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Dubliner’s Empire Circus “Stands” for Greatness

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Empire Circus.
Empire Circus.

I’m sitting in a hotel room on vacation and the kids are glued to the MTV Music Awards. As I watch one untalented processed pop star after another strut across the stage (did the crowd really lose their minds when a lame band like NSYNC reunites?), I cant help but raise a defiant fist to the heavens and complain to my Maker that a great band like Stand never made it big.

This Dublin rock outfit moved to America (not far from the same Barclays Center hosting MTV’s event) with an eye on one prize -- world domination.

It didn't quite happen, despite a parade of brilliant songs like “Olivia” and albums like 100,000 Ways to Harvest Hope over a half dozen years or so. Drummer Carl Dowling left the band, they went back to Ireland, singer Neal Eurelle opened a music school, and that was supposed to be the end of that.

Now come news that Alan Doyle, new drummer Brian Ellis and David Walsh have regrouped with Eurelle and have rebranded. They are now back as Empire Circus with an album of the same name.

“We felt like reinvention after our original drummer Carl left Stand,” Eurelle tells the Irish Voice.

“Everyone was a little down at the time, and the thought of doing another Stand record didn't seem appealing at all. Later that year we met Brian. It took a year for us to gel and form properly as a Band and we started writing songs for the Empire Circus (EC) project in October 2011.”

According to their website, they "are a four piece alt pop outfit who have tapped into the panache of Two Door Cinema Club, the demeanor of Arcade Fire and the general cool suave of Gorillaz… then morphed out at the other side with a resonant sound under the guise of Empire Circus."

That sounds about right. The band definitely has a more contemporary feel to the arrangements and mixing.
Their 12 new tunes, according to the band’s advanced press release, made them want to "sing, dance and get silly."
Robin Thicke's new album makes you want to sing, dance, and get silly. This music does not. If I can offer one bit of criticism, I would say Empire Circus's music falls flat in the self-expressed silliness department.

That's not to say that the album fails. It is excellent throughout and approaches downright brilliance more often than not.
But the underlying theme that runs through these songs has more to do with the joy that comes from emerging from a dark period into the light than, say, a carefree night at a club with your friends and the dancers in Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.

If you did find yourself in a nightclub with your friends, some of the dance-y beats Empire Circus lays down would be welcome if they were thrown into the mix. "There Is Light" borrows an electro-drum loop from Nine Inch Nails as Eurelle sings, "There is a sun in my sky even though its late at night/there is a light at the end of the tunnel where it never shone before."

The disc begins with “Lights Out” and the lines, “The past tense is now coming back now/there’s been a change of heart tonight/so leave the past behind.” Easier said than done.

Try as they might, these lads are incapable of dropping what made them great as Stand in the first place. Like most of Empire Circus the album, this track rocks with an urgency that you might hear on early U2 records with just as much earnestness.

“True Believer” mixes electronic flourishes with a taut bass line and a killer guitar hook. “A Day In the Life of a Superhero” is a chugging rocker with a soaring chorus that is about as perfect a rocker as you can make, the kind of song that Snow Patrol would give their eye teeth to write.

Empire Circus’s sound is not as straightforward as the rocking anthems the foursome produced under the name Stand.
Producer-engineer-mixer Bryce Goggin (Ramones, the Morning Glories, Antony and the Johnsons) adds some delectable sonic surprises to the mix.  “Everything Amounts to Nothing” is a sweet slice of eighties bubblegum pop that is pure summer fizz.

Despite the devastation that no doubt came with losing the original drummer, this fan of Stand still wonders why the band needed to rename itself. To borrow a line from my business school days, I worry why they sacrificed the “brand equity” they built with Stand and potentially risk not being heard by their loyal fans in the confusion brought on by calling them Empire Circus?

But the songs on Empire Circus so enthusiastically embrace the new with great fun and great music that it is hard for me (or any Stand fan) to hold a grudge for too long!

Then again, if lightening up the mood a bit and re-naming Stand gets Empire Circus songs on the radio with massive overexposure like they so richly deserve, then fair play to them. Heck, if Empire Circus ends up with a “Moon Man” statue at the MTV Awards next year, this old Stand fan will have nothing to complain about! You can check out the new music at   www.weareempirecircus.com.

I caught up with Eurelle about the new project. Here’s how it went.

What brought on the renaming?  

After a few short months we were introduced to Brian Ellis, who just brought a ball of energy and positivity to the mix. We decided to start writing and working on songs with him. It was so fresh and different to anything we'd ever done as Stand that we decided to change everything including the name. It just seemed right to leave the past behind and follow this new trail.

Music is our passion. Creating it and playing it live. All anyone wants outta life is to do what their passionate about. Agreed?

When you're not getting the recognition you feel you deserve, especially in your own hometown, that’s when something is wrong and that’s when it's time to change. That’s what we did.

Was it like the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper in that you could pretend to be someone else? 

Not really. But I get what you mean. We definitely took on new personas, but that was due to the upbeat energy in the music and not to any "mind expansion.”

It was more like this -- Stand is like the ex-girlfriend that broke all our hearts. We tried and tried and we're constantly ignored by most. Think of Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the hill only to watch it roll all the way down again just as he reached the summit. That's what it was like. Twelve years of hard work and "Everything amounts to (almost) nothing.

How would you say the sound of the two bands are different? 

Empire Circus is a lot more positive and upbeat. We wanna make people dance and feel good. It's more mature and sounds so much better than anything we've done with Stand, which is largely due to Bryce Goggin producing and engineering. Look him up. Amazing guy.

Compared to EC, Stand is like your moody little brother who sits in his bedroom playing Warcraft while picking scabs off his knee caps.

How would you describe this band to someone who has never heard you? 

Empire Circus are here to make you move. Inside and out!

I would also be curious as to what the reaction was of your old fans to the music? 

The reaction so far has been very positive, and we're flattered that so many people already know the words given that the album isn't out until September 12. We released some singles and an EP earlier in the year so people have either bought that or listening to our songs on the net.

Some people want us to break out the occasional Stand song but we're sorry, it won’t be happening any time soon. This is our way forward. All I know is, our radio play is up, our revenues are up and our spirits are high. Reason enough for any change.

The other option was admit defeat and lay down and die. No way, not happening.

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