Shadow Circus: On a Dark and Stormy Night
Many a music fan can relate to arriving too late it a band’s career. Sure all that wonderful music is still available, but there is always that nagging desire to have been there at the beginning. That is why it is such a treat to have been with favorite from the get-go. Shadow Circus pulled me in immediately with their infectious debut “Welcome to the Freakroom.” It was an extremely enjoyable album showcasing a promising band. “Whispers and Screams” raised the bar, increased the prog quotient and featured the first epic “Project Blue.” The second time out also saw the band spreading their creative wings and possibly finding their niche. That niche is literary inspiration. The success of basing “Project Blue” on Stephen King’s “The Stand” led them to create an entire album based on Madeline L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.
The epic concept album may be a staple of prog but is also a tightrope walk. If you nail it fans perform prostrations in your honor. Waver just a bit and the epithets of pretention, overreaching and pomposity get flung your way. It is a bold move for any artist and especially so for a group still vying for recognition by the prog community at large. Add this to the expectations raised by the first two albums thus creating one mighty high bar to grasp.
“On a Dark and Stormy Night” is not only the album that both Shadow Circus and their fans were looking for, it is more. As I implied in a message to the band, the prog muse hit John, Dave, David, Matt and Jason collectively upside the head on this one. This is their first, and hopefully not last, classic. It is destined to be one of my favorite albums. I know because I love it more each time it plays. Yeah, no BS, no exaggeration, this is a freaking great album! Go to the website and listen to “Overture.” All you really need to know is there. Obviously and overture is a sampling of what is to come but the subtleties and scope are also captured in the opening number. It is also the most deliciously grandiose track on the album.
John Fontana had been commenting about all the work put into this project and it shows. Nothing is half-assed or even hints at a tired bunch of musicians saying, “Okay, okay, that’s good enough.” From the touching “Daddy’s Gone,” to the heavy jamming of “Tesseract” and the anthemic “Uriel” every note has a specific place. There are even some new twists such as strings and female backing vocals a la “Dark Side of the Moon.” Grand piano plays a major role with gorgeous intros on “Make Way for the Big Show” and “Uriel,” along with some pretty spiffy interludes as well. Of course you have the expected keyboards and yes… Mellotron. David Bobick’s vocals continues to improve album by album. He now has more strength and confidence, especially on softer numbers.
More than anything the band seems to have truly found itself. Shadow Circus always had its own sound but now it is clear. There is no muddiness of musical vision. The path has been laid out and the course is set. The band is essentially the baby of John Fontana and David Bobick, but Matt, Dave and Jason deserve applause as well. No tunes for the timid in existence here and these guys had to be up to the task. Matt Masek has been around since the first album even though he only got a supporting credit on “Whispers and Screams. Jason Brower and David Silver are true newcomers. You don’t make music like this unless all the members are in sync. All indications of a revolving door scenario aside, a cohesive band most certainly does exist.
As was said earlier, the concept function has worked well for Shadow Circus. As good as the individual tracks on the debut were, it is the focus of the concept where things get kicked into high gear. I read “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was kid and had mostly forgotten about it. This musical adaptation has renewed my interest so they must have done something right. Let me clarify, they have done something right because excitement has been created. Cursory research online will show that the film version didn’t have the same effect. Sci-fi and prog do go hand in hand but remember we are talking about what is largely considered a children’s book. The story is strong but the music drives it. The lyrics provide a frame without being narration and the rest is filled in by the instruments. As the sounds carry the action the plot plays out in the mind. Not an easy trick to be sure. Think about that for a minute and realize what a compliment that is to the composers.
To balance out all the fawning I will interject a slight criticism. We all fell in love with the classic prog of the ‘70s and that is why we are all fans now. It is however time that we really look at where this is going. The classic elements can only work for so long until they become tiresome. That is why my favorite moments of “On a Dark and Stormy Night” are either the more modern sounding (Tesseract) or timeless (acoustic grand piano). The way forward is to do exactly that. Move forward. The rock and roll on “Whosit, Whatsit and Which” is a lot of fun, but haven’t we heard it before? The tune is great. I am just making a suggestion about future direction. Shadow Circus is at a new level and can join the ranks of bands that are going to keep prog alive. To do that it must remain fresh and interesting. I have no doubt the band is up to the challenge.
With that out of the way, “On a Dark and Stormy Night” stands as a seminal achievement by one of progressive rock’s best newer groups. I love it and the rest of my kind should as well. Congratulations guys! You’re in the big leagues now. Yeah, I know it’s still an obscure genre, but let’s hope Shadow Circus now gets the recognition they deserve.
David Bobick – lead and background vocals
John Fontana – guitars, orchestral keyboards
David Silver – keyboards
Matt Masek – bass, cellos, background vocals
Jason Brower – drums, percussion, background vocals