I’ll run the risk to my metal cred and admit I was a pretty big fan of late period Savatage. Albums like Edge of Thorns and Handful of Rain were so loaded with pre-Trans-Siberian Orchestra bombast and cheese-wizardry, they were nearly impossible to resist (despite my occasional snickers at the unhealthy Velveeta factor inherent therein). One of the big selling points was Zak Steven’s impressive vocal work. Though I always had a soft spot for the ten-pack-a-day rasp of Jon Oliva, Stevens breathed new life into the Savatage sound with his deep, powerful delivery and dramatic leanings. When he split off to form Circle II Circle, I wanted to be a big supporter, but too often the mix of mid-tempo hard rock/metal just didn’t push my buttons the same way. After five albums of material in the same vein as Jorn Lande‘s solo albums and the Allen/Lande project, only Watching in Silence and Burden of Truth stood out, with the rest feeling like tepid exercises in mundane writing and generalized malaise. Now comes platter number six, Seasons Will Fall and I’m sad to say, the lethargy appears to be here to stay. While certainly well-performed by talented musicians and classy in its own way, most of this material feels lifeless, boring and devoid of any real impact. As much as I love Stevens, even he can’t save most of this stuff from becoming a snooze-fest of Soma Coma proportions.
I can’t fault CIIC for opener, “Diamond Blade.” While it isn’t their finest hour by any means, its a pretty solid, straight-ahead and decently aggressive number with a modicum of nutsack and Stevens’ trademark mid-range, leathery, but smooth vocals. The guitar-work is sharp, reminds more than a little of vintage Savatage and the chorus is respectable and fairly memorable, if not great.
From there though, things drift into the winter doldrums and get rather dicey. “Downshot” is generic and has a chorus that reminds me of Warrant‘s “Down Boys,” and that’s not a good thing unless your name is Kip Winger or Bret Michaels. “Dreams That Never Die” has heavier, more aggressive riffing, but is completely flat and uninspired (despite the layered, choral effects on the back-end). It’s the type of song you play through and while its harmless enough, it possesses absolutely nothing to compel a replay. Likewise, “Isolation” grinds by in a painfully uneventful, mid-tempo way with nary a hint of spice or hook. Ditto for the title track, “Sweet Despair” and “Killing Death.” Elsewhere, “Never Gonna Stop” has Savatage-y riff patterns much like their classic, ”Power of the Night,” but still manages to be rather dull (though its one of the more up-tempo numbers).
Not everything here is wholly without merit. “End of Emotion” is WAY overlong at nearly nine minutes, but sports a ton of Edge of Thorns-era Savatage influence in the structure and playing. Stevens does his sincere best to elevate the song and he sounds great for sure. Despite being palatable, it’s still somewhat bland and very dragged out. “Only Yesterday” is a lighters out, overwrought cheese ballad that works despite the sappy lyrics and maudlin delivery because of Stevens’ powerful delivery and the exceptional guitar-work supporting the soap opera drivel. Lastly, “Epiphany” is a moderately pleasant ode to harmless hard rock writing.
Obviously, I’m a fan of Mr. Stevens, but his output with this group has amply demonstrated he can’t carry mediocre material alone. At various points here, he sounds overly restrained and even a bit bored. He rarely lets his voice soar as he used to and his vocal placement isn’t always ideal. While Bill Hudson and Chris Wentz are very talented guitarists and the solo work across Seasons is quite impressive, a lot of the riffing is incredibly dull and lacking in the feeling department.
The biggest problem (once again), is lackluster songwriting. Most of these tunes don’t resonate with me, regardless of how many times I play them. This is an album full of good playing on poor songs and it can’t hold my attention for longer than a few moments at a time.
I suppose part of me longs for Edge of Thorns 2: The Thorny Youth or something close, but Circle II Circle steadfastly refuses to give it to me. I appreciate the talent this group has, but as song writers, they’ve been Savataged yet again. I’ll end with a word of advice: talented, slow and dull is no way to go through life, son.