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Shadow Circus - 2009 - "Whispers and Screams"

(60.45, 'Shadow Circus')


*****+
                 
TRACK LIST:                   

1.  Project Blue 33.46
2.  When the Morning Comes  4.35
3.  Willoughby  10.07
4.  Angel  7.38
5.  Then in July 4.45

LINEUP:

David Bobick – vocals 
John Fontana – keyboards; guitars
Jason Croft – bass 
Corey Folta – drums 
With:
Matt Masek – cello (2, 4, 5) 
Dione, Rasheedah and Sahirah Dixon – vocals (1-g)

Prolusion. SHADOW CIRCUS are the brainchild of New York-based guitarist/keyboardist John Fontana, who for the band in 2006. Their debut album, “Welcome to the Freakroom” (2007), was recorded as a quintet (with keyboardist Zach Tenorio, which has since left the band), and released on ProgRock Records. “Whispers and Screams”, their second album, was instead released independently, allowing the band more freedom, especially as regards their praiseworthy initiative of donating the proceedings of the January sales to the victims of the Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010.

Analysis. For a sophomore effort, “Whispers and Screams” is a remarkably mature album, displaying enough eclecticism to please fans of a varied compositional approach, and yet tight enough to appeal to those who prize cohesion above all. Indeed, it offers something to everyone (or almost everyone at least), from the fans of the heavier end of the progressive spectrum (though not in a metal sense) to those who appreciate a song with a good hook. Even if the album might come across as a tad too ‘conservative’ for those who expect prog to be always pushing the envelope, it is not as unabashedly retro as many other recent releases. As a friend of mine (a huge fan of classic symphonic prog) stated in his own review of “Whispers and Screams”, it is symphonic prog, but not as we know it. Strongly keyboard-based, Shadow Circus’ music has enough lushness and depth to suggest an orchestral feel, but at the same time does not shy away from experimenting with harder-edged sounds, or even with world music tinges. The band also has quite an asset in lead vocalist David Bobick, a trained singer and showman with a very expressive style – even when his voice may occasionally feel as a bit of an acquired taste. As a matter of fact, all the members have had extensive experience prior to joining the band, and their credentials are impeccable. Much in the vein of the albums of the past, “Whispers and Screams” is neatly divided into two sections: the 33-minute suite Project Blue (based on Stephen King’s novel “The Stand”), and four free-standing songs, including the mini-epic Willoughby. While basing epics on works of fantasy or science fiction is nothing new in the world of progressive rock, the subject matter of Project Blue (a man-made superflu virus that wipes away over 99% of the human population) is uncomfortably realistic at a time when the danger of destructive pandemics seems to be lurking around every corner. Wisely, Shadow Circus have opted for this format, instead of devoting the whole album to the suite – as other bands would have done. This choice lends the album a nice sense of balance that is not always easy to find in prog releases. The seven-part Project Blue is interestingly structured, with two instrumental interludes that are as essential to the storyline as the sections featuring vocals. Though each of the seven numbers might very well stand on its own, they definitely work better as a whole. Captain Trips with a suitably menacing intro, before unfolding into a veritable heavy prog workout, complete with rumbling Hammond organ and assertive vocals. Shades of Deep Purple (pardon the pun) can definitely be detected here, especially in the keyboards-guitar interplay. The following two numbers alternate quieter, moodier moments with more heavily orchestrated parts and energetic keyboard runs. More unleashed keyboard power (with some especially tasty Hammond work, courtesy of John Fontana) can be heard in the first of the two instrumentals, The Seduction of Harold Lauder, where all the instruments seem to be working in unison to produce a sense of palpable tension. In fact, the three tracks that form the core of the epic are probably its most successful moments, with The Horsemen Ride very much in the vein of acoustic Led Zeppelin (or even the stunning Page/Plant outing “No Quarter”), the sitar inserts adding a strong Eastern flavour, and David Bobick’s singing showing his more sensitive side; while the second instrumental, Hand of God, blends Pink Floyd-like atmospheres with dramatic guitar work and a driving, intense reprise of the opening track. The suite is then wrapped up by the bluesy ballad Coming Back Home to You, a love song that injects a rather optimistic note into a rather disturbing tale, complete with gospel-style female backing vocals. The second half of the album is definitely more accessible, opening with the dreamy, mostly acoustic When the Morning Comes, enhanced by the deep, mournful notes of the cello, and further displaying Bobick’s vocal versatility. Willoughby (based on an episode of the cult TV series “The Twilight Zone”) is instead rather schizophrenic, with a catchy chorus somewhat at odds with the Hammond- and guitar-driven intensity of the instrumental parts. Classic AOR ballad Angel would have serious radio airplay potential if times were different – even if, personally speaking, I feel the song might have been omitted without any real harm to the album (which, clocking in at one hour, already has quite a respectable running time). On the other hand, instrumental Then in July the Thunder Came closes the album on an ambient-like, almost cinematic note, with pounding drumbeats and atmospheric keyboards working up to a crescendo, then leaving the stage to sparse piano chords suggesting rainfall. While anything but daunting, “Whispers and Screams” is in some ways quite dense, which means it needs time and repeated listens to be fully appreciated. Shadow Circus have managed to produce an album that, while not perfect, is intriguing both on the musical and the lyrical level, and succeeds in combining the glorious past of progressive rock with its variegated present. For a self-released album, it also comes nicely packaged, without lyrics (which are available on the band’s website), but with excellent artwork and photography. Interestingly, the gaping stone mouth depicted on back cover of the CD booklet reminded me of one of the quirkiest Italian attractions, the Park of the Monsters in Bomarzo – nice touch, guys!

Conclusion. Even if it cannot yet be hailed as a masterpiece, “Whispers and Screams” is a solid, mature album that shows a band growing by leaps and bounds. Eclectic enough to appeal to a wide range of listeners (not just the ‘classic’ Symphonic Prog crowd), it is firmly rooted in the past glories of the genre while not forgetting to focus on its more recent developments. Perhaps not an immediately digestible album, but definitely a grower, from a band to watch.

RB=Raffaella Berry: June 2, 2010
The Rating Room


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