I am by no means a huge Circus Maximus fan. I greatly enjoy their debut album “The 1st Chapter”, and I thought “Nine” was pretty decent, though I haven’t listened to it for a long time. Circus Maximus, though, have made a name for themselves in progressive metal. They have certainly come across as a young, fresh version of Dream Theater in the past, and so they definitely have turned heads. With their new album “Havoc”, however, this band has continued to fall into the same trap so many other young prog bands have this year.
First of all, let me just say this: This album doesn’t suck just because of the change in style. If that is all that is caught in your crawlspace, you’re part of the problem I’m about to discuss. Boo-hoo. Get over it. Bands change and have eras of a certain sound that will later come to define their careers. Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson: They all experienced the same thing. Stop crying about it.
But “Havoc” represents something deeper that I see happening throughout prog today, whether it be in Votum’s latest or even in Myrath’s new album. Younger prog bands are usually sparked into existence due to a love for a certain band. For Circus Maximus (and Myrath), it was Dream Theater mainly, though other bands like Symphony X come into play, too. For Votum, it was Riverside. Whether or not they meant to sound similar to these bigger bands, they ended up copying them in many ways, and so they’ve been cruising in their shadows for years now. This year especially, I’ve been seeing these younger bands, now getting along in years, trying to break free; not because they have an organic progression to a new sound, but because they desperately want to have a review written without mentioning their influences. They want to leap out from under that shadow to find their own place in our hearts. Let’s face it: Many bands that see Dream Theater as a primary inspiration are simply lumped together into a giant heap, and we often forget even their names. Desperate to break free, these bands are moving forward into other sounds that aren’t organic or even good, and they leave fans in the dust.
Let’s talk “Havoc” now. Circus Maximus remains unchanged from their previous record. The band is still Mike Eriksen on vocals, Mats Haugen on guitars, Glen Cato Møllen on bass, Truls Haugen on drums, and Lasse Finbråten on keyboards. These guys are fine musicians, and their instrumental talent is evident throughout this album. Lasse and Mats are the highlights this time around, and Mike’s voice is as melodious as ever. The lyrics are even thoughtful and well-written, as in the past. What has changed, however, is their focus. I think the above band photo is a good example of this. That might as well be Shinedown or something. What are they shooting for? Take a look at their album cover. It screams “debut from a one-off alternative rock band” to me.
And that’s why “Havoc” sucks. Look, I have no problem with pop music. Or radio rock. Or whatever. I listen to some of that myself. But when a progressive metal band takes a giant U-turn into something that sounds more like 00’s modern rock with hints of prog metal here and there, you just have to wonder. It doesn’t feel organic for them. It doesn’t feel fresh or vibrant. It feels over-used, worn out, and even cringe-worthy at times. Had they written strong songs, even if they were cheaply catchy, I’d probably be praising them for having the balls to leave their old sound. As it is, the music here feels rushed, derivative (just from other sources), and bland. I’ve heard this album a million times.
That is not to say that the album is wholly awful. “Highest Bitter” is pretty decent, although the pun in the title there is not as clever as they seem to think. “Loved Ones” is a great track that shines because of its pureness of melody and theme. “Flames” has a great hook in it. “Chivalry”, too, has its moments. The common denominator for all these tracks, however, is a great string section. Seriously, the string section they have employed here sounds great and plays the best and most memorable segments of this entire album.
And then there’s the rest of the album. Songs like the above title track “Havoc” are simply unlistenable at times. The chorus feels like something akin to “Ladies and Gentleman” from radio rock band Saliva (whom I happen to love, despite myself). Other reviewers have been pointing out Marilyn Manson influences here and there, and I definitely hear that, too. In general, though, it just seems like they have been so eager to leave Dream Theater behind that they forgot to write songs that we want to hear. Even if you just want to listen to “Havoc” for the sake of the technical prowess or instrumental portions, you will be disappointed, as the latter is almost non-existent and the former is rather low to the point where I’d barely call this album progressive at all. Their Facebook page does currently say “Metal” as their genre, so that may be telling. I’m not sure I can even give them that label, though.
“Havoc”, in short, is a hot mess. It’s a totally mixed bag. Despite their fans, Circus Maximus continues to pursue a place outside of Dream Theater’s shadow, but they focus too much on being different and not enough on composing good music. I blame us, though. Bands like Circus Maximus take a brutal amount of comparisons and derivative comments from the progressive community, and so we drive them to find their own sound, but some simply don’t have one. “Havoc” may be enjoyable if you want something simple and straightforward, but, as far as “progressive” goes, this album doesn’t even register.
Excellent review, and I totally agree. I always feel Flower Kings is a great example of a band that remains fresh without betraying their signature sound and composition principles.
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“mixed bag” couldnt of said it better. i love circus maximus, principally because i think 1st chapter and Isolate are some of the best prog metal albums of all time, but god damn did this one disappoint. i tried really hard too; giving it a few spins. And there were moments of hope found in tracks like “highest bitter” and “flames”, but alas i feel we will never experience that certain Circus Maximus again that gave us “glory of the empire” and “arrival of love”
fuck my life