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The Circus Maximus (Manilla Road): The Circus Maximus
(Black Dragon - 1992)
Category : underrated
4,5 stars

Manilla Road is a somewhat weird and interesting American Epic Metal band who has been in existence since 1979 and who has released over a dozen albums so far. 'The Circus Maximus' remains something of an oddity in their catalogue. The album was originally meant to be the self-titled debut of main song writer Mark Shelton's new band The Circus Maximus, but to boost record sales his record company at the time released it as a Manilla Road product instead. Shelton was so infuriated by this move that he left the record company for good and disappeared out of the music scene for nearly a decade.

If you know this background, it's easier to understand why this CD sounds so different to other Manilla Road material. This is no Heavy Metal but Progressive Metal. While it's still quite a heavy album, I can see why Manilla Road's longtime fans were rather underwhelmed by it. It's way more melodic and much less straight forward. Also, co-lead vocalist (and bassist + co-composer) Andrew Coss wouldn't have been out of place singing in an AOR band. He has a strong melodic voice that sounds very different from Shelton's.

Manilla Road was (is) a special kind of Metal band. They always managed to sound different, in part thanks to Shelton's specific voice (you either loved it or hated it), but also because they didn't really seem to care what other bands were doing at the moment. In the same way The Circus Maximus would have been a special kind of Progressive band, as again this sounds out of the ordinary, not at all like "normal" Prog Metal bands à la Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Queensryche, etc... The band flirts with heavy AOR, Speed Metal, even some Funk and can go from sweet and melodic to aggressive and fast in the blink of an eye, and without even making it sound unnatural. It all makes for a very varied and hugely entertaining listening experience, where even the weirdest songs (such as the arachnaphobia inducing track 'Spider') are intensely captivating. When you hear this album for the first time they manage to spring one surprise after another on you, for almost the entire duration of the album (70 minutes), and demonstrate what a unique addition the band The Circus Maximus would have been to the pantheon of Prog Metal greats.

If it were up to me, I'd have the trio that recorded this album in the studio so fast, their heads would spin.

Aaron M. Brown (drummer on 'The Circus Maximus') wrote:
Once every 5 years or so, when I'm drunk and feeling nostalgic, I'll search the web for references to The Circus Maximus, and bask in the glow of total misunderstanding that was created in the wake of that project. Hence, I came across your website tonight. I enjoyed your review, and the site overall.
Granted, that album should not have been released under the Manilla Road banner. However, we're lucky it was released at all. Why not just take it for what it is and enjoy the ride?
I'm constantly appalled by those idiotic, puritanical music fans out there, who live out their lives with blinders strapped to their tiny skulls... who act like it's complete heresy when someone dares to cross over the lines that they have drawn in the sand. Relax, for fuck's sake! The Circus Maximus was a deadly serious joke....what's so hard to understand about that?

The thing I found interesting about the project was the very thing that apparently consigned it to the dumpster: the tension between the various elements that were working together and apart at the same time. Like I said, I understand why the Manilla Road fanatics didn't like it, but since we all know the story of why it (the title) happened... who cares. I guess they just don't like melody and harmony to go along with their death and chaos.

I never made a cent off that record, and obviously we* never did anything together again. Which is too bad, because the next one probably would have been much darker and even more bombastic, which might have pleased the purists. Oh well.

It's nice to get a note from Belgium. I'm a big fan of the Belgian Symbolists of the 19th century, Felicien Rops and company (1, 2). I am now a visual artist. I only dust off the drums for reunion gigs.

Anyway, thanks for giving the album a fair shake. Nice to see it posted next to Stormwatch, one of my favorite Tull albums.
cheers and best wishes
Aaron Brown (drummer, etc. once upon a time).

Website 1:
Website 2:
Website 3: Aaron M. Brown's art:

*= Note: The trio that recorded 'The Circus Maximus' never reunited, but Mark Shelton reformed Manilla Road later on with other personnel and recorded new Manilla Road albums in the vein of their earlier Epic Metal material. While those albums aren't bad, they are less adventurous in nature than 'The Circus Maximus'..

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