Record reviews: Stratovarius, Circle.


Stratovarius, “Polaris” (Armoury)

There’s trouble in the world of traditional Scandinavian power metal. Musicians are growing up. Musicians are growing out. Musicians are laughing at themselves. Which must mean we’re all getting old.

It was hard enough when I had to report a few months back that Swedish vets HammerFall were covering “My Sharona” and apologizing for trashing a hotel room. But now the (mostly) Finnish warriors Stratovarius, in the 20th anniversary year of their first album, are sobbing lyrics like “Give me a glance, don’t deny/That I am somehow precious to you.” I know, you’re saying, “And then they crush her skull with a rusty mace, right?” But no, they soon close the album with a string quartet and “I’m still in love with you.”

Do you listen to metal lyrics? Further arguments for avoiding that mistake arise herein. Poetic references to self-discovery can be found in “Deep Unknown” and “Forever Is Today.” And “King of Nothing” and “Emancipation Suite” (“Heroes die alone”) offer decidedly unglorious views of power metal’s favorite pastime, war. Boo-hoo!

I suspect keyboardist Jens Johansson. The Swedish infiltrator penned three of the best songs on “Polaris,” placing land mines in all. “King of Nothing” admits “We sent their children to their graves” -- an unpopular subject in battle-metal lyrics -- while contrasting a brain-rush Elton-on-crank keyboard solo with a simultaneously soaring and despairing chorus and the weary trudging of military boots; you could call it art. When the dainty harpsichord of the nearly poppy “Blind” gives way to Jörg Michael’s de rigueur kick-drum thunder, I dare you not to laugh. And the lonely pop-metal ballad “Winter Skies” resonates with actual adult emotion; nice chord changes where you wouldn’t expect ‘em, too. Johansson’s time under the classical-metal tutelage of Yngwie J. Malmsteen was well spent.

By long-established law, metal musicians must brood in their photographs, yet here too Johansson goes renegade. Each Stratovarian is allotted two frames, in which four of them strike poses chosen from the traditional categories of “brooding” or “looking forward to brooding.” Johansson’s bigger picture says nothing more clearly than “I look old, don’t I?” And his small picture shows him flinging hands up with a gleeful expression like “Hey-hey, would I put glue on your stool?”

In other ways, “Polaris” exhibits the kind of energy you’d expect from a metal band that hasn’t made an album in four years: the power-pomp, the riff cronk, Johansson’s fearsome swordplay with new guitarist Matias Kupiainen (lotta scary fast unisons). The one thing I can’t get used to is singer Timo Kotipelto, who’s got a hell of a range but bugs me with his straining melodrama and parody-begging Finnglish diction.

Kotipelto, of course, is an old-school kind of guy. It’s just that this particular school is getting a little too old for some of us. Including some of the dudes in Stratovarius.


Circle, “Hollywood” (Ektro)

Before he split back to Europe a couple months back, Guy Pinhas was educating me about the virtues of the Finnish cycle-rock band Circle. So when Bruce Duff, who works PR at the Hollywood Knitting Factory, asked if I wanted to review a Circle record he played on, I said sure, even though it was released late last year. Did I say I wanted to hear something different? Well, I got it. Thanks!

Circle -- basically bassist Jussi Lehtisalo and whoever he’s hanging with lately -- are known for two main things. One is for putting out records over the last 15 years about as often as the average man has a sex-related thought. The other is for repetitions.

Circle repeat riffs, not styles, and they subject a grab-bag of sources to their trancy formula. The big high harmonies and jangly drive of “Connection” remind me of the Pretty Things (but the soaring Moog and dissonant touches don’t). The hard riffing and high-times singing of “Sacrifice” would land at home in a Lizzy Borden set. “Hard to Realize” draws its dulcimer and folk-blues field holler from the same well that Led Zeppelin used to visit.

All of the first six songs repeat and layer in involving ways, but the Circle aesthetic finds fullest expression in the long last two. “Madman” turns a spooky “Sister Ray” chunk-along groove into an intense Peter Green rave-up. And “Suddenly” bashes and trudges in grand manner, building vocal, guitar and keyboard layers until it forms an eternal tidal loop you can’t get out of your head. Monomaniacal, but also stereomaniacal.

Bassist Lehtisalo, drummer Tomi Leppänen, keyboardist-guitarist Mika Rätto and guitarist Janne Westerlund mesh into a selfless unit behind Duff, who’s a versatile and melodious if unpolished singer, a compositionally oriented guitarist and a highly conceptual yet literal lyricist. In arranging and mixing, Circle went for a distinctively holistic sound -- I doubt you’ve heard many rock records that defy trends and conventions this completely.

“Hollywood” has a certain handmade quality; it wouldn’t be wrong to call it underground. That’s where the seeds grow.