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Circle - Arkades / Earthworm EP

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Artist: Circle

Album: Arkades / Earthworm EP

Label: No Quarter

Review date: May. 14, 2006

(Arkades is available on Fourth Dimension Records)

About a year ago the resilient experimental rock band Circle began plastering the acronym NWOFHM – short for New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal, a tribute the bygone New Wave of British Heavy Metal (e.g. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, etc.) – across each of its ensuing releases. And not just their CDs; they're even etched into the runout groove of the vinyl-only U.K. import Arkades, which arrives packaged in handsome faux-Wild West graphics. Although this amusing catchphrase is a vaguely accurate, if rather tongue-in-cheek description of the hypno-headbanging-Kraut-crash that infests such landmark Circle albums as Tulikoira (Ektro, 2005) and Sunrise (Ektro, 2002; recently reissued on wax in the Netherlands), it's a fairly deceptive categorization of the combo's latest endeavors. Is the term a sly marketing move aimed at the indie scene's current irony-fueled infatuation with the spandex-and-codpiece era? Maybe. More likely it's just an absurd in-joke propagated by Jussi Lehtisalo, the burly and jovial bassist/vocalist/guitarist who founded Circle back in 1991.

Documenting a September 2005 performance for the venerable New Jersey radio station WFMU, Arkades is quite Finnish and heavy, but not remotely metal. Imbued with foreboding synths, low-volume six-string buzzes and chants both giddy and demented, the record convincingly captures the dark, free-psych quirks of Circle's personality (cf. 2003's Guillotine, 2004's Forest, and various limited-edition live LPs). The quartet conducts a dread-filled aural séance over the course of two sidelong sci-fi-meets-satanic-raga improvisations. Demonic, downer motifs swirl around drummer Tomi Leppänen, who shelves his usual big-ass beats in favor of reserved, marvelously disciplined Indian-jazz percussion. Soundman and auxiliary member Tuomas Laurila integrates himself into the lineup, skillfully adding and subtracting disquieting tape loops and churning effects. The concluding "Ghost of the Highway" is notable for containing one of the most freakish and harrowing moments in Circle's entire canon: A mournful, snake-charmer riff ushers in an insane screaming match between keyboardist Mika Rättö and guitarist Janne Westerlund, whose converging, tormented moans evoke the asylum-bound babbling of troubled souls who have lost all touch with reality.

If Arkades is akin to a first-class abstract horror flick, then Earthworm could be equated with a pedestrian but occasionally enjoyable Hollywood action movie. To complete this four-song affair, Lehtisalo borrowed the talents of former Jesters of Destiny leader and ’80s underground survivor Bruce Duff (now of Sweet Justice). Unfortunately, the American musician's English-language lyrics – "Bad boys! / They're from East L.A.!," he sneers on the anti-drug dealer title track – and glammy singing possess an incongruous Sunset Strip vibe that clashes with Circle's patented mystical lockstep. That California smog tends to cast an obnoxious shadow on the serene Baltic Sea. But the odd pairing isn't totally without merit: Duff and his transatlantic cohorts mesh harmoniously during "Connection," which introduces sweeping, slightly Asian themes to glossy but undeniably hooky acid pop. Accentuating the positive, the wordless "Coda" numbers among the strongest compositions in the either party's catalog; the august chords of this lumbering processional bring to mind the hulking mass of Circle's 1994's full-length debut, Meronia. It's a pity that Lehtisalo and Duff didn't collaborate on a quick 7” single instead of on an EP.

A decade and a half after its inception, Circle is still risking its collective neck and defying its audience's expectations. It's heartwarming to watch these Nordic weirdoes finally garner the kind of international acclaim they deserve. But while Arkades immortalizes an extemporaneous bit of magic, Earthworm, with its gawky, almost commercial sheen, is a much better idea in theory than in practice.

By Jordan N. Mamone

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