Music

Russian Circles: Empros

Empros both defines and expounds upon an already successful musical journey. With this record, Russian Circles have reached their artistic peak masterfully.


Russian Circles

Empros

Label: Sargent House
US Release Date: 2011-10-25
UK Release Date: 2011-10-25
Label Website
Artist Website
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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.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

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Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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