Zak Stevens left Savatage in 2000 in order to take a little break from music and then make a comeback with his own band. I was excited to hear Circle II Circle's debut album Watching in Silence, because Zak has always been one of my favourite singers of all times. Watching in Silence proved to be a very Savatage-like record from songwriting to sound to production to instrumentation. I always thought since it was Zak's first album as a solo artist, the second album would have a more original sound and style. However, shortly after the debut was released, all members except Zak left the band (only to team up with Jon Oliva on his Tage Mahal album) and Zak had to seek new bandmates. Needless to say, this has reflected on Circle II Circle's sophomore disc, The Middle of Nowhere.
The new album certainly tries to steer away from the classic Savatage sound, but at the same time, it retains certain characteristics and musical ideas. This comes as no surprise, as once again eight out of ten songs on the album were co-written by Savatage members Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery. Zak only penned two songs ("In This Life" and "Lost") with Angel Dust axeman Bernd Aufferman. Given the statistics, it is inevitable not to sound like Savatage when you receive so much input from others. Sometimes I think Zak should have never left Savatage, since CIIC obviously functions as an extension of his former band. On this album, according to the liner notes in the booklet, Zak had more control over how things should be done. He produced the whole album by himself and mixed it with Jim Morris. Unfortunately, the production isn't up to par with his debut album or the Sava releases done by Paul O'Neill. One thing that I noticed is the mastering of the album is weak, especially in between tracks. The frequency level of the sounds is a bit annoying when you try to listen to the album on headphones.
The sound, overall, is raw and more in your face. Because there is little to no keyboards or piano on the album, the guitars are way up in the mix. Paul M. Stewart's bass performance is probably the best thing on the album; it's present in every song and very powerful, unlike the debut release. Zak's voice sounds kind of different too. Maybe it's because he wanted to go for a more raw-sounding album, but gone are his crystal clear vocals that we have come to expect from him. This album finds him doing some really gritty vocals; it doesn't sound bad, but then it doesn't sound quite like Zak Stevens either. I don't want to put this album down, but vocal-wise, this will probably be my least favourite Zak Stevens release. There are no counterpoint vocals, not enough soaring vocal harmonies like the ones on "Forgiven" or "Watching in Silence", and certainly not enough piano melodies accompanied by killer guitar runs. The only exception is the title track, as it starts with nice piano work played over really heavy guitar riffs. Towards the end of the song there is a nice counterpoint harmony that is perhaps the most amazing moment on the album.
The songs are generally heavier and faster than the ones on the debut. Like I already said, the bass is fantastic, be it on "All That Remains", "Cynical Ride" or the power-ballad "Faces in the Dark". Andy Lee and Evan Christopher play lots of rhythm-based melodies with occasional guitar solos. It has to be noted though that the solos on this disc pale in comparison to Matt LaPorte's stuff on the debut. Still, you'll hear good melodies on "Open Season", a track that greatly reminds me of Blaze - could it be because of CIIC's extensive tour with him last summer? The solo on "Cynical Ride" is also amazing. Other than that I think the closing piece "Lost" is a nice acoustic track. "Psycho Motor", on the other hand, is perhaps the worst song Zak has ever done. Its hard rock vibe, weak chorus and loose mix simply don't go well with Zak's musical background.
Bottom line, The Middle of Nowhere is a very good melodic metal release judging by its own merits. However, compared to Zak's earlier efforts, it simply lacks the aestheticism, complex arrangements over spacious production and multi-textured piano melodies woven into searing guitar solos present on Watching in Silence. It's by no means a weak album, just not good enough by Zak's standards.
1) In This Life
2) All That Remains
3) Open Season
4) Holding On
5) Cynical Ride
7) Psycho Motor
8) Faces in the Dark
9) The Middle of Nowhere