Circle could not have picked a more befitting title for its 11th studio album. Throughout much of Guillotine, Finland's premiere drone-rock ensemble severs itself from the hard riffs and stoic repetition that have defined its approach since its 1991 inception. But while the beast has been figuratively beheaded, it certainly hasn't been tamed; the gripping, avant-metal excursions of recent efforts such as 2002's Sunrise have given way to equally daring, neoprimitive tangles of low-fidelity clutter, grating tape-speed manipulation and the sometimes marvelous, sometimes irksome (but always eccentric) vocal chatter of keyboardist/percussionist Mika Rättö, guitarist Janne Westerlund and bassist/leader Jussi Lehtisalo.
The disc opens innocuously enough with “Metsän Henget” – 10:34 of controlled, Fender Rhodes-led lilt, carried by a percolating ’70s-prog rhythm and sprinkled with queer, operatic whimsy. The song nicely typifies the lighter side of Circle's trademark m.o., albeit with increased dynamics and a sprightlier stride. But from the first sickly notes of the subsequent “Harva Maa,” the record begins its steep descent into wobbly, freeform lunacy.
For the bulk of its duration, Guillotine evokes a pack of drunken trolls stumbling around a fire, alternately casting spells, sleepwalking, gnawing on bones or having an acoustic hootenanny. Like Captain Beefheart before him, one imagines Lehtisalo advising his crew of accomplished musicians to “unlearn” their instruments; the results vacillate between compelling mischief and divine inspiration. Flashes of familiarity effectively break up these lengthy stretches of murky anarchy: “Alta Rautatammien” reverts once again to Circle’s standard tidy symmetry while the heroic might of "Teräskylpy" splices a mess of diseased grumbles into a disciplined, high-octane hypno-pummel.
By the concluding, ghostly “Takaisin,” the band has totally broken down: a gargling, jabbering Westerlund speaks in tongues like some schizophrenic octogenarian, joined only by a fatigued, wheezing analog synth. This quizzical little elegy functions sensationally as an apt finale for such a maddening, but rewarding and gutsy journey.
Guillotine marks one of the stranger turns in a career already dotted with absurd mood swings and radical shifts in direction. Circle’s newfound shambolic tendencies have less immediate appeal than the taut stateliness of past milestones like Meronia (1994), Pori (1998), Prospekt (2000) and Taantumus (2001), but that’s probably the point; time, energy and contemplation are required to penetrate Lehtisalo’s thick cloudcover of introverted perverseness. The payoff, however, ultimately makes a strong case for his gnawing urge to change, grow and take risks. And isn’t that what true art is all about?
By Jordan N. Mamone