Sound — 6
Just like how The Hold Steady's heartland rock style was mainly influenced by their previous work as a Bruce Springsteen cover band, Norway's Circus Maximus started out covering Dream Theater songs before moving onto writing their own music in the exact same vein as Dream Theater; built out of Petrucci-style guitar solos, Rudess-style keyboard melodies, and LaBrie-style vocals. With their first two albums, 2005's "The 1st Chapter" and 2007's "Isolate" appealing near exclusively to this well-established recipe, it was an ambivalent way to success - while its by-the-book emulation was an unambitious choice, its showcase of instrumental skill was still an impressive emulation, and made for enjoyable albums for those fine with the echo chamber mentality.
By their third album, 2012's "Nine," Circus Maximus began to attempt expanding from the central appeal of their techy instrumental acrobatics - with keyboardist Lasse Finbråten using more synthesizer sounds for arpeggio layers and textures, and the band composing more softer sections to contrast the heavier prog metal sections - though its sounds was still strongly rooted in their Dream Theater inspiration. With their fourth album, "Havoc," Circus Maximus are further attempting an expansion, now branching out from that core prog metal sound. Some smaller changes in their instrumental recipe help reach this goal: the delayed guitar plucks in "Pages" and "Remember" show a freshened use of Mats Haugen's guitars; Finbråten's varied synth parts giving "Flames" and "After the Fire" a bit of '80s synth-pop flavor, "Remember" some chiptune arpeggios, and "Chivalry" a hint of trance; and the uplifting prog rock warmth of "Loved Ones" almost sounds like something from 30 Seconds To Mars' "This Is War," but then takes a nice turn into a meatier, 9/8 prog metal bridge. However, the band also show some new moments of blatant derivation, heard in the Tool-inspired likes of "Highest Bitter" (where vocalist Michael Eriksen also tries out a lower range of singing that bears a post-grunge style to it), and the eponymous song uses the popular Marilyn Manson song "The Beautiful People" as a clear template; from its swingy tom drumbeat and whispering verse vocals to the "hey" chant in the chorus, it's much too obvious.
In these moments of change both big and small, however, Circus Maximus' expected prog metal sound is still intact, and brings some great moments in "Havoc." Along with a circus-style frantic melody in the bridge of "After the Fire" which calls back to the recurring sonic theme heard in "The 1st Chapter," symphonic elements are strong in the string melodies of the steady plodding "The Weight," odd measurements come to play in the 3/4 and 5/4 riffs of "Pages" and the 7/8 signature of "Flames," and of course, Haugen shows off his guitar skills in both arpeggio riffs (in "Remember") and guitar solos (in "Loved Ones" and the self-titled song). Compared to the other songs where the band try emulating other bands, it nearly justifies the band continue to emulate what they know how to emulate best.
Lyrics — 7
Lyrically, Eriksen doesn't draw out a concrete and linear concept like he did in "Isolate," but he does wield a number of recurring themes throughout "Havoc." Most dominant is the symbolism of fire, which is molded into a number of juxtaposing contexts - spanning from a symbol of waning life-force in "Pages" ("I strike to find and relight the flame / Need to refuel and drive away this shame") and "After the Fire" ("Intentionally lost / Never to be found / Sometime ago, this flame / This flame was drowned"), to sadistic destruction in "Havoc" ("Just sealed your fate / Because I am the arsonist / Attend my wake"), to an enlightened, repentant act of self-immolation in "Flames" ("Light the fire, let me die / I feel no more agony / It is just like it should be"). Eriksen also uses the ego-centric theme of a spotlight performer in some narratives, going from a neurotic narcissism in "Highest Bitter" ("Welcome to the exhibition / Where I am the main attraction / I've been seething in this pillory / Enjoy my misery") to an empowered, chaotic show of savage grandiosity in "Havoc" ("Step right out, folks / Witness a real life circus freak wreaking havoc in your neighborhood!"), and even takes a turn into the Meta with a story about a musician hiding his true pain from his audience in "Pages" ("Suffering in silence just to be a part of life / Smiling at the crowd while singing words made up by lies").
Overall Impression — 6
Whether by way of desire to try something new or a growing boredom of doing the same, it was only a matter of time before Circus Maximus would start to branch out from their Dream Theater-inspired sound. With those songwriting branches starting to grow in "Havoc," some more dimensions are added to their prog metal style in a general sense, like the small injections of different genre sounds, and a bigger focus on melodies. But the album sullies itself in its more specific attempts to sound different, which only come off like blatant copies of other bands. "Havoc" may be a starting point to move in a more original direction for the band, but it duly shows that the continuing emulative tendencies of Circus Maximus will only be a disservice in that initiative.