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Circle – Hissi/Fraten

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Following on from their debut album Meronia (originally released in 1994) come two more remastered and re-released albums from 1997. For a goodly chunk of Meronia, Circle seemed to be wanting to show themselves as Finland’s very own Loop-worshipping post-metal dudes on a mission to out “Arc-Lite” the template of heavy-riffing guitars in collision with the metronomic sound of Munich, Cologne and Düsseldorf some twenty years earlier, all wind-machine vocals and burbling synths riding on a thundering surf wash of fuzz and wah. However, the later Circle showed themselves to be on a far stranger trip, bringing in strings and other things (such as latter-day vocalist Mika Rätto‘s strangulated operatic vocals, which could equally soar as throttle gutturally)  to complement the pounding toms and stop/start arrangements which soon earned them (plus some of their myriad of equally out-there stoner rock, metal and synth pop projects under various names) the justifiable, if somewhat disingenuous, moniker: the New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal.

Circle, however, are not in any way mere copyists – instead they seem to layer influences from all manner of psychedelic, classical, metal and kosmische sources in an accretion of whatever sounds right in their febrile minds at the time. The last couple of decades have been filled with a stupendous catalogue of almost entirely fruitful albums and the occasional single release, the bulk of which are essential listening. With that in mind, it’s intriguing to step back to  the days before they were much known beyond the borders of Finland.

Hissi opens with a recursing chime which prefaces and underpins “Kuivaamo” – and immediately it’s apparent that if there is a defining quality to Circle’s albums over the last couple of decades, it’s that of knowing how to take time and dispense with its tyrannical rule while working from within to undermine the rigours of the here and now. One of Coil‘s maxims – and Jhonn Balance was always fond of a pithy situationist quote – was “Music cures you of time” – and here Circle set out to administer the medicine. Jussi Lehtisahlo‘s bass rumbles tectonically, and it’s worth listening to this record at volume on decent speakers, not just some shoddy personal stereo headphones or off a laptop Mp3 – the definition and punch Circle display throughout would be wasted on them. Played loud and heavily, the first ten minutes of “Hissi” make a hypnotic introduction to an album which in places could as easily have been recorded by Circle last week – except for the fact that the only member of the band still on board from the early days is Lehtisahlo himself.

Which is not to say that they haven’t progressed or changed, not least in their lineup – a listen to the breadth of the aforementioned catalogue will swiftly disprove any such concerns – but the dedication to being the best at what they do in their own particular fashion is apparent throughout. Merely suggesting that this album was ahead of its time is beyond the point – it simply sounds like it could have been recorded by any of the members of Circle at any time, because it and Fraten are quintessentially of Circle’s œuvre. And so the organ stabs and keyboard twirls explode and swirl into the mix, among the double-tapping guitars and Janne Peltomäki‘s muscularly metronomic drumming. Perhaps the wobbly electronics of “Valvo” confirm the most obviously that this is indeed a different lineup to the later, more internationally-familiar  band; drivingly-engaging as it is, it’s not quite in the same mode, and the cosmic freakout “Kuukäärme” flits between Amon Düül-ish all-night jam mania and the space debris of Acid Mothers Temple. The vocals, when they do manifest, are muffled and smashed down under a stifling weight of effects, and the concluding track “Saksi” occupies a peculiar post-industrial/psychedelic landscape, as if Chrome had spend the winter holed up in Pori getting cabin fever.

Fraten takes things in a far more familiar direction, and by now Circle have got the funk, and first track “Korko = Klague ” brings H. Vijanen to sing high and operatically way above the song, which swells and softens the Circle sound to one where arrangements triumph over the desire to let rip at all times and on all fronts. Likewise, the addition of Tomi Harrivaara‘s bass and double bass helps bring the proggish elements which crop up ever so often in the Circle story to the fore. Fraten is a far more angular effort in general, with a penchant for those stop/start rhythms which let the other instrumentation prowl among the propulsion; and when Ville Raitio‘s percussion enters the rising arrangements of “Hissi = Festum,” it’s somewhat like hearing the difference in musicianship when the more fully-formed band Amon Düül II separated from the anarcho-jams of the primal Amon Düül communal rhythm sessions – while, as ever, Lehtisahlo’s heavyweight electric bass keeps the band firmly tethered.

If Fraten has any faults is perhaps that this iteration of Circle sometimes seem to be trying too hard to work through every genre they can play. While the heavy ska-tinged rhythms of “Hiiret = Delite” or the rumbling moonscape melancholia of “Kenttä = Areend” are undoubtedly listenable, they feel faintly half-hearted by comparison to Teemu Elo‘s soaring twangy guitar deployed alongside febrile electronic strings for the expansive “Rengastus = Gastus” or the brittle metronomic tension of “Hytti = Ser Ozm; and  the use of a didgeridoo on the woozily cyclic “Katolla = Katoll” does mark it somewhat of its era, though pleasantly so. But when Circle decide to throw the kitchen sink into the mix for the finale, it’s like being sent in a particularly frenetic ride through a wormhole in space, time and music as “Isaak = Gilded” unwinds with hisses and tears subsuming the more rock elements into something wholly unique.

-Linus Tossio-

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