Finnish prog-death warriors Amorphis create another metallic gem with ‘Circle’

Amorphis 2013 Photo By Terhi Ylimäinen
It’s silly to roll out a big introduction for a band like Amorphis, who have been there, done that, and repeated their dominance over and over again. Yes, they started off as a Finnish death metal outfit, recorded two of the most influential records in the genre’s history, and refused to rest on their laurels for the rest of their career. Their plight has been admirable, enthralling, and well-documented.

Now, I know there’s bellyaching amongst the masses who don’t like that Amorphis are no longer the assault machine they were on “The Karelian Isthmus” and “Tales from the Thousand Lakes,” their 1992 and 1994 masterpieces. They certainly have changed a lot over the years, especially when vocalist Tomi Joutsen joined the fold for 2006’s “Eclipse,” and from that point they have done a pretty stellar job keeping their music heavy and recognizant of their roots while also adding more elements of power, prog, and folk metal to their big bubbling stew. That led to some of the band’s strongest work to date, the dawning of a second golden era for the band that continues up to this day with the release of “Circle,” the band’s 11th studio album.

Amorphis - Circle - ArtworkThe nine-track, 46-minute “Circle” is a perfect serving of modern-day Amorphis, and they arguably haven’t written a stronger bunch of songs since those early landmark records. As promised, the record is a little darker and heavier in spots, with Joutsen doing more growling than he’s done in some time, but his clean vocals sweep and capture you, and the band’s hooks are undeniable. This is as close to a meeting of both Amorphis worlds as we’re bound to get, and it’s a stunner. I have barely stopped listening to the thing since I got the promo a month ago. It’s fucking glorious.

Lyricist Pekka Kainulainen was brought in again to work with the band – guitarists Esa Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari, bassist Niclas Etelavuori, keyboard player Santeri Kallio, drummer Jan Rechberger, and Joutsen — but this time, instead of pulling inspiration from Finland’s national epic Kalevala, he weaves a new story all his own about a man who has, from birth, had to fight for everything, and after an accident he begins to channel inner powers. He is sent a guide, and from there fights to change his plight and destiny. As Kainulainen says, “This is a story of survival.” It’s also as purely metal a concept as you’re going to find, and the adventure is enthralling.

Ultra-catchy “Shades of Gray” opens the opus, with rougher, more death-inspired vocals proving they did mean to make some of this heavier, but with a sweeping chorus that very likely will get wedged in your head. It sure is stuck in mine and has been since the first time I heard the song. “Mission” has a mystical, key-driven beginning before it launches on the wings of power-influenced guitar lines and another impassioned delivery by Joutsen. “The Wanderer” is another high point, even if it isn’t for the protagonist of our story, and the song is built on well-delivered verses that tell of this lost soul and a chorus that, while dark and sad, also is hook-heavy and unforgettable. Great song. “Narrowpath” is our first true dose of folk metal, though it’s balanced out by heaviness, and believe it or not, it’s yet another song where the melody sets up in your head and refuses to leave. Noticing a theme here?

“Hopeless Days” is a huge song and truly theatrical, especially when a thunderstorm of synth lands and buries you between the verses and choruses. I imagine this song will be just gigantic live, and I hope I get a chance to witness that. “Nightbird’s Song” sounds like classic Iron Maiden when it begins, but then it turns on a dime and gets aggressive and growly. “Into the Abyss” is a little moodier and not as fast and bursting with power as the other songs, but it’s an effective track nonetheless. “Enchanted By the Moon” is slow-driving and synth-heavy for the bulk of its running time, even slipping into doom territory, but it ends with a nice dose of crunch and forceful growls. Closer “A New Day” may divide some followers a bit, because it’s pretty much a ballad, but it’s not wimpy by any means. This is your story closer, the one where our protagonist has found a new way and a reason to carry on, and the folk-flavored song has the heart and emotion it needs to hammer home its point and flash “the end” across your proverbial screen.

Amorphis are on a killer run of records that, yeah, aren’t of the death metal savagery of their early days but definitely are proof they have become better songwriters. This is a classic-style metal album with a good story, excellent hooks, razor-sharp performances, and I don’t imagine I’m going to tire of it anytime soon. If you’re enjoying the second phase of Amorphis’ life as much as I am, then you’re going to be pleased beyond words with “Circle,” one of their finest albums to date.

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