Review Summary: Consistent and consistently excellent, this is some of the best work to date by Amorphis.
There's a number of bands who do the whole "discography consistency" shtick very well. Those very bands won't push themselves outside their comfort zone a great deal, but have a strong fanbase who's willing to defend them every step of the way; Amorphis happens to be one of those bands. When you pick up an Amorphis record, you usually know what to expect: melodic death metal with elements of doom metal, folk, and progressive rock. That's been their sound for years, and they haven't seemed to be changing things up very much. This brings us to their newest release, Circle; I'll just say it now... if you're expecting the band's big 180 turn that surprises everyone and brings in a boatload of new fans, you might be pretty disappointed. However, if you want an extremely consistent and expertly-crafted set of melodic metal tunes, stick around.
Though again revolving around the melo-death/doom/prog/folk formula, Amorphis do bring some new things to the table. The most noticeable element they place their emphasis on is the bombast; the expansive nature of Circle is just breath-taking at moments. Take the first thing you hear, "Shades of Gray," as an example; the record immediately lays a thick symphonic atmosphere as the song begins to assume a crawling doom-oriented tempo. It reminds me a lot of a more string-based version of "Greed" from the band's fourth effort Tuonela; a similar melody and style dominates the song, but with a bit more "oomph," if that makes sense. The reason for this is that this song, and the album as a whole, cut out a good chunk of the filler of previous Amorphis records. Despite the aforementioned bombastic sound of the record, the melodies are more fleshed out and the little details never get in the way of the structures of these songs. For instance, "Mission" is one of the shortest songs on the record and yet feels more accomplished than many of the group's past efforts. Beginning with an absolutely gorgeous melancholic piano introduction, the song transitions extremely fluidly to the triumphant riff that follows said intro. The clean vocals only add to this darkly lovely atmosphere while the piano makes a nice return in a sort of bridge that appears a little more than halfway in. Stuff like that is what makes this album work; the band combine little nuances with "epic" metal music to create something that's more cohesive and balanced than the sum of its parts.
That's not to say the band have lost any heaviness in their sound; in fact, many of these songs are even heavier than expected. "Hopeless Days" pummels the listener with a percussive guitar assault that's combined with slow-moving drum work similar to "Shades of Gray." The melodic chorus retains this heaviness while having the same climactic soaring vocals you'd generally expect from the band. That, and the growling is GREAT. Tomi Joutsen really outdid himself in the vocal department on this one, and the growling is no exception. My personal favorite songs in terms of his death growls are "Enchanted by the Moon" and "Nightbird's Song"; the former mixes Joutsen's deep devilish growling with a thick riff that's played over a swing-style drumbeat. "Nightbird's Song" both the clean and harsh vocals together over one of the more complex compositions on the record. Joutsen gets the tone just right; he utilizes whichever style fits the mood best, and you can tell that he knew what he was doing.
The most obvious flaw of this record is how predictable it is. There's no going around the fact that these guys know how to cater to their fans, but one must wonder when enough is enough and the group might have to alter their sound a bit. While this record is very well done, there is indeed a distinct feeling of "been-there-done-that" that's hard to ignore; Circle simply sounds like a refined edition of past glories. However, while this formula worked almost flawlessly for an album like Dead End Kings by Katatonia, this one is lacking something that's hard to describe, and it can't be given anything above my 4.2 rating because of it. Maybe it's in the riffs or the instrumentation, but it'd be nice for Amorphis to be a tad more ambitious with their future work. Sure, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but it still seems like Amorphis could add a few more tricks the next time around. As it stands though, Circle is definitely worth the investment. It's got great melodies, a nice dark atmosphere, good quiet sentimental passages, and a sense of bombast that's more than welcome for a band like this. If you like melodic death metal, progressive metal, folk, or all three together, give this a listen.