Shadow Circus – Welcome to the Freakroom

By Josh Turner 

Short of listening to it, everything about it makes me think of Carnivale. You have identical sisters on the artwork and a title that gives credit to a shady circus. Rather than a hospitable greeting, I felt as if this would be a rude awakening. One way or the other, I knew I was in for something weird. The dual-headed snake, the sign on the marquee, and the cotton-candy face were each explicitly-creepy. Likewise, the jezebel holding balloons at the door was nothing short of suspicious.

With that supplied, I was surprised to find an album that didn’t exhibit the typical freaks or extort the usual animals. Sans the creepy clones and demonic sweets, it was as upstanding and palatable as a respectable film noir about your average run-of-the-mill mutations. To widen the scope, the humanity it portrays is closer to a film starred and directed by the Polish Brothers (hint: check out Twin Falls Idaho).

Anyhow, to avoid a pile-up in the queue or a disturbing ruckus from inquisitive people, let’s go behind the curtain – absolve our anticipation – and ascertain what this twisted display entails:

“Shadow Circus” – The initial song in this deviant museum blends Arena’s “Bedlam Fayre” with Magic Pie’s “Circus of Life”. The droning sounds and the conductor’s brief request to “step right up” delay the inevitable and make the confusion of their purpose linger. What you find in due time is that there is an extraordinarily progressive event going on inside the tent even if the outside of this hole in the wall is somewhat abhorrent. As they recommend, go along for the ride. You can see the sideshow, feel the wind blow, and watch the illustrated man or an illusion so sublime. Then again, they’re not entirely affable. At one point, they bark, “Get out of here kid, you’re bothering me.” They may often sound like The Beatles, but their demeanor is closer to a nasty consignment of cockroaches. It’s obvious that their edifice operates as both a funhouse and a shop of horrors.

“Storm Rider” – This has nothing to do with The Doors, but already this project provides a few “access”-ible points. Some of the skinnier patrons will be able to squeeze through the flap. Others will have no means whatsoever to enter. Whatever the circumstances might be, the tunnels and catacombs form conduits between the campuses of Spock’s Beard and Izz. There is also a touch of ELP at the heart of their transportable dormitories. The trace elements on the tracks are substantial enough to make Engines of Earth beam from ear to ear with affection. On this hayride and procession to hell, we are accompanied by a fretful brood of toothless clowns who perform evil variations on Jed Clampett’s Hillbilly Blues.

“Inconvenient Compromise” – This is rock opera in the vein of Meat Loaf. When a syringe sucks the gristle from this symphonic slab of prime rib, out shoots a stream of Echolyn’s most glutinous juice.

“Radio People” – Looking at the name, you would guess The Buggles. Listening to it, you would find that you weren’t too far off from the catching the swing of those commercial trapeze artists. This cut is catchy and it’s launched in an intriguing manner, but eventually its excessive repetitiveness becomes a wearisome ordeal.

“In the Wake of a Dancing Flame”– This is as monotonous and drawn-out as a journey to the center of the earth. All you encounter is dirt and insipid hard rock even if it loosely embodies the calcium-enriched folksiness of Van Morrison. With this track and the last, the heat from this infernal kitchen actually gets unbearable at times. From where we sit, the album seems the strongest at its onset. Once there is an offset from the start, you’ll notice complications in its central compositions. To say the very least, the singing and songwriting is not at its best here. I hesitate to state, but I must be honest; this particular song and act is almost amateurish. So that the audience doesn’t throw tomatoes; the Bearded Lady, the Elephant Man, and the Alligator Boy provide their most practiced shtick in the eleventh-hour as a bate-and-switch distraction, and a desperate measure.

“Journey of Everyman”– On the return trip to the surface, everything evenly chills out in the core. At a time it was dire, but the nose of the drill bit somehow hasn’t dulled. One could construe that the dangling rhythms in this Ferris wheel are merely an intended adaptation and anticipated upgrade from ELP’s “Karn Evil”. This is a step, daresay a leap, back in the right direction. After being unloaded from the basket, we are swarmed by gypsies in a fetish-like fortune-telling fete. In doing so, they take a loan from the smart memory banks of IQ. Correspondingly, the keyboards and guitars are ultra-bright with retro-reverberations that could possibly be attributed to Transatlantic. What’s most fortunate about this successful deed is that they perform some of their cleverest tricks in the end and on their longest track.

As Michael Lee Aday would decree, only two out of six tracks are slightly bad. Alternatively, when asked whether Shadow Circus has the go-ahead, I’m sure he’d say, “Circus twins unite!”