Circle II Circle keeps chugging along, tirelessly offering a stripped-down, threadbare reminder of what Zak Stevens era Savatage sounded like – just in case those albums get raptured away or something. This is their seventh album of mid-tempo metal with hard rock and AOR influences, and though the blueprint delivered some good moments (Watching in Silence, Burden of Truth), the past few outings felt increasingly watered down and bereft of inspiration, culminating in the dissipated lethargy of 2013s Seasons Will Fall. Although Reign of Darkness still clings uncomfortably to the Edge of Thorns/Handful of Rain playbook at times, it’s a more in-your-face, aggressive batch of tunes with more urgency and sticking power. That’s definitely a positive, but there’s more to heavy metal song craft than simply dialing thing up to 7 or so and coasting.
After an intro that could’ve started any Savatage album from 1991 through 2001, they get down to business on lead “single” “Victim of the Night.” It’s pretty aggressive with heavy, chunky riffing alongside the expected keyboard noodles and Mr. Stevens’ mid-range, slightly raspy delivery is as manly and commanding as ever. The song is buoyed by some slick solo work and a decent chorus, but it feels safe, predictable and rote. “Untold Dreams” is better and sounds like a B-side from an Allen/Lande offering with that same kind of hard rock writing style and cheesy, radio-targeted chorus (but without the awe inspiring might of Jorn’s wondrous voice). Elsewhere, “Deep Within” allows Zak to stretch his range a bit on a fairly successful tune with the classic Savatage multi-tracked Choir of Stevens in the background providing support.
The rest of Reign of Darkness features more of the same, with some songs more successful and memorable like “It’s All Over” which benefits from a Testament-like stomping riff, and the easy breezy catchiness of “Somewhere.” Neither of which will instill a compulsive need to replay in healthy people, but they aren’t bad. Less stellar are tunes like “Ghosts of the Devil” and “Sinister Love” where the band offers either forgettable and generic rock (the former) or painfully cheesy hair metal poppiness (the latter).
Oddly enough, it’s the predictably maudlin power ballad “Solitary Rain” which offers the most replay value, despite a title that sounds like something Zoolander would play as he mugged and minced down the runway. It’s exactly the kind of song Stevens excels at, with a simple piano line accompanying his burly, yet vulnerable delivery (chicks love that kinda thing). Sure, it’s overwrought, overblown and silly, but hell man, it’s a power-ballad! If it doesn’t make you sing along with over exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures, it isn’t doing its job. It’s especially fun at the 2:25 point where it goes full Savatage with all the bombastical cheddar that entails.
The biggest problem with Reign of Darkness is the impossible to miss mediocre nature of much of the material – like a cookie-cutter, vendor machine brand of hard rock/metal. Even the better songs are very by-the-book and most simply aren’t good enough to make you shrug off the fact you’ve heard this done before and done better. Add to that the inherently forced feeling many of the choruses have, as if they tried too hard to make them pop and stick, and you have a pretty serious writing problem.
That being said, Zak sounds great and does all he can to prop up the songs. Though he almost always stays in mid-range and rarely stretches himself, the classic hard rock sound of his voice is always a pleasure to hear. The band behind him is solid but nondescript aside from the guitar-work of Bill Hudson (ex-Power Quest, ex-Cellador) and Christian Wentz (Futures End). They uncork some pretty wild solos, but since the songs themselves are so pedestrian and safe, these don’t do much to move the ball down the field aside from providing a few moments of technical showmanship.
Though I still regularly spin Watching in Silence and Burden of Truth along with Steven’s Savatage era albums, I can’t seem to connect with much of the recent Circle II Circle output. This is superior to Seasons Will Fall, but it still isn’t what I’d call an essential listen. Consider it an inoffensive, easy-to-digest album – like a metal version of waiting room music, and you have the right idea. I want it to be better, but it isn’t.