If you are the sort of person who likes to know, going in, exactly what you’re listening to, then Circle’s latest album will present a problem. The Finnish band, now 20-something albums into its genre-baiting career, takes great delight in upsetting expectations, confounding conventions, and bringing opposites into alignment. In one sense, Katapult is 39 minutes of “what the hell is this?” In another, it is a boundary-less exploration of all sorts of music, precise as clockwork, annihilating as hurricane winds.
Consider “Fish Reflection”, a late album composition that balances, as well as any, the throat-punishing threat of metal with baroque complexity. It starts with a jackbooted bass riff—that’s Circle founder Jussi Lehtisalo, perhaps the lone constant factor in the band’s 17-year run—grinding out the metallic foundation. The drums are fast, precise, and clattering, nailing the same succession of snare, sticks-on-rims, kick drum over and over, like some sort of wind-up contraption. Yet over this bedrock, there are big blares of synthesizer throwing up undulating walls of new wave tone, as if the keyboardist from the Cure had come out the wrong door and ended up on Motorhead’s stage. And moreover, though Lehtisalo growls and whispers in ominous metal style, he is echoed by a semi-classical falsetto chorus. And then there are the words, creepily evocative chants of “Skinless, fearless, heartless”, which seem to describe not some fairytale metal monster, but an ordinary fish.
The band seems to delight in upending expectations. The very metal title “Black Black Never Never Land” is appended to one of the disc’s most pastoral cuts, all vibrating synth tones and warm, reverberating guitar tones. By contrast, “Understanding New Age” is anything but yoga-calm, with its heavy distorted bass riff and harsh muttering about “Death forever” and the Devil. Yet every one of these cuts contains its own contradictions and inner tensions, the mesmeric power of repetition uniting hard rock clangor with delicate intervals, mythic imagery with ordinary observations. (“Skeletor Highway” is as much about driving as it is about demons.)
About half the cuts are instrumental, ranging from the lyrical (“Trees on the Higher Mountain”) to the prog-abstract (“Four Points on the Compass” could be a Tangerine Dream outtake) to the post-rock complex. “Torpedo Star Rising” is one of the most elaborately structured of these cuts. It seems to have at least a couple of time signatures in play, with one line moving in threes, another in fours, creating a hallucinatory disconnect between two layers of the song. There is a push and a clatter in the drums, yet a meditative overlay; the track is both calming and disturbing.
This is a fantastically interesting album, the sort of record that will continue to expand as you listen to it repeatedly. It may not be entirely metal, or rock, or post-rock, or really any CDDB genre, but it will lead you among and through these styles to its own particular space.