As a devotee of Finnish music for years, I’ve always entertained this vain hope that a Finnish band might someday sneak into the international spotlight and draw some attention away from Sweden for a change. This has never happened once. It’s happened for Sweden many times, and even for Norway and Denmark, but the closest Finland has ever come to headlining on the international stage is Hanoi Rocks. And even Hanoi Rocks is more famous for Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil having killed their drummer in a car accident than for the band’s fun but mostly generic brand of hard glam rock.
It’s funny, too, because even at the height of the band’s success, there was nothing discursively Finnish whatsoever about Hanoi Rocks—least of all the names of the dudes in the band: Andy McCoy, Michael Monroe, Sammy, Gyp and Nasty Suicide. This has always disappointed me. The names sound exactly like what they are: rock handles picked for their generic American cachet by Finnish rockers who were born Antti Hulkko, Matti Fagerholm, Sami Takamäki, Jesper Sporre and Jan Stenfors and who grew up on a steady diet of British and American rock and punk. Even Kata Kärkkäinen, Finland’s 1989 ambassador to international goodwill of another kind—the Playboy centerfold—can hardly be said to have represented anything like a Finnish national girl-next-door type, although in fairness the same holds true of any of the airbrushed bodies or faces in that publication. At least she kept her Finnish name, though, and didn’t change it to “Kate Kirkland” for the purpose of trying to get famous outside her home country.
But anyway (and I just know you’re still sitting there poking your own brain with a Slim Jim and trying to think of some Finnish musical acts that have eluded me), I’ve been waiting for a long time for a Finnish band to come along and confront the world with its impenetrable Finnishness. The culture can be pretty impenetrable to the outsider—not least because in order to crack it on its own terms you must first learn a language with 15 different cases and words that stretch around the block.
Perched on the northeastern shoulder of Europe, the country shares many social, cultural and political features with its Scandinavian neighbors, but unlike those countries it has so far failed to vault any national acts onto the international stage. My own opinion is that this is because Finland is a fairly inward-looking country with a correspondingly introverted culture—one given, as you know if you saw the 60 Minutes segment about Finnish tango dancing a few years ago, to melancholy and an abiding love of distilled spirits. Great architects, ski jumpers, peacekeepers, glassblowers and knife-makers they may be, but thus far in the history of popular music the Finns have managed to remain largely out of international currency.
Some would argue that music is better when it’s enjoyed by a select few. I will at least say that a lot of the sounds I find myself drawn to anyway sound even better when they’ve been marinated in that certain Finnish something that adds an extra weird flavor. Which, for better or worse, in these parts, means that I generally feel like an audience of one when I listen to them.
However, the owner of a local record store tells me that he’s been selling copies of Raunio, a live disc by the Finnish band Circle, almost as soon as he gets them in. Granted, he only gets them in one at a time, but it’s still a start. He says that the album has proven popular with ambient music listeners and other fans of, well, circular music—droning and hypnotic, with lengthy compositions given to endlessly repeated grooves.
My sense of Finnish national chauvinism is buoyed to hear this, and I hope it’s not long before all the cool kids on the block are nodding their heads to a bona fide Finnish underground sensation. Circle is an amazing mesh of perspectives from five (sometimes more, sometimes less) classically trained musicians whose compositions incorporate everything from Bitches Brew-style fusion upheaval to ’80s butt-rock to liturgical music to vaguely Saame (as the Lapps prefer to call themselves) sounding incantations. And sometimes all in the same song! Keyboardist/vocalist Mika Ratto shrieks, bellows, whispers and mumbles in a voice that sounds like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford performing shaman duties at a ceremony centered around ingesting poisonous hallucinogenic mushrooms—seriously. The lyrics are a mix of Finnish and a made-up language called Meronian, which sounds a lot like Finnish but only makes sense to Mika Ratto, and the resulting album is for the most part an intriguing document of an amazing live band.
Of the ten or so albums Circle have released, though, Raunio might just be the most intimidating one to start with, which makes it rather an odd choice by North Carolina label Squealer as a first release to license stateside. Taken from three live shows in Finland after a UK tour with similarly psyche-ravaging Japanese band Acid Mothers Temple, the sound quality ranges from decent to horrendous. Performances likewise range from fairly faithful versions of songs released on other albums to full-blown improvisational meltdowns. All the same, it does feature some features common to other Circle albums, namely extended instrumental excursions and a faithful commitment to pounding, trancelike grooves.
It’s probably safe to say that anyone who likes Raunio has essentially passed the Circle test and is recommended to check out other releases like Taantumus (their best, in my opinion), Andexelt, and Sunrise. You might be able to special-order some other titles through local record stores, and you can certainly mail-order them from Aquarius Records (www.aquariusrecords.org) in San Francisco. Circle’s very freaky, very Finnish music makes the search required to track it down very worthwhile.