal could have been 45 minutes of great prog metal.
In summation, that means that in prog metal land there's nothing new under the sun; as much as this seems painfully ironic, in retrospect it seems completely true to its historical development. Progressive metal is fast becoming a stagnant and stale genre, with but a few bands that break the mold of technical playing in favour of good songwriting. Circus Maximus got the balance almost right on Isolate, and let's hope they hone their crafting skills somewhat more for the next album, because then we could see an album that is completely full of good tracks, instead of only about 70%. Even if these guys aren't the next Dream Theater yet, they just might become the next Symphony X in the next few years. Let's give them a while and see if they can do it, no? At least their chops are up to the new (or old?) standard.