AMORPHIS
"Circle"

(Nuclear Blast)

01. Shades Of Gray
02. Mission
03. The Wanderer
04. Narrow Path
05. Hopeless Days
06. Nightbird's Song
07. Into The Abyss
08. Enchanted By The Moon
09. A New Day
10. Dead Man's Dream [bonus track]

RATING: 7.5/10

For nearly two decades and ten studio albums, Finland's AMORPHIS lived out the definition of their name by continually morphing their sound in any way they saw fit; but by the group's own admission, the recording of eleventh studio album, "Circle", gave them yet another chance to snap out of their comfort zone.

Not only is the album the first in a decade not produced by NIGHTWISH bassist Marco Hietala - Swedish legend Peter T?gtgren manning the soundboard instead - but its songs are the first in, well, forever not to be based on the traditional Finnish national epic "Kalevala".

Instead, the band's external lyricist, Pekka Kainulainen, came up with his own concept based around an individual's personal process of self-discovery with the help of a time-travelling spirit guide capable of connecting him to his "spiritual tribe"? errr, as one often does.

Yeah, yeah, we know what you're saying: "This is heavy metal, who really gives a toss about the words? Tell us about the music."

Well, fair enough: Whereas 2011's "The Beginning of Times" surprisingly dug back to the "Tales from the Thousand Lakes" era for long sidelined death metal elements, "Circle" fuses these same elements in smaller doses with AMORPHIS' subsequent progressive and psychedelic experiments, plus those ever-present folk ingredients, into something of a career catch-all.

The proof is in the m?mmi (that's traditional Finnish pudding to you!), as evidenced by immediately memorable fare such as "Mission" (all clean vocals, lush keys and spiraling guitar melodies), "Narrowpath" (where serpentine folk strains take on a distinctly Gaelic flavor) and "Hopeless Days" (which moves from quasi-black metal symphonics to clever digi-metal a la DARK TRANQUILLITY).

Much more telling, though, it seems that breaking away from those folkloric lyrics freed the band to sculpt some of their biggest choruses to date into the likes of "The Wanderer" and "A New Day" - not to mention orchestrate densely structured arrangements throughout, but especially behind the aforementioned "Hopeless Days" and "Into the Abyss".

Fear not, sensibly sprinkled Cookie Monster vocals and wanton displays of metallic violence still offer welcome contrasts to these melodic tendencies all over tracks like "Nightbird's Song" (featuring truly malefic buzz-saw guitars), "Enchanted by the Moon" (big time ugly doom) and the first half of album opener, "Shades of Gray" (the second half flips the script in the other, entirely civilized, musical direction - the emblem of a band refusing to be pigeonholed).

So the bottom line is that, yes, AMORPHIS continues to morph relentlessly, but they've arguably never sounded this fluid in their eclecticism; and though this may leave many listeners lost, at first, seeking for period references or deeper dark/light contrasts (guilty!) to hang on to, in time the songcraft backing up "Circle"'s restless transformations is as compelling as it ever has been.

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