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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Shadow Circus

Welcome to the Freakroom

Review by Gary Hill

A new force in progressive rock, this band is a pretty cool one. Their musical arrangements are soaring and innovative and deeply rooted in traditional prog, but with a modern sensibility. The only thing I can really quibble about here are the vocals. They seem over the top and too theatrical. Of course, when you read that lead singer and band founder David Bobick was schooled in musical theater and toured with various productions, this makes sense. I personally don’t think that that vocal style translates that well into a progressive rock motif. For my money these guys produce some of the best progressive rock instrumental work out there these days. I’d have to say, though, that I really wish Bobick would try to unlearn what he knows from musical theater. His voice is good, but for my money it’s an uncomfortable and rather awkward combination of styles. It’s not enough to seriously mar the album, but it is enough to require a lot of listenings to get comfortable with the incredible musical landscape presented here.

Track by Track Review
Shadow Circus
A carnival barker leads off the festivities here. Then a modulating carnival music kicks in. This is distorted and twisted in a swirling pattern til it turns the corner into a powerful prog jam that’s a bit like Starcastle meets Hawkwind. After this goes for a time we shift into a bouncing, calliope music turned prog band approach. The vocals enter over this backdrop with a slightly over the top theatric approach that calls to mind Styx a bit. They move out into a more melodic musical journey from there, but move back through the progressions again starting with the calliope music. They turn this one out into a killer synth drowned jam after the vocal section of it finishes up for a while. Then a guitar solo emerges over the top. They move it all out into a satisfying and triumphant sounding prog rock journey. Then it moves back out to the carnival music sounds and the barker returns. They make one more return to the chorus before shifting it out into a killer jazzy piano solo to end things.
Storm Rider
I read that bassist Matt Masek is a big fan of the Doors. I wonder if he had anything to do with this title as it seems that a “Storm Rider” could also be called a “Rider on the Storm.” In any event, this feels a lot like Emerson Lake and Palmer meets Starcastle. They move it through a series of changes and it even turns toward country cowpoke music for a while, albeit delivered in a progressive rock styling. They work and rework this through a series of reiterations and rearrangements for four or so minutes before launching into a smoking instrumental segment that reinvents the piece. They revisit the chorus and then take it through a new section that is based around piano work.
Inconvenient Compromise
Some of the most energetic prog on show here opens up the festivities here. They power this out through a couple of different sections, seriously tearing up the musical landscape in the process. Then it drops way down and a bouncing sort of keyboard dominated sound takes over. The verse of the track comes in over the top of this and they work it through a couple changes as they carry through the song proper. This moves and shifts through a number of musical alterations and segments in an extended instrumental mode that eventually takes the cut to its conclusion.
Radio People
This has a much more hard rocking approach, the intro feeling like a prog rock take on Cheap Trick combined with the Rolling Stones. As keys move over the top of this it has more progressive rock elements. A killer movement calls to mind Starcastle quite a bit. They drop it to a sedate and playful segment. Then it moves out into the chorus, a bouncy little ditty and one point on the album where the vocals seem to work well. As they take it out into the chorus the incongruity hits again. A scorching, soaring guitar solo makes itself known later on. It also drops to a bouncy, mellower, keyboard based section heavy with an enveloped texture. This cut is really playful and fun and one of the more effective numbers on the disc.
In the Wake of A Dancing Flame
Powerfully dramatic keyboard based sounds start this and rise very gradually. Shortly before the one-minute mark other instruments join and they rethink this into a more ballad-like structure and begin a slow building process. The vocals on this track seem to work a bit better than they do on some of the other material here. There is a killer mellow jam later that has echoes of jazz, psychedelia and world music.
Journey of Everyman
They close the disc off with a mini epic, three part suite. Keyboards start it off and as they build it becomes very pretty. At about a minute in they shift it out to a hard rocking jam that’s sort of a psychedelically tinged Starcastle meets Flash sound. This powers up and crescendos. Then it works out into a guitar solo dominated segment. A twist into a more jazz-like structure (with almost classical piano on top) takes it. Then they turn into a short staccato pattern before working it out to keyboards for the next iteration of the musical changes. A smoking hard rocking guitar solo takes over from there. This moves through and then fades away, like a passing storm. Keyboards once again take control of the piece. New musical elements begin to rise up from this, but the change is quite gradual until it shifts into a folk rock meets world in a prog ballad approach. This is where the vocals emerge, almost five and a half minutes in. They turn it a bit harder edged for a while, but then shift out into another tasty mellower mode. This is another track where the vocals seem to work pretty well. Eventually this crescendos and apparently gives way to the final movement of the piece. A dramatic and powerful, yet mellow prog rock approach takes it for a while. Then it pounds out into a harder rocking jam that has ELP written all over it. It becomes a shifting sort of movement that has a lot of Yes elements, but then moves to more crunchy and mysterious sounds as the guitar threatens a full coup. This is some of the most hard rocking music of the whole disc and also extremely effective. It spins up into a powerhouse of swirling music lines and progressions. A crescendo gives way to a return to more purely melodic, but still quite potent, sounds. Keys eventually take over to power up the crescendo that ends this adventure, the best track on the whole CD. I can’t think of a better way to bring it home.
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