Sunday, December 9, 2012

Album Review: Shadow Circus: On A Dark And Stormy Nightf

Okay look.  I know I just reviewed Shadow Circus' last album a little while ago, but is it my fault they just released a new one?  And that it's really awesome?  No.  No it is not.  So shush and let the Red-eyed Man hypnotize you...

David Bobick - Vocals
John Fontana - Guitar, some keyboards
Matt Masek - Cello, Bass
David Silver - Keyboards
Jason Brower - Drums

On a Dark and Stormy Night is Shadow Circus' third album.  Continuing their trend of horror and sci-fi literary allusions (The Twilight Zone, The Talisman, The Stand, Something Wicked This Way Comes), On a Dark and Stormy Night is based on Madeleine L'Engle's classic young adult book A Wrinkle In Time.  Concept albums, amiright?  I've been reviewing them a lot lately.  Next time I'll have to review something distinctly un-concepty...  Nickelback's Greatest Hits or something.  Anyway, what was I talking about?  Right, Shadow Circus.

On a Dark and Stormy Night doesn't mark any major departure for Shadow Circus, they're still the great theatrical hard prog band as they were on their previous albums.  It does, however, mark a maturation.  Compositionally the album's their meatiest and most sophisticated so far, combining big theatrical wall of sound moments with their usual catchy melodies and mellow breathers.  This one's probably the most consistent album they've put out yet, and has a lot of depth to the compositions while still remaining accessible.  The second half of that sentence basically signifies what I consider good prog, so this is probably a good sign.

The album opens with Overture which is, well, an Overture.  Beginning with the rain and cello phrases from ...Then In July, The Thunder Came off their last album (man, that title looks awkward in the middle of a sentence) before doing what Overtures do, setting up the musical themes and queues that will show up later in the album.

Overture goes directly into Daddy's Gone.  This was the prerelease song from this album, a different recording of which appeared as the B-side on their Rise maxi-single.  The events of A Wrinkle In Time are kicked off when the Murray children's father vanishes, and this song is sung from the point of view of the main protagonist, Meg, about just that.  The piano riffs, Gilmour-ish guitar work (especially in the solo near the end) combined with Bobick's yearning vocals and the plaintive lyrics make an excellently emotional song with an extremely infectious chorus.   This is probably the most straightforward song on the album (don't take that as a commendation), and it serves as a good way of bringing us in gently instead of just presenting us with a wall of prog to beat down with our foreheads.

Daddy's Gone transitions into Whosit, Whatsit, and Which.  This song is named for the three women/guardian angels of the children, Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Which.  This one reminds me a touch of The Big Fire from their previous album, opening with an atmospheric and slow-paced instrumental section before segueing into the invigoratingly cheerful main portion of the song.  Believe me, you will have the chorus of this song stuck in your head for a long time.  I'm not sure if this was on purpose by the band, but the album does a good job of drawing you in with compositions that slowly increase in complexity.  Daddy's Gone is pretty straightforward, this song is a fair bit proggier, but its infectious jauntiness still makes it very easy to get into.  Near the end the song morphs into a fast-paced hard prog jam led by a memorable keyboard and guitar riff before repeating the chorus one last time and fading out.

Make Way For The Big Show represents the inner state of Meg's brother Charles, an extremely intelligent but ostracized child, this song represents the dark feelings and inner turmoil as a result of being bullied and outcast.  I also like to think of it as a bit of a sequel to Shadow Circus from the band's first album.  Portentous piano (alliteration!) starts off the track, backed by some subtle synths (more alliteration!).  Eventually, the synths kick up a gear as the track builds, finally bringing in the crunchy guitar and keyboards to kick the song into high gear and, finally, the vocals.  This is the longest track on the album, and it really shows; The band gives themselves plenty of room to stretch out and play around, but thankfully it manages to still feel tight and immediate, despite clocking in at nearly nine minutes long.  The song goes through a variety of instrumental sections with excellent solos from Fontana and Silver, bringing us back to the verses and chorus to keep things active and fresh.  This one might just be my favorite song on the album, the playing is excellent and blistering, the vocals are catchy and memorable, and the theatricalness of the whole thing reminds me a touch of early Genesis who, as I previously mentioned, are awesome.  The song reaches a crescendo and then falls into a primarily synth-based ending.

In the book, travel through space and time is facilitated by the use of a Tesseract, a 4th dimensional cube (don't ask me how, I don't remember).  Appropriately, we have the instrumental Tesseract to represent the travel of the children and Mrs Ws.  Remember The Seduction of Harold Lauder from their last album?  This is that and then some.  A fair bit harder, with a more modern sound, it serves as a good way of keeping energy high and keeping the album moving, avoiding the mid-album sag that tends to come in concept albums.  Like in The Seduction, Fontana leads this song with his impressive fiery guitar, but really it's a show for all of the instruments, creating a powerful wall of sound attack.

The next song is Uriel, the first planet the travelers land on. It's a peaceful safe land, inhabited by winged centaur-like guardian angels.  The song opens with a sort of symphonic pastoral feel, with piano recalling Daddy's Gone accompanied by cello and some guitar touches.  The verses of the song are soft and comforting, but they quickly dissolve into a faster-paced, joyous, and very catchy chorus, representing the party swooping over the planet on the backs of the angels.  Of course, all good things come to an end, and after the dual guitar and keyboard solos, some ominous synth textures pop up as we meld into the next song.

In the book, Camazotz is the dark planet, ruled by a telepathic brain that enforces conformity, named IT.  On Camazotz, Charles Wallace is seduced by IT's mouth piece, The Red-eyed Man.  This song is song from the Red-eyed Man's point of view, as he talks to Charles.  The song begins with the ominous synths of the last song, and a voice intoning "Now is the hour" ominously.  Then, bass and an awesome piano riff before the guitar comes in and finally the vocals again.  Bobick proves once again that he is great at threatening lyrics, singing, "There's only one way to live here, there's only one way to be one of us" of Camazotz's conformity before casting it attractively in the chorus ("I'll take care of you, I'll be there for you") backed by idiosyncratic gospel-ish woo-ing.  Halfway through the song takes a mellower turn as the Red-eyed Man takes advantage of Charles' feelings of resentment ("No more bullies to push you around anymore, don't you think it's time that they were afraid of you?").  The song builds up again, going further this time with instrumental solos and Bobick's furious vocals before it all comes crashing together at the finale of the song.  This song is probably the most varied on the album, going through several changes of style without reprising the old ones (a bit of a shame, I wish that piano/guitar/bass/vocal riff at the beginning came back), but each individual part is engaging and catchy, and it all fits together without feeling disjointed.

Camazotz blends into Ixchel, the third planet song.  Ixchel is a colorless planet inhabited by tall tentacled creatures.  After suffering the loss of Charles on Camazotz, Meg escapes here to recuperate from the defeat.  Appropriately, the song is a mostly instrumental piece that serves as a way of freshening up before the finale.  It's an ethereal, mellow piece lead by gentle acoustic guitar, piano, and ethereal (wordless) vocals by guest vocalist Roo Brower.  This song might beat out When The Morning Comes for most beautiful thing the band's recorded, perfectly capturing a feeling of serene rest, but with a slightly haunting touch to it.

Finally, the heroes leave Ixchel to save Charles Wallace from Camazotz.  Given that sentence, you can probably figure out what The Battle for Charles Wallace is about.  The first third or so of the song is entirely instrumental and brilliantly bombastic and rocking, complete with chugging guitar, dramatic strings, pounding drums, and swirly keyboard.   The second third of the song, when the vocals come in, reprises the melody of the verses of Daddy's Gone, but transplanting it from the mellow longing of the original to the fast-paced chugging of this song.  After one verse of that, the song again goes instrumental, slowly building up over rising synths before suddenly cutting off as Bobick's vocals reprise the chorus of Daddy's Gone (but with more positive lyrics).  As the vocals continue the chorus, the song again builds itself up, heading optimistically towards the final climax before crashing off in bombastic style with one final solo from Fontana.  It serves as an excellent way of bookending the album and bringing it all together in a nice bow, and it stands on its own as a good song as well.

Frankly, I have nothing negative to say about this album.  It's excellent.  It's by far the band's most consistent and sophisticated, managing to up the ante in complexity while still staying accessible and catchy, and also sticking quite close to the concept as opposed to some albums (*cough*OVO*cough*).  The best album so far by one of my favorite bands, and probably my favorite album to be released this year.  As with the last one, you can stream it over on their website.  If you like prog, classic rock, or hard rock, give it a listen, there's something there for you.

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