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Markku Lahtelan Sirkus - Vol. 1

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Artist: Markku Lahtelan Sirkus

Album: Vol. 1

Label: Kevyt Nostalgia

Review date: Apr. 23, 2006

Named in honor of an acclaimed Nordic postmodern writer and his signature tome, Markku Lahtelan Sirkus is a new, predominantly instrumental Finnish duo featuring two members of the loosely configured freeform ensemble Drake's Medicine. Mikko Nenonen and Tomi Pekkola originally hail from Hamina, a southeastern backwater that's primarily known for its bizarre, circular street plan. There's an old joke that the city's peculiar layout, along with the narcotic and sexual vices that seep across the nearby Russian border, are responsible for its residents' diminished sanity. (Janne Westerlund, guitarist for – who else? – Circle, has roots in the same locale.) Perhaps this slightly lawless and confusing environment has left a subliminal imprint on Nenonen and Pekkola; perhaps not? Whatever the case, the idiosyncratic, occasionally violent Vol. 1 is by no means a dry, run-of-the-mill improv record.

Like a high-velocity chase down an endless, scenic roundabout, Sirkus's first outing is a disorienting experience characterized by elegant contours and dizzying twists. The disc's seven tracks resemble miniature symphonies crammed full of disparate ideas that strike a delicate balance between brainy, glacial cool and combusting, earthly passion. The opening salvo, "Kun Tulet Tarpeeksi Lähelle, Muutun Perhoseksi" ("When You Come Close Enough, I Turn into a Butterfly"), inserts yawning guitar fragments into gently shuffling rhythms before buckling under the weight of stainless steel percussion. Following a brief electronic interlude, the song reignites with a thundering and grandiose art-rock coda of heroic climaxes that make a mockery of groups such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. This 13-minute monster consolidates the strengths of Markku Lahtelan Sirkus while serving as a kind of virtuosic overture for the rest of the album, the remainder of which takes semi-spontaneous detours into Neubautenesque sheet-metal bashing, cracked acoustic duels, musique concrete ambience, and jazzy spurts of sax-laced jism. Unfortunately, a couple of foundationless noise collages in the middle don't measure up to the sheer splendor of "Kun Tulet Tarpeeksi" – an admittedly tall order. If Nenonen and Pekkola had allowed their prog-punk ids to lead their intellectual superegos into temptation, Vol. 1 would be an absolute masterpiece. As it stands, it's simply a promising and challenging debut.

Sometime after the 2004 studio sessions for this CD, Sirkus expanded into a four-man operation with the addition of organist/horn player Jouni Hirvelä and drummer Jussi Matikainen. Boasting a functional, conventional lineup that's more conducive to public performance, the band now seems intent on plowing through even denser and hotter sonic muck. Brace yourself, babe.

By Jordan N. Mamone

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