Post-metal, like post-rock, seems to be one of the genres that has fallen prey to the music critic’s tendency to always need to have a genre for something that deviates from the norm. Whereas, for instance, much of Steve Vai’s music is classified as “instrumental metal”, that label doesn’t seem to suffice for bands like Russian Circles. There’s something more to the band’s sound, something that demands a new subgenre of metal music. There were plenty of bands before Russian Circles that fit the post-metal moniker. Isis and Neurosis are usually hailed as the purveyors of the genre, and bands like Tool displayed the genre’s signature elements prior to the inception of the phrase. Much like post-rock, many post-metal bands often do nothing more than play introspective, navel-gazing instrumentals. However, the genre’s finest musicians always manage to take the metal sound and turn it into something quite excellent. “In Fiction”, from Isis’ masterwork Panopticon, is a fine example of what post-metallers can do. The song manages to take a single repetitive riff and build it up into a pulverizingly heavy climax. Admittedly, even that formula can become a bit repetitive, but if the band’s sound is unique enough, they can really bring it to life.
With Empros, Russian Circles have done just that. Over their past three albums, they’ve displayed the genre’s typical elements, but there was always something special about their sound. Station, the band’s finest outing until this point, was a clean, precise, and straightforward piece that served as a bold statement of intent and a very big step up from their debut, Enter. The band’s strongest traits, particularly their use of looping guitar riffs and their phenomenal rhythm section, were at their peak on Station. The band’s third LP Geneva was a more contemplative work, one that took the basic elements present on Station, took them apart, and explored them much more deeply than the band had done before. Station was their blueprint; Geneva was a philosophical meditation on that blueprint.
Empros serves as the culmination of both albums. It is a refining of the band’s sound to the highest order. The band is at their best for the entirety of the record, from its powerful opening to its serene conclusion. Without a doubt it stands as the band’s masterpiece in a still-young career. What is particularly significant about this album is how strong the contributions from each of the band’s three members are. Each is worth mentioning in its own right, as each is integral to the album’s success.
The technology of looping instruments is one that opens up immense sonic possibilities for any band. One particularly beautiful example is British art-rock band No-Man’s use of looping violin melodies on their Mixtaped DVD, which allowed one violinist to make an entire violin section out of one instrument. Guitarist Mike Sullivan here hones the band’s use of looping in a similar fashion. Post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky get their highly melodic sound through the use of multiple guitars, but Sullivan gets the sound of three guitars (sometimes more) out of only one. “Mladek” is a good example, one that harkens back to the gorgeous “Verses” from Station. Here, the hammered-on-and-off guitar melody begins rather sanguinely, only to later take on a heavier, darker sound as the song comes to a head-banging conclusion. On album highlight “Schipol”, he picks up an acoustic guitar and plays a darkly elegant fingerpicked melody which is echoed on a reverb-heavy electric guitar. Then, halfway through the song, the music explodes powerfully, reprising the melody into a huge finale.
Though Sullivan’s skill is one of the many brilliant features of Empros, where Russian Circles particularly excel is in the rhythm department. After beyond stellar performances on Station and Geneva, it’s a wonder how bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz aren’t getting more accolades. Station, in particular, featured a masterful performance from Turncrantz. He oscillated almost effortlessly from booming, battle-ready beats to restrained, at times jazzy drumming. Empros is no different. The aforementioned explosion in the middle of “Schipol,” for example, hinges on Turncrantz, and he absolutely nails it. His playing is at times completely natural and at times unexpected. The repetitive hitting of the snare drum on “Atackla” is at first a jarring beat to accompany the hypnotic guitar line, but once the thickly distorted bass kicks in, the everything sounds exactly in place.
Like Turncrantz, Cook’s fuzzily distorted, almost impossibly downtuned bass is a fundamental part of the band’s instrumental backbone. Unlike many bass players, he’s always at the forefront of the music here, at times by turning up the intensity a notch (“309”) and at other times serving as a sort of ambient background to Sullivan’s looped guitar melodies (the opening of “Mladek”). One particular performance deserves mention above all the others: the album’s lullaby-like closer, “Praise Be Man”. The song is by far the biggest departure for the band yet, solely on the basis that it features vocals, which is usually the case for any instrumental band who chooses to do so. Fortunately, the echo-heavy vocal is put equally in the mix with the remaining instruments, which adds to the dreamy quality of the music. As the song comes to a close, the soothing tone is destroyed by Cook’s rumbly, dense bass, transforming the soft lullaby into something much more transcendentally powerful. The song has a very strange prayer-like quality; it could very well be the case that Russian Circles have written the first ever post-metal hymn.
For reasons like that and many others, Empros stands out not only amongst the band’s impressive discography but also from other albums within their genre. There have been signs that the band would reach its peak, and all indications point toward Empros being just that. The album may not revitalize the genre forever. The album isn’t a brand new trick that the band is pulling out of their hat. Instead, the album is the natural progression and refining of everything the band has done prior to it; it encapsulates and exemplifies all at once.