Circus Maximus - Havoc

Year of Release: 2016
Label: Frontiers
Catalog Number: FR CD 724
Format: CD
Total Time: 00:56:09

What usually prompts me to review something that was not sent as a promo - this was not - is an upcoming festival appearance by the subject of the review. In this case, it was Circus Maximus' then-upcoming slot at Sweden Rock 2018. Without filling this review with a lot of personal detail, let's just say... the review in a timely manner did not happen. Which will mean nothing decades from now when this is read by someone, but... for those reading it in-the-moment, it explains why this space is not occupied by a review of the latest album by [insert a name here]. And, seeing that it had been a while since we reviewed something, anything, by Circus Maximus - you'd have to go to a review we published in 2005! of their very first release The First Chapter - why not look at their most recent studio release? I must admit that it's been awhile since I even read the review (when it was published) much less remember the assessment, so I did not know what to expect from 2016's Havoc - it was a mystery to me (other than some element of prog must be involved). More generally, I was expecting... well, as the title suggests, something full of havoc (not quite extreme metal, but certainly very heavy). Ehh... not so much. And I'm not disappointed by that really.

For those who have not followed the band from album number one, let's refresh our memories (or if not followed at all, here's what to expect): Circus Maximus are a progressive-minded power metal band from Norway who released their debut album in 2004. In the intervening years, they've released three other albums - Isolate (2007), Nine (2012) and Havoc (2016) - plus a live disc Havoc In Oslo, released late last year. As most bands do, there were personnel changes in the 12 years between albums, and so forth. You know, festival appearance, tours, etc. A bio in a nutshell.

Circus Maximus most often remind me of Enchant (the epic "The Weight," the romantic sweep of "Flames"), with elements of Dream Theater (see "Highest Bitter"), Kamelot, and 80s-era arena rock/melodic metal thrown in ("Flames" again, "Loved Ones"). What does that mean? Music with an epic scope, everything is big; it's dramatic, intense, with soaring vocals and guitars, pounding drums, lush keys, grinding bass, all shiny and clean. It is likeable, if only because there's nothing inherent in it to not like. It is very polished, well produced and executed progressive power metal... but bland. It's like the friend you hang out with, he/she's a nice guy/gal, you have fun, but when something exciting happens in your life, they aren't going to be the first one you tell. That is, for me at least, they sound like so and so, but lack the spark that make so and so unique (and the band everyone wants to be). Not to knock Circus Maximus for their influences (though I can't attest Enchant are, that could just be me), and from what I read, sounds like the band is trying to pull away from their Dream Theater comparisons... It just doesn't lead to something... unique.

Though I will say, where the band deviate from their formula here is in the edgier title track "Havoc" (vocally, we get something that is Marilyn Manson-esque, to my ears). As befits the title, throaty guitars churn over a busy drum pattern. It is more hard rock than prog metal (the lines are blurring there anyway); even as other tracks have memorable choruses, it is here where they have a pop-metal catchiness. So too does the track that follows ("Pages") move closer to hard rock, maybe even closer than "Havoc" - it is more direct, less epic. This track also made me think of Ayreon (a bit) -- vocalist Michael Eriksen would later participate on Ayreon's 2017 release The Source -- yet a bit more direct.

"Loved Ones" is, as referenced above, a pure 80s melodic metal power ballad (though at the 4-plus minute mark, some modern-sounding guitar churns appear). Europe, Night Ranger, etc. "After The Fire" follows, starting with a keyboard phrase that recalls both late-period Genesis and synth-pop simultaneously. But don't let either thought linger too long, as this does become a punchier - though not meatier - track. There is some intricate guitar work here, but, just seemed Mats Hugen was going faster than his fingers could really handle... most of his solos are quite clean, but "ham-fisted" came to mind with this one.

The track l liked most, the one that leaned back to a progressive side, albeit to a "neo-prog" style (a la my perennial favourite Marillion), is the album's closer "Chivalry." It starts understated with tinkling keys and soft vocals that soon break into grand epicness (again, we must name-check Enchant, too). There is a more artful approach here that isn't really heard in the other tracks, even if the same colour pallet is used. The pulse is less intense just about midway through... love the simple but effective, sing-songy guitar phrase here (I think of John Mitchell of Frost*, Kino, and so many others). My only criticism is it seems to last a few beats too long before the backing instrumentation signals a shift. But that could be due to my scrutiny. Anyway, this is, hands down, my favorite track of the album and I think the album would get more stars from me if the whole album had this... passion.

What it lacks in progressiveness - in all senses of the word - it makes up for in being well-produced. "Remember" is more power-balladry (and yes, I do remember the 80s*)... Glass Tiger, late-period Triumph, Survivor... in fact, Survivor might be the best reference here; think "The Search Is Over"...

As I said, I didn't find anything to hate here - no harsh vocals, nothing that seemed too over-the-top (given the genre), and nothing too saccharine, though "Loved Ones" does come "dangerously" close. I enjoyed listening to the album; they are all competent in what they do. But there's no point that made me say "wow!" ("cool," maybe with "Chivalry"). Maybe nothing surprises me anymore? Or maybe, and more likely, for all it's likability, it's all very safe.

From other reviews I glanced at - hate to read others' thoughts lest they colour my own - it seems the consensus is that this a poppier direction for the band is ... a disappointing one. If this is the first album with a new direction, outlook, I guess there will be growing pains. The follow up will be the determiner.

[There is a deluxe edition that includes a bonus live disk, recorded at the Loud Park Festival in Japan in October 2012. -ed]

*band pictures relieve us of the fear they have the "big hair" of the 80s, too.

The Weight (6:18) / Highest Bitter (5:13) / Havoc (3:23) / Pages (5:02) / Flames (4:04) / Loved Ones (8:09) / After The Fire (8:30) / Remember (5:39) / Chivalry (7:51)

Bonus Disc: Forging / Namaste / The One / Arrival Of Love / Abyss / Alive / Game Of Life / Last Goodbye

Michael Eriksen - vocals
Mats Haugen - guitars
Glen Møllen - bass
Lasse Finbråten - keyboards
Truls Haugen - drums

First Chapter (2005)
Isolate (2007)
Nine (2012)
Havoc (2016)
Havoc In Oslo (2017)

Genre: Progressive-Power Metal

Origin NO

Added: June 15th 2018
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 7861
Language: english


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