Sound — 9
Helping change the long held image of Norway among Metal fans as nothing more than a bastion of frostbitten grimness, Church burnings and musicians turned murderers is a melodic Progressive metal band from Oslo called Circus Maximus. Together with Pagan's Mind, Winds, and several others they are part of a new generation of bands ready to stake their less controversial claims to a nation that first came to wider attention in the Metal world back in the 1980s with the success of glam rockers TNT. Circus Maximus released their debut album The 1st Chapter back in 2005 to deservedly high praise from the Prog-Metal community. Now returning with Isolate, the CM boys have refined their sound even further, moving away from some of the heavier and punchier instrumental sections in favor of smoother and more flowing compositions that are no less impressive in their execution, but just a little more 'natural sounding' and accessible, for even non Prog-Metal fans. The result is very melodic music that is close to that of early Dream Theater or Symphony X. Soon to be guitar-hero Mats Haugen races and lunges throughout the songs hitting almost every mark with precision and seemingly perfect timing as he fires off one blazing solo after another, while retaining a controlled and melodic approach to playing that avoids him from being categorized as yet another shredder. The excellent rhythm section comprised of his brother Truls (drums) and Glen Mllen (bass) provide a constant pulse of energy that keeps the music lively and always interesting. Equally impressive is new keyboardist, Lasse Finbrten, who more than ably takes over from the departed Espen Stor, adding support to the songs that encompasses piano, synthesizers, and some very nice orchestral effects.
Lyrics — 9
While the clean and perfectly smooth voice of singer Michael Eriksen might be the initial attention grabber as he demonstrates great skill with both mid and higher range vocalizations that soar above the music, it's also immediately obvious that the entire band are top caliber musicians. Isolate appears to be a concept album mostly dealing with the darker feelings of the human psyche, and although the songs are strongly focused on the narrative of the lyrics, the band avoids being overly wordy or otherwise letting the music get overshadowed. Instead, they still take numerous, and always opportune moments to showcase their jaw-dropping playing, most distinctively perhaps on the nearly four minute long tour-de-force instrumental track Sane No More, where Mats and Lasse take turns laying down all manner of fiery riffs to a swinging groove rhythm. If this isn't enough to make you finally get the guitar out of the closet to practice, or perhaps just throw it into the wood chipper, I don't know what is.
Overall Impression — 9
With the exception of this instrumental track, the first half of the album features the more melodic (read catchier) and less complex arrangements. Even though the lyrics are for the most part still dealing with depressive subject matters, tracks such as A Darkened Mind, Abyss, Wither, and Arrival of Love would all have an equal chance at being categorized as the so-called 'singles' with their strong hooks and generally lighter feeling. However, towards the end of the album, the band begins to explore more elaborate and darker compositions, starting with the gradually building piano-led power ballad Zero which is highlighted by a striking guitar solo (reminded me a bit of Slash's solo in GnR's November Rain) and which closes to the sound of a chanting choir. This song is followed by Mouth Of Madness, which uses layers of background vocals, recordings of roaring crowds, and more operatic choruses to accentuate it's strongly dramatic atmosphere. Strangely, the song closes with an ironic carnival-like melody, reminiscent to that heard at the end of the title track from their debut album. The track From Childhood's Hour was a particularly favorite piece with it's melancholy music and lyrics that evoke the despair felt by the song's character. They are possibly the strongest and most compelling lyrics of the album, but the music is also befitting as the sad feelings explode into rage punctuated by yet another one of Mats brilliant guitar solos. The album closer Ultimate Sacrifice appears to tell of the characters final fate, but what exactly is happening is quite ambiguous and perhaps intentionally so. Does it signify the finality of death, an incarceration, or just a descent into complete madness? It's not really clear and the band allows you to interpret it however you wish. The overall production, performed by the band themselves, with mixing done by studio wizard Tommy Hansen (Helloween, Seventh Wonder, etc.) is also quite a bit sleeker and more elaborate than that of their first album. My only minor complaint is that the sound is a little too compressed and lacking in some of the dynamics or punch of their debut. It's a minor point, and certainly doesn't detract from the excellent nature of the music, and there's still ample reasons why this was one of my favorite albums from last year. They may not be all that revolutionary, but they are extremely good at what they do and with a killer sophomore effort like this, it seems that the future of Norway's musical reputation will continue to be in some very good hands.