Released: 2007, Frontiers Records
Norway's Circus Maximus may be greatly removed from the ancient Roman venue of the same name, but the intent of ISOLATE, this year's followup to the prog-metal band's 2005 debut THE FIRST CHAPTER, appears to be similar to that of the arena, namely providing entertainment which would appeal to a larger audience base than previous works had. The good news is they largely succeed. The bad news is they do so through largely through mimicking their primary influences. The good news about the bad news is they do that mimickry exceptionally well. Circus Maximus was founded in Oslo in 2000 as a cover band who were lauded for tackling difficult source material such as Symphony X and Dream Theater. Seven years later, the influence of those groups - particularly the latter - is still more than just a bit obvious in their music.
Tommy Hansen (producer for acts such as Helloween, Wuthering Heights, and the like) is at the helm once again, giving ISOLATE a full, rich sound with an excellent instrumental balance and enough breathing room to keep anything from sounding overprocessed. Opening cut "Darkened Mind" is an excellent start to the album, a well-written power-prog tune with a really nice slow-building intro segment which has Eriksen singing in a lower register with a style strongly reminiscent of Geoff Tate. As the track continues, he shifts to higher tones, sounding more like James LaBrie as he does so and delivering an upbeat, power-metallish performance while the rest of the band gets to show off their musical chops. The solo section is surprisingly compact, a trend that runs throughout the album - it seems Circus Maximus has at least to some extent learned the value of restraint, which is a good thing in a genre where overly self-indulgent playing is far too common. That said, guitarist Mats Haugen has definitely been practicing because his solos on this album are amazingly good both in terms of technicality and melodic content - far better than anything on THE FIRST CHAPTER. Following track "Abyss" is another great prog-tinged power metal track with an intro similar to some of the more complex pieces from SCENES FROM A MEMORY, sharp and fast rhythms, excellent vocal melodies, and superb solos in both the keyboard and guitar departments. If the Dream Theater influence seemed obvious in that track's beginning, though, it's even more blatant in the instrumental cut "Sane No More," which sounds - down to the keyboard tones and guitar leads - like it would fit right alongside "Erotomania," "The Dance Of Eternity," or any number of tracks from the Liquid Tension Experiment discs. Derivative? Sure, but it's still a really cool tune and definitely a blast for prog-heads and fans of technical yet melodic metal. Then the band completely throws the listener for a loop with "Arrival Of Love," which shifts gears completely and switches to an AOR/hair metal/prog mixture, calling to mind some of the better works from Pretty Maids or TNT. Very catchy and enjoyable song, even if the lyrics in the early part of the track are truly cringe-worthy ('I can see you lying there, your body next to mine - God, you look so fine...'). Speaking of lyrics, turning to the album's longest track, "Mouth Of Madness," there's a section of the opening portion where Eriksen sings 'I am on my own with no direction home, a complete unknown.' Hmmm. I believe Bob Dylan might want to have a word with you there, Mike. That quibble aside, "Mouth" is the album's best and most varied track with a superb acoustic and keyboard-driven intro similar to early Queensryche pieces, slow keyboard-backed heavy-prog riffs very similar to AWAKE-era Dream Theater ("The Mirror" jumps to mind immediately), a sludgy doom segment with narration samples and downright eerie lead guitar and keyboard, symphonic-style chants, atmospheric melodic portions - just an all-around excellent prog-metal tune. The remaining cuts balance balladry (the excellently melodic "Zero"), AOR-power metal mixture (catchy cut "From Childhood's Hour"), and progressive complexity ("Wither" and "Ultimate Sacrifice") without a single weak track in the mix.
In case this review sounded negative in places, I admit I've probably been too hard on the band for what my ear perceives to be too much imitation. Sure, on ISOLATE, Circus Maximus sounds a lot like Dream Theater sometimes - but when they do, they sound like Dream Theater at their 90's peak, something the New York quintet hasn't quite managed to recapture in recent years. Fans of early Dream Theater, early Queensryche, Pretty Maids, and progressive-power metal in general should give ISOLATE a spin - you won't be disappointed.