Music » Music Lead

Risky Business

Circle's new disc evokes Michael Mann and the cocaine '80s.

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Circle is totally psychedelic: Here it forms the all-seeing eye!
  • Circle is totally psychedelic: Here it forms the all-seeing eye!

Circle has been stalking the edges of Finland's rock scene since 1991. But the group doesn't compare itself to better-known Finnish rock bands like HIM, Lordi, and Finntroll.

"The difference is that we regard ourselves as amateurs and draw influence from avant-garde and experimental music," explains bassist and group leader Jussi Lehtisalo. "In Finland, we are a 15-year-old relic that the older people don't remember and the younger people don't know -- except for a fistful of enthusiastic fans. Nowadays we are maybe best received in the U.K. and U.S.A., for which we are very grateful. I think this is a very good era for Circle."

Indeed, the band has become quite a hip name check in the last few years. Circle's latest disc, Katapult, is just one of six planned for 2007. Overall, the band's online discography displays a whopping 28 CD covers, and some of those releases come in multiple editions with different track listings.

Circle's name is an apt one. Its compositions frequently cycle a single riff for minutes at a time while the drums tick along, adapting the mechanical motorik rhythm pioneered by '70s krautrock bands like Neu! But the music isn't just about inducing trance. Circle frequently combines that hypnotic repetition with manic energy. "Nopekunigas," which opens 2002's Sunrise, feels like an unholy marriage between Can and Judas Priest. Then there's "Fish Reflection," off Katapult, which crunches like vintage Nuge.

"Sunrise was our first album that was strongly influenced by classic hard rock," says Lehtisalo. "The same influences can be heard on Katapult too, only we have drifted more towards dark rock or something."

Katapult is a weird record, even by Circle standards. The recurring riffs and psychedelic ballads are present, but some of the songs ("Black Black Never Never Land" and "Fish Reflection" in particular) herk 'n' jerk about.

One element that really leaps out is their primitive analog synth lines, suggesting the influence of early '80s electronic music, specifically Tangerine Dream's soundtracks to movies like Risky Business and Thief. This is most evident on the album's best track, "Four Points of the Compass," a total droner that makes you feel as if you're in a Michael Mann movie -- unshaven, stoic, and with sunglasses on, driving a Ferrari down a rain-slicked highway at midnight.

But according to Lehtisalo, that wasn't the impetus behind it at all. "The piece was originally composed for our lead vocalist Mika Rättö's stage play of the same title. It was a dark-humored drama with a little occultist twist, and we figured it would fit nicely in Katapult's concept."

Though Katapult occasionally sounds slicker than previous Circle albums, it was produced in a dirty style. "Katapult was made with my little mobile home studio," explains engineer and live soundman Tuomas Laurila. "We had a few different sessions during almost a year, which is quite long by our standards. Usually it takes less than a month to make a Circle album, but that doesn't really mean 30 studio days. I guess 5 to 10 studio days per album is the average."

Not only does Circle work fast, the group's not at all picky about technology. "We've used practically anything from cheap tape recorders' built-in mics to high-class music studios with highly skilled engineers," says Laurila. "The same goes for the actual recording: The methods vary a lot. For instance, [2006's] Arkades was recorded in a few hours on two tracks -- the band playing live, and me adding some background sounds from CDs and mixing real-time. So it was like a live setup without an audience. [2005's] Tulikoira was recorded by Jani Viitanen in his studio, starting from drums and bass played with click track, and then adding guitars and vocals and machine loops etc. -- just like the professionals do it."

"We like to trust our original ideas and not to whet all the edges blunt," adds Lehtisalo. "That's why we can finish our albums relatively quickly and move on to the next one. In my opinion, the artist is the gate between 'the other side' and this world. It is not an artist's job to analyze or rationalize. Science needs explanations; art does not."

This primitivist, almost jam-band mind-set makes Circle's live shows much more raw than the albums. In Lehtisalo's words, "We don't rehearse that much. Us playing live is comparable to a bear that wakes up after a long winter and steps out of the cave, and starts remembering what he should do."

Laurila is not only the live engineer; he plays a musical role during performances. He adds prepared sounds from effects CDs to shape the band's sets. "It's very interesting how I can change the atmosphere," he says. "It adds a whole new layer to the music. But what kind of layer, that's always a surprise. Using the CDs is really trial and error most of the time.

"I think we all are very fond of the idea of adapting our music to the circumstances," he continues. "We believe that the sound comes from our fingers, not from the equipment. And I know some of our most ecstatic live performances have happened in very unexpected situations with quite scarce gear. Sometimes, of course, I feel that I've failed to make the band sound 'right,' but the other guys never believe it. Or they think that failing is just natural and interesting. I think Jussi put it really well in some earlier interview: 'We are quite an OK live act, but truly erratic.'"

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