Album Reviews

Circus Maximus – Havoc

It’s been four years since the Norwegian progressive metal giants Circus Maximus released their third album, Nine, and they are finally back with their fourth offering, entitled Havoc.  Again, featuring Michael Eriksen (Vocals), Mats Haugen (Guitars), Glen Møllen (Bass), Truls Haugen (Drums), and Lasse Finbråten (Keyboards), they have put forth their newest collection of material that fans have been waiting with bated breath to hear.  With the divergence of Nine‘s sound from their previous two album, The 1st Chapter and Isolate, will Circus Maximus carry on that sound, or will they try something new yet again?  With the more sinister-looking album cover and title, will they wreak havoc with the newest musical offering?

Opening the album is the song The Weight, which is also the first single released from the album.  It starts off with a fairly straightforward and chunky riff, but lightens up and becomes more syncopated in the verses.  The chorus is vocally catchy with some counter rhythms by the band, including organ.  The instrumental solo with the guitar solo is both melodic and virtuosic with many runs in the classic Mats style of soloing. The ending of the song, however, is my only real issue with this song.  It seems belabored, carrying on the same (or similar) riff for 16 bars, which I kept wanting to be finished after 8 or maybe 12 bars. This song is a fair representation of the recent Circus Maximus sound with strong melodies and harmonies and syncopated rhythms and is somewhat reminiscent of Reach Within.  (listen in the audio video below)

Highest Bitter opens with a strong, rumbling bassline introduction with vocals only, entering right out of the gate.  The drums and guitar enter after the first stanza, and build into the chorus.  The verses in this piece are not in typical Circus Maximus style and stay in the low octave range, showing a different side to Eriksen‘s vocals not often showcased.  The chorus in particular is catchy and really carries the song.  I also find the wording in the chorus to be interesting, and perhaps a play on the “bitter tears in glorifying you” reference earlier, it uses the word “bitter” instead of “bidder,” which is clearly the intention of the meaning (“You make me sell myself to the highest bitter”).  This song has some “edge” to it musically, which also seems to communicate the sourness of the song’s theme.

Next up is Havoc, the title track and the shortest on the album at a mere 3:22 minutes long.  This song is the strongest departure from the Circus Maximus sound – when I first heard it, I made sure the right track was playing because I thought there was a mix-up on the player.  Often likened to Marilyn Manson‘s song Beautiful People, it is a short but very different song direction that Circus Maximus decided to venture into on this album.  It’s a very industrial metal-type song that really ventures from the progressive metal style – and CM’s in general – that might appeal to some listeners.

The song itself is adequate in and of itself, but I would be looking for something like this from another band rather than Circus Maximus.  (see the lyric video below)

Pages starts off with a bass-heavy introduction and is another pseudo-industrial sounding song.  It is softer on the verses, but still is held down with the prominent bass beat, though it is a little overpowering to the lightness of the vocals and guitar.  The chorus is layered with some interesting and nicely complimentary harmonies to the vocal lines.  The instrumental interlude shows interesting lines with a shift a little more melodic and uplifting, especially when much of the song uses dissonance and/or clashing chord shifts for musical effect.  It even has a slight bluesy feel at moments, and in the last chorus has a bit of vocal distortion effects that is slightly reminiscent of Dream Theater‘s Lines in the Sand.  There are some moments in the song that I feel hit the mark, but overall, this song doesn’t particularly grab me.

The fifth track, Flames, returns to a more progressive rock sound that is softer and includes the more typical Circus Maximus sound.  Musically, it is a fairly straightforward song with copious syncopated rhythms and there is a stronger keyboard/synth presence than some of the previous tracks.  It’s not a particularly heavy song, and the melodies are upbeat despite the nihilistic nature of the lyrics.  Overall, I enjoyed the melodies of this song despite its deceivingly dark interpretation of the themes.

The next song, however, is probably one of my favorites thematically and my most favored musically on the album.  Loved Ones reminds me of Nine’s Last Goodbye in the sense that it deals with the death of a loved one, though from the other side of the veil.  The song is positive musically, though the lyrics are somewhat melancholy, and the song has some overall tooth to it as well that one can sonically grab onto.  Starting off with keys only that build into a full band intro that pulls back into the first verse with a strong base foundation with some light percussion, guitar and keys, but it continues to build into the bridge and full-fledged chorus.  This song has a good groove to it though it is fairly slow-tempoed.  However, the instrumental interlude changes gears and has some deeper riffing as well as melodic shredding in an interesting juxtaposition that works effectively, returning back to the ethereal beginning that parallels the beginning, bursting back into the choruses again to play this song out.

After The Fire weighs in as the longest track on the album at eight and a half minutes long.  It has a synth-laden introduction with vocals, and actually has some more reminiscence of early Circus Maximus (with some Dream Theater influence)  in the instrumental interlude portion especially later in the song.  It is more progressive than the other tracks, although not overly so.  This song takes the listener through a roller coaster of different segments, from pulsating synths to measured guitar-driven grooves to soaring melodies to soft syncopations to djent-like riffs to melodic classical keys to emotive guitar solos complete with time changes.  This piece definitely highlights the keyboards and guitars and does not follow any formulaic approach by any means, which on one hand keeps it interesting, and on another hand has the potential to seem quite disjointed, but in this case it is seamed together like a colorful garment.

Remember is a track that is a kind of heavy ballad of sorts that tends to uplift you as you listen to it.  This song reminds me some of Imperial Destruction and Reach Within, mostly because of the empowering lyrics such as “The voice inside is your defender…Reveal the one within you….Just remember when it comes to giving in, the battlefield is yours to win,” and one of my favorite vocal deliveries is “Remember how, remember when, we wore the coat of arms that made us heroes of the day.”  It has a more upbeat sound to it, much in the vein of the songs from Nine, and is one of the lighter moments among the album.  Melodically and lyrically, this song is one of the highlights on the album for me.  It is a nice contrast or balance the heavier, grittier, and darker songs offered on Havoc, and it’s one I’m glad they included. There are elements of rhythmic syncopation as well as on-tempo grooves, ’80s vibe keyboards and guitar arpeggios, soft tender moments with a children’s vocal ensemble, light and airy moments as well as hard and heavy hitting segments.  Be sure to watch the music video of this song below, which provides and interesting storyline to watch play out along with the song.

Chivalry is the last track on the album to carry it out.  This song starts with a slow, ethereal, almost haunting beginning, and is more mellow and melancholic throughout the first verse in a very different style than usually heard in a Circus Maximus song, although adeptly done.  After this enters a spoken word soundbyte of a man saying, “I used to love you. I used to care. You loved me, trusted me, but I betrayed you.  You were just standing there with tears in your eyes.  I should have felt something, but I was just empty inside.  I know I should have helped you out of this puddle of mud instead of pushing your head in face first.”  After this, the song is no longer mellow or ethereal, but comes back hitting hard, just like the previous words with the chorus.  It scales back for the second verse and then segues into a bell-voiced segment before shifting to the lengthy instrumental outro.  It remains in the moderate tempo groove with a sustained guitar solo overhead, which then shifts into a 2-bar motif that literally repeats itself 40 times (or 20 times, if you take it in 4-bar increments) with only very slight changes in intensity or a few distant vocals to make it sound any differently.  Again, in a strange parallel to the opening track, the ending to this closing song seems especially belabored, playing the same or similar phrasing for many more repeats than seem necessary, going on for two and half minutes of the nearly eight-minute song.  Aside from this ad nauseum ending, the song is different in an interesting and experimental way and communicates the difficulty of the subject matter the song contains.

Loath is the bonus track included on deluxe version only.  It starts off with a kind of abrupt beginning, similar in nature to Dream Theater‘s A Nightmare to Remember.  This four and a half minute piece is a postscript to the album, and this is a heavier track with a good amount of shredding in the guitar solo.  The overall feel to the song is weighty for those looking for a chunkier sound.  There are some melodic moments and some nice piano runs in places, but it has a more abrasive and again more industrial sound to it overall, potentially a way to musically communicate the message of the song.  The lyrics, though not included in the liner notes of the deluxe album, seem to be a continuation of the lyrics – especially the soundbyte – from the previous song, Chivalry (“It’s not who you are but what you do that makes you….of this pile of dirt instead of pushing her head in face first….just pull her out of that river of doubt”).

Overall, as an album, Havoc is not overly progressive in sound, although some elements are still there.  The average track length time of 5:52 (the shortest being 3:24 and the longest being 8:30); the songs are of moderate length and there are no magnum opuses present on this album (like the 19-minute song The 1st Chapter).  As far as the sound of the album, the mix is clear and balanced, and the basslines are more noticeable, especially being higher in the mix than previously, as well as having a much brighter yet growlier tone than before, which seems to cut through much more strongly amidst the multi-layered songs (although  it can be overpowering a bit in the softer portions of songs).  The artwork remains simple in design, like Nine‘s cover, though with a Decepticon-like red geometric image on the dark background rather than the light minimalist cover of Nine.  The darkness of the cover also seems to reflect the overall darkness of the lyrics of the songs.  Even though musically some of the songs sound more upbeat, the topics and lyrics are really dark in nature if you delve into them.  Though there is clearly a wider variety of styles on this album, all the members are at the top of their game and contribute well to their parts that make up the greater whole that is Circus Maximus.  Michael‘s vocals are smooth, nuanced, and strong with the wonderful vibrato that makes me place him in my top 5 list of vocalists.  Mats‘ guitar work remains fluid and matches whatever the song calls for, light or heavy, gritty or melodic.  Glen‘s bass, as mentioned, is much brighter in the mix and his basslines can be easily heard within each song as he helps lay down the foundation as well as accent it from time to time.  Truls‘ drumming is always on point, and even though he has chosen to simplify it over time, he still provides interesting and complementary drum parts to each song.  Lasse‘s keyboards appear to be less prominent – or perhaps more well-hidden – in the songs, but his contributions always add finesse or pizzazz to all the music, and some of his modernistic synths and programming add some futuristic interest to some tracks.

However, I have a few personal thoughts about the album.  As a Circus Maximus fan, I was looking forward to hearing their new release, especially since it was actually the first one I was anticipating in advance.  I came into the Circus Maximus fold fairly late, discovering them just after Nine released, which is the album I started with and was hooked immediately with the strong melodies and catchy and accessible songwriting.  I immediately caught up with their discography and also loved The 1st Chapter and Isolate very well, even though I could tell those albums (especially their debut) were heavily Dream Theater influenced (which isn’t necessarily bad in my book).  So I picked up that many CM fans had been disappointed with Nine, having differed in style from the first two, but since I wasn’t familiar with those first, I had already become accustomed to the Nine sound but was able to embrace their earlier albums as well without complaint.  To me, Nine was the album where Circus Maximus found their niche and real trademark sound, streamlining a bit and solidifying their sonic identity as a band.  So with that in mind, I expected a Nine-esque kind of album with Havoc, especially with the same lineup going into it; however, I felt that the band is going through an identity crisis of sorts and are still trying to figure out who they want to be.  Some of the Nine-like sound still comes through in Havoc, but it seems they are still experimenting (perhaps to gain attention from a wider fan base) and this album felt like it had a lack of direction, and (forgive the term) seemed almost schizophrenic in its makeup.  It felt a bit disjointed, especially in the first half, which I felt was not a good introduction to the album for most listeners.  I felt the second half of the album was stronger and had the whole album been more in that vein it would have been a much more palatable – nay, enjoyable – album for me.  I certainly don’t expect or want songs to be cookie-cutter, and I like for each one to have its own “personality” to differentiate it from others on the tracklist.  However, on Havoc, the styles ran the gamut, even venturing into the industrial metal kind of sound, but if I wanted to listen to a Marilyn Manson-sounding band, I would have looked elsewhere.  That is not what I have liked Circus Maximus for, and this album makes me wonder where they are going with their sound.  What makes what I consider to be the classic elements of the Circus Maximus sound seems to be fading and I’m not sure what they are turning into or where they plan go.  Honestly, I find Havoc to be the weakest of all the Circus Maximus discography, as I consider their previous three albums to be solid in their own respects, and if there were a new person looking for advice to check into the band, I would not refer them to this album as a benchmark of their sound.  I understand that bands experiment over time, and I am actually not opposed to their doing so – in fact, I have often liked a band’s change in direction over time – but in this case, I feel that this further shift in styles is not in a completely positive direction for the band.  Though I do not feel that the album is disastrous by any means, I don’t feel like it’s the strongest that Circus Maximus can do (or has done).  None of the songs stood out to me like other albums that I could easily rattle off for people to check out, and to me, that is personally disappointing.  It pains me to write these words and I hoped after multiple listens that I would feel differently about this album.  It did indeed grow on me more with time, but it has never reached the growing power that the previous three albums held for me.  That being said, I will always be a fan of Circus Maximus and will continue to follow their work.  My advice for longtime CM fans: this album will really be a test of personal preference, and for new fans willing to check the band out starting with Havoc, I would encourage them not only to give this album a listen with an open mind and make their own decision, but also not to ignore their previous work as well that has put Circus Maximus in the upper echelon of bands in the progressive metal genre.

Lyric Video to “Havoc”

Audio Video to “The Weight”

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