October is the month when the two leading instrumental post-rock groups right now, Russian Circles and Pelican, will go head-to-head with their album releases. Pelican’s newbie, Forever Becoming, dropped on the 15th and this Russian Circles album will go global two weeks later. With both Chicago bands mining the same rough musical seam, you’d think the two might have clashed sooner, but it has never been an issue previously because of their distinct stylings. However, of late, Pelican’s albums have been heading into the heavier, more groove-laden territory of Russian Circles, whilst Russian Circles have been experimenting with the more emotional layering that was Pelican’s calling card. So with both albums coveting the same aural space, which should you be spending your hard-earned cash on?
Lucky for me that’s a loaded rhetorical question as are the minefield of hypothetical questions that it should inspire someone to ask the pair of them. Thankfully, Russian Circles have many other skills that define them so that if both bands continue on this collision course, they might just miss each other by a whisker. The trio are a band known for their love of earthy grooves and skidding strings. These things are present and correct in this latest release with “Deficit” skidding with the best of them and “Lebaron” showing off more groove than a Massey Ferguson. In the past, they have also had a penchant for the immense, teasing build but that is less of a feature here with only “Burial” approaching anything close to the full crescendo.
What’s changed most notably of all, especially over their last couple of albums, is the number of times they plump for the aching beauty of a soft, multi-layered soundscape. Each one of “1777″, “Ethel”, the tacked-on intro “Memoriam” and it’s elegiac title-track reprise all pull on the heartstrings by evoking images of vast sweeping panoramas; the band plunging us into the heart of a bubbling ocean or pulling us up to gaze upon a torrid sonic vista. All the tracks have been treated to a well-polished production. Brandon Curtis has worked hard with the band to create the effects they wanted and bassist/keyboardist Brian Cook has had a large part to play in the process.
There is a strong synth mark stamped on this album and that has been key to the change of focus for the band. It’s presence has resulted in the peripheral level of introspection that Russian Circles’ instrumentals sometimes evoke being ramped up into an experience that becomes disconcertingly intense as you progress through. The songs will transport you to disconcertingly personal places and moments so that with each new movement, comes a new experience. Focus the mind and “Memoriam” is suddenly nothing more than a slow, two-chord whispering wind, which whips up into a gale as the battlefield of “Deficit” is revealed – the horses hooves, rat-a-tat drums and call to arms are all present and correct.
Likewise, “1777″ has the power to dump you onto Industrial Age streets where a steady bowing sound rings out and pistons pile-drive their way into an eventually seizure. Here, the music has a more visceral keenness to it with dark, menacing tones. Dig deeper and you’ll discover the desert plains of “Cheyenne”, the ocean swells of “Ethel”, right through to the warbling night creatures that inhabit the title-track, a place where guest vocalist Chelsea Wolfe wanders ghost-like, barefoot and alone.
It is true then, that Russian Circles are no longer pushing back the walls of post-rock acceptability, and also true that their albums don’t bite down as hard as they used to, but it is still definitely true that they wield the ability to compose the most beautiful, thought-provoking pieces of music. They have matured from the band that grabs hold and shakes you, to one that insists on forming the subtle backdrop to your life. There’s something sad about that simple realisation – that Memorial is, to all intents and purposes, a safe, unspectacular album. Let’s hope it doesn’t become their epitaph. They deserve a bolder eulogy than this one.