Sometimes when you’re young, you really dig some odd stuff. I went through phases in late middle school/early high school (that I arguably never grew out of) where I was into some objectively odd art. My favorite move for ages was Repo! The Genetic Opera – a rock opera, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (of Saw II fame) and written by Terrance Zdunich, sort of in the vein of Rocky Horror, where a Repo Man (played by Anthony Head, from Buffy) literally repossessed people’s organs if they couldn’t pay for them. I was a big fan of an indie film called Ink, a weird film where a monster (named Ink) stole a girl’s soul in order to join the ranks of the Incubi – monsters that created nightmares. It was a weird movie, but I loved it. I also got pretty into artists like Emilie Autumn, Amanda Palmer/The Dresden Dolls/Evelyn Evelyn, and a few other eclectic groups. A few years later, I’d end up falling in love with Bousman and Zdunich’s next collaboration, The Devil’s Carnival, a short film about a carnival, run by the devil, that forces sinners to relive their sins over and over again in a carnival setting. It featured a soundtrack (written by Zdunich and Saar Hendelman) that was very inspired by circus and carnival music. A few years earlier, I’d really vibed with another circus-themed album: Circus of Alice by Madison Chase. Billed as a concept album in the genre of chamber pop/creepy pop, Circus of Alice was the first (and currently only) album from Madison Chase, an artist currently based out of LA., and told the story of a young girl named Alice and her experiences in a creepy circus.
I have a sort of odd history with this album. It came out way back in 2010 (when I was in the tenth grade), but I was aware of Madison Chase a bit before the album came out. She was a kid who lived in the same area as me and one of my friends knew her from middle school and knew of her music. At the time, I was working on a web series that I never ended up making (because we all have delusions of grandeur around the 9th grade and think we’re capable of making an episodic, scripted web series with your friend group that consisted of a total of three friends, no budget, and a cheap camera). At some point, I filmed a single scene from the first episode and as I was editing it and looking for a temporary soundtrack to help flesh out the mood of the scene until I could find something more permanent, my friend recommended Madison’s song “Mind Tickle”, the first single from her album Circus of Alice. It was a good song and it fit the mood of the scene well enough that I used it as the temp music for the first (and only) edit of the scene. I dug the song enough that I followed Madison’s Reverbnation page in order to keep up with any new music she released.
A few months later, I found out she’d released a full album, Circus of Alice. It was a concept album – and I really dug concept albums at the time (I still do). I bought the album on iTunes and listened to it over and over again. I can’t explain why, but I just really dug the album. Musically, it fit right in with the things I enjoyed at the time; it was a bit weird and unique, a bit spooky and creepy, and told a story. It wasn’t like anything else I was hearing at the time. I tried to figure out what story the album was telling; like every good concept album, Circus of Alice‘s story was a bit unclear but still made enough sense that it rewarded repeat listening. I mean, I even started plotting out how I’d do a movie/stage adaptation of it (like the Broadway version of American Idiot). But I digress. Not only was the story intriguing, but the music was just really good, too. So many songs were total bops and I couldn’t get enough of it. The album stayed on my iPod (and, later, my iPhone) over the years until most of my music from my high school years was replaced with the soundtracks to various Broadway shows as I grew up and moved away from some of the art I loved as a young teenager.
Now, eight years after Circus of Alice, Madison is starting to become more active again and is prepping to release new music. Now that I’m 23 and run a blog where I review all forms of art that I enjoy, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at this album that I loved so much as a 15/16-year-old and see how it holds up. It’s worth noting that I did, briefly and vaguely, know Madison in high school. We ran in different social circles (mainly because I ran in zero social circles) and I only knew her through one of my classes, but in the interest of full disclosure, I do actually know the artist whose work I’ll be reviewing. That won’t stop me from giving her a fair review, though, but it’s worth knowing.
The album opens with “The Regression”, an auditory landscape featuring a sinister voice easing Alice into a state of hypnosis and some creepy music that ushers us into the rest of the album. It’s in this song that the album’s superb sound design is really apparent. The whole album features some brilliant sound design that helps deepen and fully realize the world of the album, but much of this first track is just sound effects and music working together to introduce us to the world, and it works really well. Ticking clocks fade into creepy notes from a music box that then distorts into a more fully realized circus-esque sound, and it’s a really effective opening that leads perfectly into the title track, “Circus of Alice”. From here on, it becomes hard to judge each song individually as it’s clear they’re meant to be enjoyed and listened to as a whole. Each song adds to the experience and the story. Take one of them away, and everything falls apart.
Rather than talk about each song individually, I think it’s best to examine how they work together to form the whole of the album. Lyrically, each song seems pretty distinct from each other; there are no clear characters (aside from, presumably, Alice) mentioned throughout the album and there’s no definite and distinct story with a beginning, middle, and end told through the words. Instead, the album seems to function more as a set of diary entries from Alice. You’d think this would lead to an album of songs that could be listened to in any order or completely out of context, but that’s really not the case. While there’s no definitive storyline tying all the songs together, there is an emotional throughline that runs through the album that really only works if you listen to the songs in the right order and in one sitting. “Circus of Alice” properly introduces us to Alice and to the circus, “Trapeze” features Alice realizing more of how the world works, “Amphigory” seems to explore some of Alice’s nightmares (side note – I just love the delivery of the repeated “A rather pointy monster looking back at me” lyric throughout the song; not sure why I find it so enjoyable, but I do), “Human” is an exploration of the human condition, “Mind Tickle” is a complete head trip and I still have no idea what it means, “Breathe” was, and remains, my favorite song on the albums and gives us a quiet moment with Alice is she reflects on everything she’s experienced and decides to keep going on, “Masquerade” is the final song on the album and seems to show Alice taking charge and making changes to her life. Each song adds to the album and each song is integral to the album as a whole.
Musically, it’s hard to describe this album. Creepy pop is an evocative phrase, but the word creepy tends to have a somewhat negative connotation, especially in relation to music. It’s often used as shorthand for sounds that are deeply unpleasant to listen to. Circus of Alice doesn’t fall under that category. It’s far weirder than it is creepy. The closest comparison to the album I can come up with is some of Amanda Palmer’s work with the Dresden Dolls or Evelyn Evelyn. It’s unusual music, especially for a pop album, but very enjoyable and very pleasant to listen to. It’s a genuinely melodic album. None of the songs are clunkers; each of them is a bop in their own right, even the ones that are meant to be more quiet and introspective. The combination of traditional pop instruments with the more eccentric chamber-pop/circus sound oddly works really well. The combination of styles helps establish the world of the album and highlights the uniqueness of the story and of Madison as an artist. Add to that the sound design that goes through the album and amplifies the atmosphere and helps tie together the songs, and you have an audio landscape that’s unlike anything being made in mainstream music. And that’s without talking about Madison’s vocals. Her vocals are really what makes this album work. She grounds the eccentric music with a real, emotional performance in every song. She’s young, and it sometimes shows, but mostly it’s just amazing how good she sounds. She has total control of her voice at all times and knows when to switch between a whisper and a more full note. Each song is full of emotion and passion and her voice helps us understand what Alice is feeling. Madison’s voice can go from sounding super powerful to feeling so vulnerable in a split second. She’s able to express so many emotions through her various singing styles and it’s genuinely impressive as hell. She has such a unique voice and style that meshes really well with her instrumentation. The combination of her voice and her music can help lure you to sleep one moment and make you bop your head and dance around the next. My favorite song is probably “Breathe” as it comes after a series of really upbeat, energetic songs, and takes a moment to slow things down and give both Alice and the album’s listeners a chance to reflect on the album so far. It’s the turning point in the story and the lyrics really shine brightly. It’s the song that connected with me the most when I first listened to the album and it’s the song that’s always stuck with me ever since.
Circus of Alice is very much an album from a young musician. It’s eclectic, eccentric, and imperfect (the lyrics don’t always completely land (in particular, occasionally, the songs are mixed in such a way that her vocals are a bit overshadowed by the instrumentation, but it doesn’t happen often and isn’t a particularly major problem). But it’s also an album full of potential. It’s an extremely ambitious album for a teenager to have made, and it works far more than it doesn’t. It’s an amazing showcase of Madison’s talent as both a performer and a songwriter. She manages to tell an entire story through the thirty-minute long album while taking her listeners on an audio journey unlike what they’ve likely heard from most current music. Sometimes, you encounter an album at just the right time for it to have a huge impact on you. That’s what happened with me and Circus of Alice. The album was so far up my alley as a teenager and it just spoke to me so immensely that it stuck with me all these years. It’s always interesting when you revisit something you loved as a kid or a teenager. You’re never sure if it’ll hold up the way you remembered it, and honestly, they so rarely do. Circus of Alice surprisingly held up well. Its flaws are a bit more apparent to me as an adult than they were to me as a teenager, but I still think the album really works on the whole. It’s a weird, emotional, enjoyable look through the mind of its main character. It takes its listeners on an emotional journey and forces us to empathize with Alice as we learn more about her. It combines unusual instruments with a more traditional pop sound to create a totally engrossing world that completely sucks the listener in. It’s an impressive showcase of the songwriting and performing abilities of its artist and it makes me excited for whatever Madison releases next. I loved her album as a teenager and I still quite like it as an adult.