Simply put, Circle is the most internationally visible, prolific exponent of the outstanding yet criminally obscure Finnish underground. Formed in 1991 in the bucolic coastal city of Pori, the group constantly reinvents, expands upon and refines its hypnotically repetitive, instantly recognizable meld of megaton riffs, Teutonic rhythms, surging fuzz storms, icy synth drones and hymnal, delicate vocals. The band’s sharp technical prowess, revolving stylistic obsessions, unstable lineup and berserker live shows have delighted, pissed off and dazzled a growing cult of international thrill-seekers. Led by guitarist-turned-bassist Jussi Lehtisalo, Circle has adapted and personalized bits of progressive rock, metal, ambient, punk, noise and psychedelia without ever seeming derivative, dilettantish or corny.
Monolithic crud riffing and luminous heaps of guitar slag characterize Circle’s early-’90s 7-inches, which Bad Vugum later compiled as Kollekt. The punishing beats and corrosive hum of these rare singles give off a biting, Nordic chill; subtle Moog washes, pseudo-Gregorian chants and strange effects howl like angry spirits from some distant forest.
By 1993, Circle’s hallucinogenic gigs involved nudity, phosphorescent body paint, strobes, fake blood, extreme physical exertion, props and films. Hidden member and eccentric lighting tech Juha-Pekka Hietaniemi turned the sextet’s appearances into bacchanals, while Petri Hagner’s sullen, vaguely Russian keyboard parts cast a dark hex on Lehtisalo and Teemu Elo’s subtly mutating, six-string lockdowns.
Meronia and Zopalki, Circle first two long-players, sacrifice some of the violent amphetamine rush (and youthful insanity) for stately, earth-moving grandiosity. (The vinyl versions of these imposing double-LPs each contain an extra song.) The in-concert Surface, shared with the Japanese acid-hippie collective Marble Sheep, dates from this watershed period and boasts the otherwise unavailable “Sprinkler” plus a cover of the old spiritual “I Saw the Light.”
While the influence of Can, Neu! and Faust looms large on the beautiful — if less consistently so — Zopalki, it temporarily derails Circle’s purpose on Hissi, a largely voice-free, multi-drummer beast that bogs down in digital tedium and atmosphere. Only the druggy “Kuukäärme” and “Strand-Jatkumo” highlight this labored outing, which initiated Circle’s relationship with the Metamorphos label.
By 1997, original drummer Juha Ahtiainen was gone, leaving Lehtisalo as Circle’s sole founding member. The mystical Fraten avoids lifelessness by contrasting moody experiments with clean, human workouts that owe more to King Crimson than Kraftwerk. The diverse, well-produced Pori is trippier. A loosely conceptual ode to the band’s hometown, it’s a mighty return to form that summarizes and improves on several years of developmental meanderings. The vibrant “Promenaadikeskus” and the lumbering “Karhun Kansaa” flaunt the players’ technical expertise via slowly varying phrases, dueling percussionists and a maturation of Circle’s mid-’90s flirtations with grooves and electronics. The hammering single “Back to Pori” reasserts Lehtisalo’s belief in distorted heaviness and audible singing. Several chamber pieces taped inside the city’s main church serve as brief, highbrow refreshment.
Andexelt, a tougher, slightly less melodic follow-up, alternates between disciplined ferocity and tight spacerock full of knotted time signatures, dub accents and snaking guitar telepathy. Over an unrelenting thunder-throb, the feedback, analog fizzles and hellish gargling of the title track build to a head-kicking crescendo that approximates a gruesome wreck on the Autobahn.
With Metamorphos folding, New York’s Feldspar Records issued an American version of Pori while San Francisco’s tUMULt picked up Andexelt. (Circle’s first US product came out in 1993, when Virginia’s VHF Records licensed Crawatt, a reconfigured version of the Silver EP.) The five core conspirators celebrated by embarking on their first US tour. The elongated pieces on Prospekt (the British double vinyl edition is markedly different) are at once minimal and dizzyingly busy, thanks to twin drummers, a bassist, two guitarists, two keyboard players and a violinist. The charging chords of the opening “Dedofiktion” culminate in an orgasmic thrust as Lehtisalo’s satanic growl engages in an apocalyptic call-and-response with Teemu Niemelä’s jet-engine synth. The tune also flaunts a new weapon: the cock-rock-meets-flamenco wail of organist Mika Rättö (who also fronts Moon Fog Prophet). For Taantumus (a temporary return to Bad Vugum, which soon fissured into the BV2 and Hot Igloo labels), the principal quintet combines the physicality of Meronia with the sophistication of Pori. The group’s prettiest moments ever tangle with some of its most head-flattening blasts. This might be Circle’s ultimate statement.
Raunio is another drastic change. Several live versions of the same song pile up in weird, cyclical collages of wild edits, studio manipulation and shamanistic babbling from Rättö, now a full-time participant. With the departures of Niemelä (who joined in 1997), guitarist Elo (whose tenure dates to 1993) and drummer Janne Peltomäki (onboard since Hissi), Lehtisalo has reinvented Circle as a cosmic metal monster.
This new m.o is easier to appreciate on Sunrise. Alongside more typically elliptical fare, Lehtisalo drags the sonic lessons of Zeppelin, Sabbath and Hawkwind through an arty, Arctic kaleidoscope and into the modern world. Drummer Tomi Leppänen, known for his brisk tempos in the lounge trio Aavikko, responds with surprisingly fortified, mechanical skill. Stalwart guitarist Jyrki Laiho and new recruit Janne Westerlund (Chainsmoker; ex-Sweetheart) unleash the appropriate headbanging bombast, but they never forget that restraint, delicacy and tension are equally important to Lehtisalo’s vision. Rättö, meanwhile, steals the spotlight by screaming, panting and prancing all over the music like an operatic, alien poet weaned on Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. (If he’d take a breather now and then, he’d be even more devastatingly effective.) While the queasy pixie-folk of “Satulinnut” qualifies as Circle’s worst idea yet, the rest really smokes, proving that these Finns will never rest on their artistic laurels nor succumb to predictable trends.
In addition to running Ektro Records, Lehtisalo spearheads a host of worthy side projects. The improvisational Ektroverde (which has included Elo, Laiho, Rättö and Leppänen) changes with the whims of its participants and has dabbled in freeform piano-led bop, fusion, jovial techno, formless soundtracks and several Circle-like idioms. Instrument-maker Mika Rintala’s peculiar devices (how about a bastardized theremin built into a bookshelf?) first popped up on 1998’s Pingvin; they have remained an integral part of the ensemble. Arpeggio and the ghostly Futuro (the score for Mika Taanila’s movie about a round fiberglass house) are the cream of Ektroverde’s massive discography. Lehtisalofamily teams Jussi with his non-musician parents for a solipsistic, peaceful hush that lacks direction but exudes plenty of warmth. Acoustic picking, amateur electronics and dental equipment, anyone?
Kirvasto consists of Lehtisalo, Rintala, Leppänen, Westerlund, Pekka Jääskeläinen (Westerlund’s partner in Sweetheart and Chainsmoker) and Teemu Korpipää, jamming and chilling behind the surreal, Peter Lorre-ish rants of Kake Puhuu of the one-man band Keuhkot. In the two full-lengths by the instrumental, stoner-friendly Pharoah Overlord, Lehtisalo’s low end and Westerlund’s wah-wah guitar flow like toxic resin over Leppänen’s light, deliberate pulse. Less organic but equally unique, Eturivi is a stripped-down, Suicide-inspired trio of Lehtisalo, Puhuu and Rintala.
At the end of the ’90s, Circle alumni Ahtiainen and Hagner reconvened with their former soundman and engineer Jussi Saivo (also of Tiermes) as the studio band Ovalki. The loud and blunt Cobol EP deftly pairs swinging, noir-ish themes with rusty, industrial screeches. The jazzier Entfernen Tragen is less balls-out than the debut, but equally fascinating. Its more normalized parts could be a stern, non-pop alternative to Morphine — both the American band and the pain-dulling narcotic.