Circus Maximus – Nine – 4.5/5
Every year a lot of music gets released, far more than any one person can listen to, and every year classics slip through even the most attentive listeners finger. I arrived on Redemption's 'Fullness of Time' half a decade late. Disillusion's 'Back to Times of Splendor' suffered much the same fate, and in both cases elicited the question of just what on earth took me so damn long. This is my first foray into this artists work – their first in five years – and the reaction is no different, what DID take me so damn long? Picking up after Dream Theater's classic first few albums and Symphony X's long legacy, it may take the tired tried and tested format and do little too outside the box but I'll be damned if this album doesn't deserve a place by their side. There's power and emotion, pop-like sensibilities mixed in with the heavy grooves; there's a beauty to their melodies that never overstays it's welcome, and far from getting tiring, like a fine wine it only seems to improve with time, the emotion steadily sinking in deeper with each listen.
LaBrie fans will likely note the occasional similarity in vocals, both capable of their epic and powerful lines, but where these guys get one up on the competition is in his restraint; that he can belt out a line doesn't mean the track requires it. The vast majority of the time it's a gentler touch, a soft sadness or lower pitch that he ends up using to lend a versatility to the proceedings. The rest of the instrumentation is no different; the guitars are content to play acoustic lines, add psychedelic flourishes, cleanly shred solo's and provide a deeper 'heavy metal' crunch; the keyboards shift between an ethereal backing, gentle piano lines and 'keytar' solos. There's a maturity to their playing that extends far beyond mere competency and into genuine creativity, and an appreciation of how to effectively juggle a plethora of styles within their given framework and, rather than utilise them for the sake of it, understand them well enough to make it work to the benefit of the overall track.
And this is perhaps the most startling thing about this release, more than the competency of of the musicianship is the stellar composition and just how broad a range of styles they manage to encompass. That they are capable musicians is not in question, but it blends well enough that even the most complex of passages end up sounding simplistic, different lines harmonising with one another to create a rich vibrant atmosphere. They never feel limited in choice; it's heavy, filled with insatiable grooving riffs and immense solo work, inspirational, melodic yet powerfully simple ballads, folky and psychedelic overtones, and everywhere in between. Where most work on getting one particular tone right, finding one specific niche in their corner of the overpopulated prog scene, they seem to want to do it all and somehow often find themselves doing it better than most. The more I listen the more I find new influences littered about; more work that could fit alongside a wide range of artists 'best of' catalogues without anyone batting an eyelid. Circus Maximus, your throne awaits.
Highlights: Game of Life, Reach Within, Burn After Reading