Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Album Review: Shadow Circus - Whispers and Screams

Album reviews are for, er, album reviews. Honestly I'm not sure what you expect me to say in this header. It's pretty self-explanatory.

Pst pst pst YAAAARGH pst pst pst YAAAAARGH
Track List:
1. Captain Trips
2. The Long Road
3. The Big Fire
4. The Seduction of Harold Lauder
5. The Horsemen Ride
6. The Hand of God
7. Coming Back Home To You
8. When The Morning Comes
9. Willoughby
10. Angel
11. ...Then In July, The Thunder Came

Note: I'm still experimenting with review format.  This one's more or less track-by-track, so it's fairly long.  Next time I'll try something more concise and see how it does.

Contrary to what the band name, album title, and cover might tell you, this isn't actually a goth band.  Rather, Shadow Circus are a New York City-based hard progressive rock band.  They're one of my favorite modern prog bands, with excellent musicianship, varied moods, and actual catchy melodies (sadly a rarity in prog rock).  Their lineup, as of this album, consists of:

-David Bobick: Vocals
-John Fontana: Keyboard, guitar
-Jason Croft: Bass
-Corey Folta: Drums

I have to take a moment to give a word of appreciation to Dave Bobick: He is extremely theatrical, which I love.  He cites influence from bands such as KISS, and his singing style reminds me a bit of Genesis-era Peter Gabriel, not so much in timbre as in the theatricality of it.  John Fontana is also an excellent virtuoso guitarist, and really we've just got good players all around.

Whispers and Screams is Shadow Circus' second album, and is so named because of its tendency to quickly go between loud and quiet.  The first seven tracks of the album comprise a suite called Project Blue, which is loosely based on Stephen King's The Stand.  I only read part of The Stand, so I can't really comment on how accurate it is.

The album opens with Captain Trips, sung from the point of view of the plague which wipes out humanity.  The song fades in with ominous wind sounds and some eery drawn-out guitar, before suddenly crescendoing into hard rock, with a very catchy riff.  The vocals finally kick in at 2:11 or so, with David Bobick singing with appropriate menace about all the evil things he'll do.  The whole song is fast paced and really gives the feeling of an unstoppable force bearing down on the world.  Between the riff and the vocals, especially during the chorus, this is a really catchy song.  After the second chorus Fontana gets in an early display of virtuosity, with a good keyboard solo followed by an excellent guitar solo.

Captain Trips ends just about as quickly as it started and makes way for The Long Road, a much mellower piano-led peace, though the verses still have a punch to them.  Here again we see that Whispers/Screams contrast, with the punchier verses contrasting with the more symphonic sound of the verses, all united by a vaguely Southern-rock sound. Lyrically the song's about the various important players of the story setting out on their journey, and it does a good job of feeling like it's building up to something.  Special mention should also go to Folta's furious drumming, which really stands out on this track.

The Big Fire starts off slowly, with some ominous synth warbling and mellow guitar.  This increases a bit in drama as the track goes on, but it only really gets going when the lyrics kick in at 1:45 or so.  The rest of the song is a dramatic and somewhat chaotic-sounding (especially during the chorus) song about... fire.  This is one of my favorite songs on the album, I love the almost desperate aggressiveness to the chorus compared to the more stompy menace of the verses.  Plus the whole thing's pretty catchy.  The song ends pretty quickly, but it almost immediately goes into The Seduction of Harold Lauder, a fast-paced and chaotic instrumental.  This is a really excellent song with some very memorable keyboard and guitar melodies, and enough development to stop it getting dull.  The guitar's quite good, but the keyboard really leads this song.

So far the song's have been good but straightforward hard prog for the most part, so The Horsemen Ride shakes things up.  It drops the hard rock in favor of a more atmospheric Indian feel.  The first time I listened this album I didn't like this song too much because it felt like it came out of nowhere, but once I got used to it I found I really liked it due to the variety it adds, the good melody, and the thick atmosphere.

The Hand of God is another instrumental that reprises some earlier themes.  It initially starts out with some ominous piano before bringing back some of the opening of The Big Fire, finally breaking into Captain Trips, and eventually diving back into The Big Fire and then pingponging a bit between the two songs and solos. Here Fontana really gives himself some room to stretch out on those guitar solos and show off his stuff, and the results are suitably excellent.  My only real problem is that despite all the impressive instrumental work on this track, there doesn't feel like enough of a final BOOM for the big climax of the album.  It just kind of goes "Vooo...".  The final track, Coming Back Home To You, isn't really even a prog song.  It's southern rock, almost sounds like The Eagles without that annoying cleanness that marks their sound.  That said, as long as you don't despise southern rock, it's a good song with a great chorus and fairly complex instrumentation (for this sort of song), and it serves as a satisfying denouement (fear my Fancy French) to the suite.

When The Morning Comes is a beautiful acoustic ballad that serves as a way of clearing your palate of the suite before we launch back into the heavier prog stuff.  When considering this album it's easy to forget, but it does stand well on its own as a very nice ballad.  Those harmonies!  Sounds almost like a modernized Renaissance ballad.

Willoughy brings back the prog of the suite, but condenses it into 10 minutes.  It's based on a Twilight Zone episode (A Stop at WIlloughby) and kind of distills their prog sound into a (relatively) shorter format.  It reminds me most of The Long Road, actually, with lots of piano and more percussive, aggressive verses contrasting with more symphonic, yearning choruses.  Over all it doesn't really bring much new to the table, but it's still a good song.

Despite being over 7  minutes long, Angel is actually much less prog in structure.  This is probably my favorite song on the album after the suite.  I'm not entirely sure what it's about (a prostitute, I think), but it's got a real sense of sadness and regret to it, probably the most emotional song on the album.  It's also got some very nice musical touches throughout, like the piano riff that shows up several times, the use of strings, and the sad guitar solos.

Angel transitions into ...Then In July, The Thunder Came which, appropriately enough, starts with rain and thunder.  This is an odd one, an ominous march that feels more like a prelude than an epilogue.  Which is funny, because it actually is a prelude.  See, their next album is based on A Wrinkle In Time and the first track is A Dark and Stormy Night.  Get it?   Anyway, it's a good track with a solid melody and relentless drumming.  It's vaguely unsatisfying as an ending, and it really works better if you imagine it being the opening to an album that has yet to exist.

Over all an excellent album if you like hard rock or prog.  Even if you don't, some of the less-proggy songs like Coming Back Home To You, When The Morning Comes, and Angel might appeal to you.  You can listen to the entire album (and their new EP and parts of their first album) on their website, so give it a spin.

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