By Carl Begai
Let's face it, CIRCLE II CIRCLE isn't the runaway success people were expecting when the band's debut album Watching In Silence surfaced in 2003. The thinking was - at least from a press point of view - that frontman/founder Zak Stevens' SAVATAGE pedigree would be the springboard to a noteworthy must-see headliner career by the time album #2 or #3 hit the shelves. Instead, Circle II Circle has been plagued by numerous line-up changes, lack of exposure in the press and on the road, and some truly horrible album cover artwork (which often translates - or not – into very necessary merchandise sales). Seasons Will Fall marks the band's sixth album and another overhaul of the personnel roster, and according to Stevens the future is bright for a change.
"We started talking about what we were going to do with the band line-up upward of two years ago, just to get everything where we wanted it to make this record," Stevens reveals. "Mitch (Stewart/bass) and I have been together for nine years. Our guitarist Bill Hudson has been with us for a couple years doing tours and stuff, so he was on his way to being a permanent member of the band. That wasn't much of a change; adding him needed to happen. We also wanted to go back to the two guitar line-up, so we added our good friend Christian Wentz, who came on a few European tours to document stuff. And we needed a full time keyboard player given the type of music we play. Going out to play live and using different people all the time wasn't working or us anymore, so we brought Henning Wanner into the band. We're just one of those bands where it took a long time to get to where we wanted to be with the line-up. It was crazy. Getting to the sixth album, we finally have it. Everybody is very happy."
"We've been playing with this line-up for about eight months now, the chemistry is all there, and we've got five singers in the band now which is something we needed badly. You know what kind of stuff we do; whether we do full Savatage albums or things that have counterpoint we need to have all these voices. I'm so happy because we finally have this big choir of a band (laughs)."
Stevens has had to fight every step of the way to gain recognition for Circle II Circle in spite of the fact he's keeping Savatage alive through the band's shows... when they can get out and play. The naked truth, though, is that many fans would be quite happy with the band doing full Savatage sets instead of focusing on the CIIC material. Some would say Stevens' importance in the Savatage legacy demands it. With that history in mind, one would think Stevens is feeling some frustration after 10 years of pushing Circle II Circle only to have people still focusing on his glorious past.
"It's gone by kinda fast, actually" Stevens says of those good ol' days. "When I left Savatage it was a crazy part of my life with young children, I had to do a lot of things on the side besides music, and when I look back on that I wonder where the time went. Now I'm in a good place because the kids are a little older; that makes a big difference. Dad can travel and do more in the band now. I'm also not married anymore so... I'm just in a much better place now (laughs). Now I have a music career and I'm able to put the necessary time into it. Starting about two years ago I had that time and my focus became a lot tighter. Now I have the time and dedication to set goals and reach them. It's a whole different ballgame now. The expectations that we're going to play Savatage stuff on any given night, it doesn't frustrate me that much. I know it's part of me, that's where I come from. There's so much more to do with Circle II Circle."
On a personal level, I gave Circle II Circle up for dead two albums ago, when it seemed Stevens had nothing of worth left to offer musically. No offence, of course, but there was zero ebb and flow to the music and very little in the way of dynamics. Seasons Will Fall has altered that state of mind somewhat; Stevens talks about a renewed focus and yes, it's there. The album is where the last couple should have been.
"That's true," agrees Stevens. "You're exactly right. We've done a few European tours, but that was just to keep the name out there, really, rather than trying to move forward and make some big explosion. We wanted to change that whole mindset and this is the beginning of a new chapter. We're not setting limits on ourselves anymore. There was a lot we wanted to do with the record, and luckily we didn't get too tied up with it or go too crazy. It had to be new and different, and maybe even capture some of the best of the old stuff. I had a lot more time to work on my parts - lyrics, vocal melodies, arrangements - so I enjoyed working on this album because of the comfortable environment I was in."
Seasons Will Fall also marks Circle II Circle's move from AFM Records to earMusic, the first label change of their career. Stevens says it was long overdue and is quite happy to share a roster with the likes of Kamelot, Chickenfoot and Gamma Ray.
"We had to make changes in every area including the record label. The label situation we were in was just not conducive to getting anything done. They were great when I first came on board for the Watching In Silence record because the founder, Andreas Allendorfer, was just a great guy. He was a one-man record company. A few days before our second album came out (The Middle Of Nowhere - 2005) he was killed in a car crash, and from there things started to unravel. There was a corporate merger and things just started to fall apart for us. By the time our fifth album came out (Consequence Of Power - 2010) things were a mess. The album was a mess, too (laughs). We had to redo everything and the label was one component."
"Consequence Of Power, we knew... well, it's bad when you have a band sitting around saying 'Meh, let's just give them two good songs...' because you know the label isn't going to do anything with it. It's frustrating when you know they're just going to throw it on the street and say 'Okay, who wants some of this?' I probably stuck with them too long, but I was so busy dealing with other things that I didn't think to jump ship. We were holding back the good stuff for this situation right now. We gave earMusic a great record and it's the beginning of a great relationship. And, it's coming back to Savatage's old European label."
Speaking of things coming full circle - no pun intended - there are moments on Seasons Will Fall that sound like the band was channelling Savatage musically as well as vocally. Sure, Stevens comes by it honestly, but it's an ingredient that's been sorely lacking in recent years.
"There's probably a little bit of that sneaking around. I don't remember pulling things from that angle. I used to write with Criss Oliva back in the day, so I've stuck with the same songwriting methods I've always had. I don't go too much into 'What would Jon (Oliva) do here? What would Paul (O'Neill) do there?' The influence of the overall Savatage music definitely sneaks in, and the stuff that I enjoyed performing, I'm sure it gets in there. No doubt about it."
And for the record, Stevens is in favour a of a full-fledged Savatage reunion even though it's unlikely it will ever come to pass. Jon Oliva - the band's lord and master - has gone on record several times saying that between TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA, his own band JON OLIVA'S PAIN and Circle II Circle, the music of Savatage is very much alive and well. A reunion simply isn't needed because they haven't really gone away.
"That's true," Stevens agrees. "I think it's more alive now with the bands out there doing the material. We've gone as far as playing the entire Wake Of Magellan album, and we're due to go to the Wacken Metal Cruise for two shows; one of those shows will be Edge Of Thorns in its entirety. There's never been as much Savatage music out there. Okay, it's not the actual band from a real fan's standpoint, which I am, but maybe I'll get my wish that reunion happens some day. With everyone so active out there, there's a better chance for it. For now we'll celebrate Savatage as is."
BraveWords is streaming the new Seasons Will Fall song called 'Killing Death' below: