Manilla Road

The Circus Maximus

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Following Manilla Road's de facto dissolution during the sessions for 1990's turbulent The Courts of Chaos, vocalist, guitarist, and lead songwriter Mark Shelton intended his next album (recorded with high school mates, bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Andrew Coss and drummer/vocalist Aaron Brown) to signal the beginning of a brand new project to be named Circus Maximus. But, when his ever-shady record label, Black Dragon, proceeded to release the album with The Circus Maximus as its title, and credited to the retired Manilla Road for a band name, many longtime fans were understandably confused and disappointed at the very uncharacteristic sounds contained herein. These bore little resemblance to the epic heavy metal, steeped in magic and mythology, of Manilla Road's long career, but opted instead for predominantly calmer sounds branching out in all sorts of unprecedented new directions. "Lux Aeterna," for example, took shocking progressive rock liberties with AOR slickness; "Flesh and Fury" melded hard funk with a mellow mid-section worthy of Kansas (the band, not the state!); and "She's Fading" imposed marshal rhythms upon a protracted classic rock formula. All three showcased bassist/composer Coss's remarkably soulful, Glenn Hughes-styled pipes to perfection, while providing unprecedented dynamic space over which Shelton could expand his six-string soloing vocabulary. Speaking of Shelton, contributions of his like "Throne of Blood," "No Sign from Above," and "Forbidden Zone," though still marked by a moderately biting guitar tone to go with their scarier titles, offer vocal harmonies reminiscent of King's X, further funky flirtations, and instrumental detours into almost free-form jazz, among their most memorable qualities. It's harder to figure out what was meant to be accomplished with the freaky-deaky horror piece "Spiders," or the slothful riffs and Alice in Chains-like baritone drones of "In Gein We Trust," both of them art rock pieces of particularly curious stripe, but they do contribute to the album's endless store of surprises. Finally, and even if the reigning eclecticism described above doesn't convince you, it's abundantly clear how inspired and prolific the album's sessions were, given its nearly 70-minute running time. The only lingering question is therefore, why wasn't there a sequel? The fact that Shelton and Co. insisted on billing themselves as Circus Maximus for live performances, even after the album's release under the Manilla Road banner, would suggest serious intentions to carry on as a group into future projects. But as it turned out, The Circus Maximus remains a one-off release for this lineup, with Shelton eventually resurrecting Manilla Road a few years down the road.

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