Circle return … kind of … with all new lineup and hellacious new record ‘Incarnation’

Circle cover
There are those bands that, no matter how much music they release, you always know what you’re going to get. If that’s a good or bad thing, that’s up to you. Then you have those that change things up as they go along and kind of keep you guessing as to what they’re going to try on each new recording. Then there is Finnish band Circle.

Anyone who knows anything about this band knows you can’t expect anything when they put out a new album, except for music in some form. Over countless recordings (good luck trying to figure out how many they actually have, though I saw the number 27 full-length albums somewhere), this band that specializes in what they call New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal does whatever they want. It could be anything. Power metal, thrash, Krautrock-splashed rock, prog, you name it. Whatever they’re feeling at the moment, that’s what ends up on their albums, and there is no way at all to tell what you can expect until you put the record on and let it hit you. Hell, just compare 2012’s “Manner,” that was released by Hydra Head, and the album we’ll discuss today “Incarnation,” which is back on the Ektro label. They don’t even sound remotely like the same band. Well, that’s because they’re not the same band anymore.

Another tenet of Circle is the roster shuffling, and there has been a full dose since that last recording. Uh, wait. Let me back up. We’re talking the last full Circle full-length record. There was that split release this year with Mamiffer in which Circle was a mere two members, to equal the members of their collaborators, and that lineup was Jussi Lehtisalo and Mka Ratto. Those two guys don’t appear on the new Circle album because they’ve moved onto their Falcon project (think weird, synth-laden 1970s rock and a bunch of other weird shit), so yeah, what you’re left with is a new lineup since the Circle name is “on loan” to other artists. Yeah. So Circle is kind of a different band altogether now, and this formation has come up with something unforgiving and maniacal. God, this is strange and hard to explain.

“Incarnation” is one of the most grisly, violent record in the Circle arsenal, and the five guys who put this thing together really must have been tapping into their darkest, muddiest side when it came to making these songs. Elements of sludge, death, black metal, and even wildly varied experimental sounds make up this five-track album, and as used to weirdness as Circle fans have become, this record might even surprise most of them. Maybe the fact an entirely different band operating as Circle will be strange to some, but the five guys in command here–Rami Simelius, Ville Valavuo, Tommi Sookari, Markus Hietamies, and Jussi Rajala–knock this shit out of the park and keep the long-standing moniker in damn good shape.

We kick off with the mangling title cut, a song full of ugly, doom-riddled chaos, infernal growling, long stretches of penetrating drone, and maddening tension that could remind some of Neurosis’ more infernal moments. The thing feels lead heavy and threatening and could throw you for a loop if you have even the slightest of expectations. “Infamy” is built on a tough-as-nails guitar riff, with doomy, burly smashing, ferocious death metal-style growls, eventually a faster tempo that leans into hardcore terrain, and tasty guitar soloing that adds a bit of showmanship to this black cauldron or torment.

“Transcending” has long periods of stretched-out noise, weird, chilling chants, and a relentless period of pounding and drubbing, that eventually meets a high dose of mud and leads to one mean meltdown. The band just lets loose, pouring on the punishment, with screams and shrieks sounding beastly and from the woods, with an untamed spirit giving the song its animalistic magic. Then the record gets weird for its final two cuts. “Bloodstreams” doesn’t even reach two minutes, and it’s a hulking bulldozer of beastly death metal, gruff growls, and killer chugging that’ll leave bruises. Then there’s the wacko closer “Burden,” the song that most sounds like one from Circle’s past, with a purposely repetitive pace, chants and calls, warbling that seems to come stream of conscience, proggier playing, and a lot less harshness. It’s long at 11:21, and it takes its time doing what it does, and when the song finally reaches its end, the strange space jam and final hisses of noise seem like the perfect way to end this eclectic record.

Who knows who will be behind the Circle moniker the next time around, but if it’s this crew, I’ll be pretty happy to hear where they go next. Naturally, they’re going to need to switch things up if they do another one, because that’s just how the Circle machine goes. But for this one, they hit on all the right ugliness, tear the right amount of flesh, and keep things just weird enough to justify and rubber stamp their existence as Circle.

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