Prog-metal is a tough genre. On the one hand, you usually have amazing musicianship. On the other hand, you usually have very long tracks that are either so good that they aren’t long enough, or are just pretentiously boring. This type of music is also a reviewer’s nightmare, simply because there is just so much to absorb, but I think I finally got a handle on this one. In the end, I’d have to place Circus Maximus somewhere in the middle ground, with impressive chops and songs that are strong at times but dull at others.
Album opener “Sin” starts off with a riff that sounds right off of Fear Factory’s Archetype of all things, a sound which is the backbone of this track, mixed up with more traditional prog elements of keyboards and high-pitched vocals. This is the sort of thing a band of this nature has to do to remain interesting, exploring multiple ideas within a song instead of working off of one basic theme, pausing only to divert off into noodling solos. The next couple of tracks are a bit of a letdown after that, mellow and not very interesting, despite a few change-ups in the 10+ minute “Glory of the Empire”. The instrumental “Biosfear” makes things interesting again, sounding very much like Awake-era Dream Theater, as does “Why Am I Here”. A mellow-to-heavy-and-back-again structure makes “The Prophecy” one of the stronger tracks here, while album closer “Imperial Destruction” revisits the Dream Theater-isms with impressive results that stand alone. While the vocalist isn’t as diverse overall as some of his contemporaries, he’s also not as over-the-top, making him a bit more palatable to the masses.
I’ve saved the epic for last, the 19 minute title track. The lyrics center around a journey through a desert wasteland, just like the one pictured on the album cover (minus the unicycle, I’m sure). There are many different parts to this song, which is necessary to tell just about any kind of story, and the music expresses what the main character is going through all along the way. It’s a journey that takes a while but is worth the time it takes to get through it. I’m not sure how I feel about the carnival music that closes out the track, unless of course our hero is making a voyage to an actual circus – then it would be perfectly alright.
Ultimately, this is middle-of-the-road prog-metal that will appeal not only to fans of the genre, but also to the fringe fans who don’t like a lot of the pretentiousness that often comes with the genre. Other pundits are calling The First Chapter one of the prog releases of the year. Me, I’ll be saving that praise for the new Zero Hour, but this is still pretty good.