Isn’t it nice to have a great, unexpected surprise? A complete bolt from the blue that knocks your socks off and puts a huge grin on your face when you least expected it. This doesn’t happen to me very often when it comes to music. I usually expect an album to be good and it is or to be poor and, unfortunately, it is. Well, let me tell you, Circle of Illusion’s debut release “Jeremias – Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms” wasn’t filling me with a warm glow when I read the press release about this, so called, symphonic prog-rock opera and then I started playing the album and, well, I was stunned! Yes, it’s a bit cheesy and over the top in places but, overall, it is a great chunk of bombastic theatricals blended with excellent music.
A bit of background first, in 2006 the keyboardist, arranger and composer, Gerald Peter, produced a demo, Closing Doors, of the vision of what he wanted to achieve, a progressive rock concert album and has been working on Jeremias – Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms since 2008. He met singer-songwriter Taris Brown in 2010 and fleshed out a solid story for the album. He formed Circle of Illusion in 2011 with a further 7 musicians including Rupert Traxler on guitar, Stephan Forst on bass, Aaron Thier on drums and Ulrike Mullner on the electric violin. Taris Brown, Cara Cole and Elgar Shafran provide the vocals for the voices of the prog opera’s Jeremy, Jelena and Sarah.
Jeremias – Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms is an epic piece of music, a progressive symphony that deals, in its final version, with the ambivalence of human emotion. It runs the gamut of musical styles with prog rock, prog metal and power metal all getting a look in. We even have jazz funk-soul and, at times, a fantastic cinematic score. You could truly call it the first symphonic prog rock musical, Les Miserables on acid in effect.
The instrumental opener Overture would grace any movie, its style is pure cinematic score, a heavy version yes, but brilliant nonetheless. The Beginning has a very funky vibe to it,all wah wah pedal guitar and a first hint of what will prove to be, throughout the album, excellent vocals. This could be a 70’s film score at times, although never quite straying into pastiche. There are some great piano interludes and 70’s synth running throughout the track which combines well with the heavier riffs from both guitar and keyboard. With a touch more prog metal about the intro, The Run, kicks off with great female vocals before moving into a jazz infused style, piano tinkling in the background. Heavier guitar and keyboard then overlay a more insistent vocal style before the keyboard and guitar gets a lot more emphasis and, lo and behold, another sharp change into jazz piano that fades into the background as a fantastic piece of guitar playing takes us towards the end of the song. The Memory Returns has a much more of a power metal heavy vibe, only a short piano interlude straying from the pattern, gothic rock inspired vocals emphasising the heavier groove. There is no break before we hit, what can only described as 70’s disco inspired, The Party, you’d think it would be totally out of place but it works, just. I was waiting for Nile Rogers to come out of the woodwork and join in the fun.
Closing Doors starts what seems to be a heavier themed second half of the album. Cracking riffs overlaid with sweeping violins and epic vocals this is symphonic power metal. The songs are constructed in such a way that they always feel that they are part of a rock opera. Soaring keyboards and guitars back up the great vocals to finish the song. A cinematic edge overlaid with a guitar solo introduces New Age before a really rather excellent and heavy riff takes over, keyboards slow us down to introduce very operatic vocals and we are well into what has to be described as the most operatic of the songs on the album, vocal ranges of both male and female singers being tested to the full, great keyboard and guitar work juxtaposing the vocal workout. The song takes us on a heavier journey, interjecting hard edged riffs with the soaring vocals. A brilliant guitar run combines with the vocals to take us to the end of the track as it blends neatly with Continuum, the vocals at the start reminiscent of any of the great stage musicals. The contrast in styles seen throughout the album carries on as the song gets heavier, vocals reaching a peak, guitar crunching and keyboards swirling round culminating in a rather excellent solo on the keys that trades blows with squealing guitar and a strong vocal ending that flows neatly into the piano led vocal track Sarah’s Dream, nice, but a little lightweight compared to the rest of the album except for the rather excellent guitar solo to run out the track. 13th Floor is a frenetic piano and violin led song that is the weakest track on the album, I just don’t think it fits in with the symphonic prog rock opera style that runs throughout the rest of this magnum opus.
So we come to the end of this epic story and the final track, the 16 minute long Nightmare. This proves to be a rather excellent conclusion to the album. It ebbs and flows like all great tracks, great vocals working well with each other, technically brilliant playing of all the instruments but with a lot of soul and emotion. The crashing guitars in contrast to the beautiful strings and piano, we run through a whole host of musical styles melding as the story reaches its zenith. Of course there is the suitably bombastic, almost pompous ending that you would expect from a project of this style, a fantastic guitar solo peaking as the saga concludes.
Circle of Illusion will be playing Jeremias – Foreshadow of Forgotten Realms in its entirety live and I am sure this will be a phenomenal live show, Cirque du Soleil for prog and metal fans if you like. To be fair, it will probably be even better live than on a recording but, as symphonic prog operas go, this one will take some beating and comes highly recommended.