CIRCUS OF ROCK – Lost Behind The Mask

The debut album from Circus of Rock gave hard rock fans plenty to enjoy. The side project from King Company’s Mika Rantanen saw the Finnish musician collaborating with a whole host of familiar faces, including Tyketto’s Danny Vaughn, Axel Rudi Pell, Hardline vocalist Johnny Gioeli, and ex-Nightwish man Marco Hietala. This second outing for the Circus (released in May 2023) isn’t quite as impressive in terms of roll call, but any album that features vocal contributions from Uriah Heep’s Bernie Shaw and the legendary Jeff Scott Soto is definitely worth hearing.

As you might expect, the tracks featuring those two well-loved faces are the album’s strongest. ‘Keep On Shinin’’, featuring Jeff Scott Soto, is everything fans could hope for, being powered by solid, mid tempo guitar riffs, and featuring Jeff in typically great voice. The more typical melodic rock elements are tempered by a few techy keyboards along the way and a few off-kilter drum fills add an unexpected edge during the chorus, but the heart of the number has a huge melodic hook that’s very much a call back to the late 90s. With a marvellous soaring lead guitar break en route, it’s the kind of track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on JSS’s own ‘Complicated’ album from ’22. As for the track featuring Shaw, Mika avoids the temptation of playing things safe and handing Bern a full throttle rocker, and instead, calls upon one of classic rock’s most dependable voices to helm a rather grand theatrical ballad where sweeping keyboards set up a cinematic tone and heavy guitars lean towards a couple of Nightwish classics. The track maintains its own identity by contrasting the heavy and lighter moments, and Shaw approaches a booming vocal with ease. This is obviously a song that a less imaginative musician would’ve roped in Toby Hitchcock for (and Tobe, in turn, would have made it even bigger/wrecked it), so there’s a real joy in hearing someone different (and arguably better) given this opportunity. Stretching out beyond eight minutes, there’s a huge amount for classic/symphonic rock fans to get their ears around, even before the arrival of a high octane guitar/keyboard duel… Simply put, this track is huge – it’s obvious why it’s been sequenced at the end of the disc, as t’s a near impossible act to follow.

That’s not to say the rest of ‘Lost Behind The Mask’ is in any way substandard. The album includes more than its share of solid rock tunes which will more than entertain those who like things with an obviously European flavour. Ex-Malmsteen and Ring of Fire man Mark Boals takes the mic for ‘The War Is Over’, a particularly punchy mid tempo rocker where chugging guitars in the vein of a heavy Survivor track are joined by stabbed keys and a huge vocal. It’s a little pedestrian until the chorus, but then, the melody expands to allow for bigger keys, a more AOR-centric tone takes over and eventually ushers in a massive whoah, which Boals absolutely nails. From herein, a solid but ordinary Euro rocker actually has the potential to be one of the album’s highlights, thanks to a layered sound where smart guitar work underscores a fine vocal, but the track’s reputation is sealed after the fourth or fifth play when it becomes clear that – despite a tried and tested approach musically – the chorus is solid enough to stick with you long after listening. The often reliable David Readman also sounds very cool on ‘Is It Any Wonder’, a very European, slightly heavier take on a Whitesnake sound circa ‘Slip of The Tongue’. The spacious approach to riff construction here allows Readman to sing in a huge and dramatic style, but layers of keyboards and a rather chunky guitar part ensure that his voice doesn’t sound ridiculous. In terms of late 80s throwbacks turned up to eleven, this is pretty hard to beat.

Even the tracks featuring the arguably lesser-known talents have time to shine here. Stormwarning’s Santiago Ramonda turns in one of the album’s best performances during ‘Holdin’ The Gun’, when Circus of Rock mixes a classic rock sound a la early Talisman with something a little busier, allowing for an absolutely ripping guitar solo and sizeable keyboards throughout. The final mix is a little cluttered, unfortunately; the lack of separation between instruments makes the tune sound overly busy and Santiago isn’t quite as prominent as he deserves to be, but this rocker comes across as a supercharged version of his own band, making it very appealing despite the audio flaws. Changing the mood, ‘All I Need’ is a classic rock ballad in the Nightwish vein, and featured vocalist Pinja really soars against a clean piano. Despite this sounding like something you’ve heard a thousand times over from European symphonic acts, there’s plenty about her performance that sounds pleasingly fresh, whilst Sevi brings something much heavier on ‘The Beast’, a rousing slab of melodic metal that juxtaposes deep and dirty riffs with jubilant, clean and clear vocals, mixing a classic metal sound with an unashamed Euro bombast. Fans of the tougher end of Issa’s catalogue and the more tuneful elements of Lacuna Coil will almost certainly fall for this in a big way; after the Jeff Scott Soto track, it’s this album’s standout cut.

Among some great performers, Rantanen has been brave/foolhardy enough to enlist Mr. Lordi, who manages to turn what should have been another decent melodic rocker into a bit of a hard rock farce. On his featured track, ‘Nine Lives’, he growls in a manner of a man who’s intent on crushing everything, never caring about actual melody. His constant growling is at odds with a track that’s actually constructed from some top drawer melodic rock where bright piano dances above a punchy rhythm, and a very 80s sound is lifted further via some classic twin lead guitar sounds, worthy of peak Icon. Still, he’s likely shown all the weaklings a thing or two… A track to file under “acquired taste” for sure.

Naturally, there are times during ‘Lost Behind The Mask’ when a few of the hired acts overshadow the ringmaster, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If people come for Jeff Scott Soto or Bernie Shaw and then find a love for Santiago Ramonda and the marvellous Sevi, then Mika’s work is done. Of course, there’s Mr. Lordi too, but assuming you’re happy to approach his ridiculous vocal with a tongue firmly in cheek, his contribution plays an important part , too. There’s nothing clever or fashionable about this album, but in terms of old school hard rock, its best moments are more than solid. For those who keep a keen eye on the Frontiers Records stable, there’s plenty on offer that’ll hit the spot, making this a Circus with an act for almost everyone.

Buy the CD: CIRCUS OF ROCK – Behind The Mask

May 2023