Russian Circles’ ‘Memorial’ Shows a Continual Evolution for the Chi-town Post/Prog Trio

 :: Gothic Theatre :: March 1 ::

By Joe Kovack

Their music is a tapestry woven from the most elemental sounds. With each harmonic melody and powerful driving moment, Russian Circles create a work of art that transcends genre with layered precision and impeccable sonic delivery. Infusing black-metal inspired heaviness with an ethereal serenity that induces a meditative experience, the three piece Chicago-based instrumental band is in a world of its own.

For nearly a decade, Russian Circles have forged a career based on the intricate manipulations of their respective instruments. With the addition of bass player Brian Cook (formerly of These Arms Are Snakes) on 2007’s Station, the band has steadily evolved their sound with Cook presenting subtle intricacies of subdued keys and samples, none heard more than on their latest album, 2013’s Memorial.

“We write things with the idea of having them more layered instrumentally, and making sure that each individual part and each individual song can be carried by the instrumentation,” Cook said in a recent interview with The Marquee, where he explained how writing music without vocals lends to greater composition. “Since there’s not going to be vocals to carry us through, there’s a different way of approaching the song in terms of arriving at the final product. But really it all just starts with the guitar parts in the practice space, hammering out the ideas and seeing what fits together.”

In a world of convoluted genres and sub-genres, it’s no surprise that a band like Russian Circles gets lumped into the post-rock category. It’s true that their lack of vocals is a major factor in that categorization, but anyone familiar with the post-rock movement understands the many differences that exist between each group. The full gamut of instrumental bands moves from the sprawling, atmospheric arrangements of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai, to the progressive metal-inspired sounds of Scale the Summit and Animals as Leaders, with Russian Circles carving their own niche somewhere in-between. “I admire a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor because I think writing that sort of protracted style requires another kind of discipline. But we want every moment of what we do to be engaging and interesting in its own way,” Cook admitted. “We get clumped in with a lot of post-rock stuff, but our approach and philosophy are a little different. We’re more attracted — like a prog-rock band — to making every component interesting. It’s not a matter of creating one blanket sound; it’s having a group of musicians play together and make something exciting on all levels.”

Memorial, their fifth studio album, is the result of their ability to grow as a band and expand their sound to include greater range and feel. Clocking in at less than 40 minutes, the album is their shortest to date, but it is imbued with a dramatic mood that underscores and permeates the whole. And while many prog-rock and metal bands push the limits of hand-eye coordination with lightning-fast guitar playing, Russian Circles focus more on creating through the layered guitars of Mike Sullivan, the dynamically intricate rhythms of Dave Turncrantz’s drums and the melancholic tones of Cook’s bass. “With this record there was more of an emphasis on making things stimulating without making it more complicated, busy or technical; but adding different layers and expanding on our palette of textures,” Cook said.

Memorial exemplifies the band’s balance of sound, mood and delivery. By contrasting their heavy songs with an equal amount of soft, melodic ones, the band achieves symmetry unlike their contemporaries. “I think the most engaging music for an instrumental band is metal music, which becomes the go-to template for the more driving and powerful moments,” Cook explained. “But on the flipside, if we make an album with nothing but loud, distorted, full-throttle guitar riffs, the impact is diminished. So we try to balance that out with dynamics in volumes, textures and tones. There’s just a lot of music in our lives and we try to incorporate elements of all that into what we do.”

Not only do they make albums that are like sonic representations of the yin and yang, but they also continue to explore different realms to enhance their sound. With string accompaniment and the addition of label-mate Chelsea Wolfe’s haunting vocals over the final song, which is also the title track, Russian Circles look to shatter expectations. “Sometimes it feels like we’re a little boxed in by being an instrumental band and we’re not allowed to work outside of those parameters,” Cook said. “So doing a song like ‘Memorial’ keeps things refreshing and helps us work outside of our box.”


:: Russian Circles ::

:: Gothic Theatre :: March 1 ::


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