Outré Monde #3 - FIN and Circle

Welcome to another round of Outré Monde, an email conversation between the estimable Craig Hayes and myself. The premise is simple; we each pick an album available on bandcamp and then have a text chat about each other’s questionable taste.

HIGHTER: Kia Ora Mr. Hayes!

I hope neither the depths of the antipodean winter nor my musical choice has brought you down. I know the oft-kilter electronic pop of FIN’s Ice Pix is rather far from our normal stomping grounds but I’m intrigued and confused by it, and figured the best way to gather my thoughts was in conversation. What have you got for me this time?

HAYES: Ahoy, sir!

Well, we've past midwinter down 'ere, and the ol' consumptive cough hasn't killed me yet, so that's probably another winter safely survived (*knocks on wood, repeatedly*).

This time round I sent you an album from Finnish genre-fuckers Circle –– a band that no doubt knows all about the depths and delights of winter. It's sort of impossible to pick any album that's representative of Circle's sound, given their predilection for reinventing themselves every five minutes, but I went with Pharaoh Overlord for a whole bunch of reasons that I'll unpack as we go on.

First off, though, FIN’s Ice Pix. You said you're "intrigued and confused" by the release, please, expand on that? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Because the album's well outside our usual music swapping sphere. (Not that I think we should limit ourselves!)

HIGHTER: I should learn to be more careful with language. Otherwise I end up using confused when I mean puzzled. Ice Pix is, broadly speaking, an electronic pop record from a very distinct and specific viewpoint. FIN sounds like FIN, regardless of what part of the electronic music spectrum she’s focusing on. That to me is the intriguing bit. Whether it’s the eary 90s alternative radio-friendly pop of “The Collosus (for Ted Hughes)“ or the shrill industrial majesty of “Daughters”, it feels like the same artist turning a clinical if not cynical eye on that specific genre. There is a distance to her open emotions; like packaged meat in a supermarket, the cellophane and stickers allow you not to think about the slab of muscle, raw and bleeding, that lies in the styrofoam tray.

Which is where my confusion and puzzlement comes in. This is one of my favorite records thus far in 2017. Unlike almost everything else I’ve heard this year I’ve yet to become bored with it, even after dozens of listens. But when I hear a track in isolation, or when I focus too much on it, all I can hear is the genre exercise, the cold dissection of how it should work. It’s alienating, and that alienation makes me question my own enjoyment. I wonder if Ice Pix is too close to the uncanny valley of electronic pop music. Familiar and passing at a distance, but off-putting up close. Dead eyed.

Maybe this should be what the replicants listen to in the new Blade Runner.

HAYES: Well, maybe replicants should listen to FIN. But what are the chances it’ll be... (insert limp industrial/techno track here) ...when the film rolls round?

To be brutally honest, I didn’t find FIN’s work intriguing at all. (Sorry!) I endeavoured to listen to Ice Pix numerous times, but I never made it through the album in one sitting. I fully admit that FIN’s music isn’t something I would normally listen to. But I absolutely enjoy being challenged by new music. So the album certainly wasn’t a stumbling block, as such.

I just couldn’t relate to (or engage with) the album. There are references to many things I love on Ice Pix –– namely Björk, Kate Bush, Massive Attack, trip-hop, (alt-)hip-hop, and experimental pop. But I didn’t hear anything unique or particularly adventuress being done with those influences. I didn't feel like FIN was turning a clinical if not cynical eye on things. I actually thought FIN was often too saccharine when she was trying to be sour. As if she was playing it a little too safe or padding the critique.

Really, the main issue I had with Ice Pix is that I kept hearing echoes of those aforementioned artists/genres and I wanted to listen to them instead of FIN. That said, I also feel like maybe the problem is with me and not FIN. There’s clearly a receptive market for her music, so perhaps I’m just not in that demographic anymore. I'm old. I'm okay with that.

I do applaud you sending Ice Pix my way, because it stymied me. I just don’t see the appeal. But I do acknowledge that others would clearly find FIN’s work alluring.

I’ll never listen to Ice Pix again. But I understand why you will.

HIGHTER: Before we leave the Ice Pix in FIN’s back, I did find it interesting that her obvious influences – Bjork and Bush, trip- and hip-hop – didn’t give you a way into the album but made you want to turn to them instead. For me, those touchstones were part of the appeal. However, I understand that feeling completely. It’s my own reaction to almost all retro-rock and metal these days.

Now let’s turn to Circle’s Pharoah Overlord. Let ‘er rip.

HAYES: Oh, Erik, how I love those spandexed, sauna-lovin’ Finns.

You know, I probably should have sent you Circle’s latest album, Terminal, because it’s (a) a head-scratching/smashing gem, and (b) one of Circle’s best releases. But I went with Pharaoh Overlord because it perfectly represents the band’s combination of utter irreverence and sheer ingenuousness.

Circle have spent 25 years making mischief and thumbing their nose at rock ‘n’ roll conventions, and Pharaoh Overlord sees them reinvent themselves once again. I think most people would argue that a band needs to define their sound to be successful. But Circle take the opposite tack. And I love that.

They’ve released 50+ albums, explored a gazillion different genres, and they do things like loan their band name to a death metal group to use for a while, so they can head off and record slick AOR under the Falcon moniker.

Conceptually, that’s brilliant. And Pharaoh Overlord continues that eccentricity.

Pharaoh Overlord is also the name of one of the MANY offshoot/side-project bands that feature members of Circle. And Pharaoh Overlord (the band) also released an album entitled Circle when Pharaoh Overlord (the album) was released. Just to keep things extra weird.

Pharaoh Overlord is a great example of Circle toying with expectations because Pharaoh Overlord are a hard-edged band and yet this album is filled with jazzed-up and long-form tumbling drones.

I feel like I could write forever about Circle, but before my waffling gets out of hand, how about you fire your impressions at me, because I’ve never had the opportunity to chat about Circle with anyone before.

HIGHTER: I know you’ve explored far more of Circle’s catalog than I have. I’ve merely dipped a toe in; I’ve heard aound a dozen or so of the their albums, including Pharaoh Overlord (and Pharaoh Overlord’s Circle) and the new one. Conceptually, I adore Circle. Fucking with people’s expectations and keeping the music fresh for the artist are things I wholeheartedly support. Yet in sampling their catalog I’ve found the concept too often overwhelms the results. I’m sorry to say that I found Pharaoh Overlord to be one of their underwhelming albums.

I like the sounds they’re playing with – afrobeat, drone, 60s alt-rock, and krautrock, to name a few – but the album never cohered for me. “Here She Comes Now” with horn stabs should make me giddy, but “Aavasaksa” fails to go anywhere. It dials in a sound and then they search in vain for something to say. Yet it’s a goddamn masterpiece compared to “Kavelen Luiden Paalla” which makes me rethink my hatred of afrobeat appropriators Goat. At least they do it well. This makes me angry.

I like the idea of it. Truly. But as with you and the FIN record, I’ll never listen to Pharaoh Overlord album again.

HAYES: Oh dear. Ouch. Ow. Ooofff: *reaches for tissues*.

I can’t deny that it crushes my heart to read that –– especially because I've just read your response at 6am on a dark and cold winter morning. BUT I guess the good news is that if you don’t enjoy one of Circle’s albums they do have a million other releases with entirely different points of focus worth investigating.

Honestly, though, I didn’t send Pharaoh Overlord to you because I thought it was one of Circle’s finest releases. I sent it because I thought it underscored the band’s conceptual objectives really well. I absolutely agree that Circle can be more successful in conceptual terms than musical ones at times. (Although, I still find their creative hit rate to be extremely high.) The other obvious issue is that if you stumble on a Circle album you really enjoy the band will likely upend your expectations on their next release.

Circle certainly don’t make it easy to love them. But we’ve all had intense roller coaster relationships with a mercurial sweetheart before, right? It’s fun ride. But also… fucking hell.

Look, I really enjoyed the mix of smooth ‘n’ savage instrumental and vocal passages on Pharaoh Overlord. I also feel like it’s one of the band’s least mind-boggling releases and thus is a good starting point for folks to sample Circle’s "ever changing, ever Circular" sound.

Fair dues though, if you hate Pharaoh Overlord you hate it. I understand why. I think FIN and Circle are both great examples of artists who make music that requires commitment coupled with a little conceptual unpacking. Sometimes the idea is a lot better than the result. Sometimes the result is far better than the idea deserves. I like that we’ve both arrived at different conclusions this time round.