Review Summary: A solid Prog/Metal album that lacks a bit of both Prog and Metal.
Circus Maximus has been a disappointment to me. I thought their first album was great, even if the Dream Theater worship was so obvious. I thought that if the band could continue with their technical prowess, heavy sound, soaring vocals, coherent writing and try to find their own sound a little bit, they would release something truly superb. Sadly, their second record, Isolate, was a letdown. Each time the band tried to escape the ''Dream Theater clone'' envelope, they failed miserably. The long songs also felt forced and rarely grabbed the attention. Maybe the band realized this, because they took a lot of time to come up with a new album where (to their saying) ''The writing is different, the playing is different, the sound is different''.
While this affirmation is true, it doesn't mean it's better because it's different.
The main positive thing about this album is that the band finally seems to have found their own particular brand of Prog/Metal. You can still hear their influences, but I feel that now I could say something like ''that band sounds like Circus Maximus''. The best way to describe it would be that it sounds 80's but modern at the same time (read: without much of the cheese). Early cuts ''Namaste'' and ''Game of Life'' are perfect examples of that and are both really simple and solid tracks. The writing on this album is really well thought out overall too. Nothing overstays its welcome and it's always coherent.
That's part of the problem though. This album is TOO solid. Now that they seem confident enough with their sound, they don't try to do much that's incredible. No song on this album will be in anyone's top 10. It's difficult to exactly pinpoint why that is, but one of the factors is the lower amount of both Prog and Metal. The energy these guys showed on their debut is almost absent here, apart from ''Used'' and ''Burned After Reading''. Most of the time, the songs are slower and/or simpler. It's not worse because it's simpler, but because you can feel the band waiting for moments where they could show their talent and let it all out. That causes some slight moments (the bridge for ''Burn After Reading'', the intro to ''Reach Within') to feel a bit tacked on for the sake of being ''proggier'', even if the band definitely still knows how to write intense and wild instrumental moments. Another thing that kills the energy is the production. While clean, it lacks the punch necessary to make the heavier moments come out.
The vocals are also TOO solid. They sound good, and the melodies are well written for the most part. However, they seem detached overall, they lack the grit, passion and power necessary to really make the songs memorable (unlike on their debut). This is in part due to the lyrics, which are cheesy optimistic messages about finding yourself and (not) letting go and bla bla bla. It's all stuff we have heard before and they do sometimes detract from the music which is so well put-together.
Based on my pure enjoyment of ''Nine'', the rating could have been a 4 out of 5. However, the obvious flaws present here keep it from achieving the greatness that's hidden inside it. If the band can write another album that's more balanced in terms of musicianship and that actually tries to be incredible, we could have a band on the level of heavy-hitters like Dream Theater or Symphony X in their prime.
Highlights: Game of Life, Used, Burned After Reading