March 2022

Arts & Letters

Once upon a time in Helsinki: Richard Dawson & Circle’s ‘Henki’

By Michael Nolan
The Geordie singer-songwriter joins forces with Finnish experimental rock band Circle and invents “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal”

That the sort-of folk artist Richard Dawson, from Newcastle, England, has recorded a prog rock album themed around historical botany with Finnish metal pranksters Circle prepares you for strange territory. Conceptual, anthemic, nothing under 6 minutes and including a 12-minute epic about silphium – an extinct medicinal plant whose trade was once a cornerstone of classical antiquity – the prospects for something ludicrous are unquestionably ripe. But this isn’t prog in the sense of Rick Wakeman accidently suspended by his cape among the banks of synthesisers during an on-ice performance of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and The Knights of The Round Table. Sure, such a spectacle isn’t entirely out of the question with Circle, who joyously embrace theatrical rock posturing, such as their signature onstage “pyramid pose”. That’s a confidence that comes from a freewheeling 51-album career of heavy metal, space rock, goth-tinged ambience and Faust-inspired krautrock. In their glam costume of studded gauntlets and colourful spandex, they look like the cast of Vikings defeated Twisted Sister in battle, then wore their clothes to taunt any survivors. Dawson, meanwhile, stocky, bearded, a touch unkempt – like a small bear that’s emerged from the woods clutching a guitar – does have a penchant for adventurous song structures and mythic subject matter, but the heart he brings to such a collaboration lifts it well beyond a revival of Nursery Cryme-era Genesis or other bookish art rockers.

The result is more than just something auld and something Neu! Henki is a widescreen romp of unabashed prog rock excesses, yet unexpectedly emotional as it evokes our dreams and failures in the face of climate disaster. It’s also Dawson’s most immediately accessible work to date.

Richard Dawson, 40, has developed over a clutch of albums into a singular songwriter and one of the finest observers of English life. Though frequently described as a folk singer – albeit often with a qualifying shrug – his musical palette is much broader, beginning with a professed adolescent enthusiasm for the histrionics of Iron Maiden. His favourite albums list for The Quietus a few years ago included a Tuuvan throat singer, Nina Simone, Mr Bungle, Charles Mingus and music from Arnhem Land, with Mike Waterson the only folk selection. He is a category-defying musician, an algorithm scrambler, the aural equivalent of the patterned camouflage that confuses facial recognition systems. While he can certainly deliver traditional folk – such as the a cappella songs of his grab-bag 2020 collection Republic of Geordieland – he has built some towering structures on those old-world streets.

His vision started taking shape with 2014’s Nothing Important, featuring maelstroms of over-amplified nylon-string guitar forced into rattles, buzzes and bends by rough, expressive playing. Then, for Peasant (2017), he added multi-instrumentation to create a mind-boggling album set during the Dark Ages in the kingdom of Bryneich (present-day north-east England), with each song the tale of a woebegotten citizen. It was music with its own not immediately apparent logic, unspooling melodies you had to run to keep up with. To its mediaeval echoes he added dense sound textures including electronic drones, choral choruses, and percussive scrapes and scratches.

If this all sounds like an off-putting experimental exercise, that misses the passionate centre of his work: his singing. Dawson can raise his Geordie brogue from a lilt to a bellow that invites a pub singalong. More extraordinarily, he also has a wonderful falsetto, with that particular gentle quality that comes from restrained power, like a storybook giant tending a flowerpot. Occasionally, he lets it loose and reveals he could front Judas Priest. And he writes with poetic sensibilities, inhabiting characters to deliver first-person observations of the struggles of everyday life, whether contemporary or historical, without judgement or archness. The result is an uncommon emotional heft. In Peasant’s “Soldier” there’s the heartbreaking guilelessness of a reluctant fighter the night before battle: “I am tired / I am afraid / My heart is full of dread”. And were it not already obvious that the album is as much about today as the sixth century, consider the shudder through time of a line from “Prostitute”, as the protagonist describes being sold into slavery by her dirt-poor parents: “How is it so / a child can be bought for a year’s worth of grain / in this day and age?”

When Dawson turned to the present day for 2019’s 2020, adding power-pop synth lines and bombastic riffing to his arsenal, and playing the lot himself, the results were equally affecting. Here we hear from a burnt-out public service helpline operator, an Amazon “fulfilment centre” worker (“They treat us like animals here”) and an out-of-shape man who takes to jogging to combat anxiety, but still detects judgement from strangers (“I thought I caught a busker / sneak an ugly word into ‘Wonderwall’ as I went by”). As with much short-story writing, the songs are more portrait than narrative, a moment in a person’s life, often suspended in a resonant final image. An upset husband, having in the night discovered his wife’s infidelity via an ill-timed text message, pulls a knife from the dishwasher to end her but steps backwards onto a slug – the futile anger and sadness of it is left unsung. A footballing kid fears their pitch-side father’s wrath after their errors cost the match, and fails to read the mood of consolation (“In the car home‚ he says, ‘Dust yourself down / move on to next week’s game / Shall we pick up a Chinese or would you rather fish and chips?’”).

It’s a stark contrast to the lyrical approach of Circle, whose founder Jussi Lehtisalo is known for singing in an invented language (as did ’70s French prog legends Magma). He and frontman/keyboardist Mika Rättö share the unembarrassed sense of playfulness you tend to find among artists from northern Europe (think Dutch free-jazz jester Han Bennink) or Japan. Indeed, Circle frequently recall Yamataka Eye’s “space rock” band Boredoms; all a bit unhinged but immaculate and powerful. Elsewhere, among several notable side projects, drummer Tomi Leppänen and guitarist Janne Westerlund join Lehtisalo in Pharaoh Overlord, whose most recent album, 6, married ’80s synthpop reminiscent of a John Carpenter soundtrack to the doom-metal vocals of American collaborator Aaron Turner.

So how did Henki come about? It turns out it was a matter of time, spent together but also apart.

Dawson had long been a huge admirer of the self-proclaimed pioneers of the New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal when a few years ago Westerlund tweeted in praise of his work. The mutual excitement led to Dawson joining his heroes onstage at the 2019 Sideways music festival in Helsinki, and soon after in songwriting sessions for an enthusiastic collaboration. Dawson again travelled to Finland to begin recording Henki, and invited Circle to join him and other guests for a special concert at London’s Barbican in March 2020, to crown his performances in support of the 2020 album. Then the pandemic hit, and Britain entered lockdown the week before the concert.

While lockdowns robbed performing artists of the stage, for some they provided fertile songwriting time. To say Dawson kept busy is an understatement. On the first day of confinement, he and his partner, Sally Pilkington, recorded and released a digital album of improvised electronic ambient music under the name Bulbils, as a statement of their intent to keep creative fires burning. It turned out to be the first of a staggering 64 albums they released from home isolation, largely in a minimal kosmische vein. They also worked together on the latest album of the indie pop band of which they are both members, Hen Ogledd. And amid all of that, Dawson and Circle found the time to remotely put the finishing touches on Henki, its title a Finnish word referring to a ghost or spirit.

If time, and the times, became a fresh obsession for many of us during lockdowns, such concepts have always underpinned Dawson’s lyrical ambitions. It was Westerlund whose exhortation that the musicians try to emulate the organic forms of plant life in their playing that led to Dawson choosing it as a prompt for his lyrics too. As he later put it, “The last few albums of mine, I’ve been trying to get different perspectives on time, so maybe by engaging with plants that would afford me a different perspective”. It was a way in to consider human pursuits in the context of a deeper, planetary timescale. Never mind the botany, then, Henki is also a rock album in the geological sense, with songs that reference the Little Ice Age and the fossil record.

“Cooksonia” gets things under way in the manner of a sea shanty, with Dawson singing as the acclaimed Australian palaeobotanist Isabel Clifton Cookson, aboard a ship to London in 1925 with a specimen of the fossil plant that now bears her name (Australian listeners are later given a glimpse into his poetic methods when recognising that the line “On the radio I hear the blue hills” is a reference to the long-running ABC serial enjoyed by Cookson in her retirement). Charmingly, the song now provides a sole “In popular culture” entry on the scientist’s Wikipedia page.

Circle take such material in their lycra-clad stride, providing all the drama, the light and shade, of prog rock’s tried and true formulas, with orchestral keyboard pads, double-stop guitar solos and colossal riffs. Among the stacks of encyclopaedias, the huge amount of fun they’re having is obvious; suffice to say they are not keeping quiet in the library. There’s an ode to Dionysius, and “Ivy”, a song based on some ghostly encounters experienced by Dawson’s mother during her nursing work at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (“You would see them very often / in the hours shortly after they had passed away”). Throughout, his voice is usually positioned high and often dry in the mix, clarified by the polished, head-filling sound that Circle deliver in support. At times Dawson finds himself fronting the metal band of his youthful dreams, and he does it with clear relish. Conversely, in “Silene”, over a beautifully subdued and unresolved melody of chiming guitar and pulsing sequencer, kept ticking by jazz-inflected cross-stick drumming, Dawson’s sweet falsetto soars, inhabiting the perspective of a 32,000-year-old seed discovered in Siberian permafrost in 2012 and the oldest plant to be successfully germinated. Circle soon join him with baritone backing vocals, like a Russian army choir.

Things get heavier in the latter songs. “Methuselah” is a fire-and-brimstone account of geographer Donald Currey studying ancient American forests in the 1960s, only to inadvertently fell the world’s oldest tree. Its main riff bounds and gallops, thunder booms and voices wail till its sober closing warning: “Only when you are dead / will you know you had / what you were looking for”. The closing song, “Pitcher”, inspired by the recent discovery in the Philippines of a new species of carnivorous pitcher plant large enough to trap and devour rodents, is hairy-chested pounding metal (other than a bouncy, Genesis-like mid section), complete with an operatic incantation from cosmic joker Lehtisalo, surely in his invented tongue, all rolled Rs and gloriously camp vibrato. The song builds to an ecstatic repeated refrain of “Tower of death!”, and amid the cathartic roar it’s not hard to recognise as a metaphor the image of creatures unable to resist climbing into the well of their own demise. It’s the sort of stadium-rock show closer that rings in your ears in the car on the way home – “Tow-er of deaaath!” – except you’re devil-horning about a plant named for David Attenborough.

When might stadiums heave to Henki? Ongoing European travel restrictions have prevented Dawson and Circle from reuniting on- or offstage since that one performance in Finland before the album was completed. But happily the end of the world is now easing off sufficiently to permit some touring. While needless to say an album that the record label is calling “flora-themed hypno-folk-metal” is unlikely to trouble the charts, it’s easy to imagine exposure to festival crowds could win a considerable fandom to add to the critical acclaim. Fittingly, their first slated performance together is a return to the Sideways festival, in June, alongside the likes of Mogwai and Oneohtrix Point Never. The venue is the Helsinki Ice Hall. Of course it is.

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan is the senior editor of The Monthly.

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