(Originally released on vinyl by Hydra Head Records 2012.)
Compared to rock years, dog years seem mercifully short. In music, time is generally unkind and immortals reliably turn into sad cartoons: Did anybody but the most desperate sycophants actually flip for Black Sabbath circa TYR, slobber over Recycler-era ZZ Top, or worship Metallica’s St. Anger? (If you answered “yes,” please vacate your parents’ basement within 24 hours.) After a few decades in the trenches, can a loud, prolific band realistically expect to keep blowing its audience’s mind?
Formed in 1991, Circle is that rarest of birds, beasts, and mythological creatures. Hailing from the charmingly brusque city of Pori on Finland’s flat southwest coast, these unpredictable lords of hard hypnosis make each successive album feel like a new dawn kissed by profound dew. Their next move could be an eye-opening victory or a fascinating disappointment, an impenetrable joke or a consciousness-expanding freakfest. The group’s tight signature rhythms and trance-inducing riffs might take the shape of droning noise-punk (1994’s Meronia), icy kraut propulsion (1998’s Pori), motorik metal (2003’s Sunrise), lo-fi electro-doom (2007’s Katapult), arena-storming weirdness (2010’s Rautatie), or the vast unknown. It’s a thrill to ponder Circle’s swollen catalog and sort the sublime from the ridiculous, the conceptual from the emotional, and the cerebral from the savage. Of course, none of this would matter if the records didn’t kick ass, as well. And, yeah, they usually do.
Manner, Circle’s 20th full-length of proper studio material, is a pivotal work in the ensemble’s extensive canon. Originally released in spring 2012 by the U.S. heavies at Hydra Head, this limited edition LP is now available as a shiny, populist CD courtesy of bassist/founder Jussi Lehtisalo’s Ektro label. But this latest effort isn’t only a potential international breakthrough, it’s also a daring step forward.
Barrel-chested and proud, Manner vaguely resembles a Soviet tank parade choreographed to the cocky beat of American AOR and British art-pomp. Ideas first presented on the aforementioned Rautatie have mutated into something peculiar but truly illustrious. Mika Rättö’s heroic digital keyboards pile on ’80s FM cheese, but his theatrical vocals channel ’70s prog extravagance via detours to the opera, the Eurovision Song Contest, a padded cell, and several unsavory leather bars. Meanwhile, Tomi Leppänen’s precision quartz drumming imposes martial law on three keen guitarists (Janne Westerlund, Pekka Jääskeläinen, and Julius Jääskeläinen) who wisely favor mood and impact over flash and pyrotechnics. Largely shorn of blasting dissonance and creepy experiments, Circle’s current set list falls squarely between the poles of accessibility and arcana. Glam-pop silliness, denim-vested grandstanding, breezy dreamscapes, and the melody from Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” blossom into supple, king-size mantras that glide past with uncommon ease.
Perhaps Manner is a milestone. Perhaps it’s a rebirth. Or perhaps it’s just another damn fine sliver of Circle. Regardless, it handily proves that these filthy old curs still have plenty of bite.
–Jordan N. Mamone, New York City
January 3, 2013