Russian Circles Celebrate Ten Years in Chicago – 30 January 2015

For the Chicago post-metal trio Russian Circles, ten years isn't just a number: it's a number that perfectly encapsulates the incredible journey they've taken up to this point.

The way anniversaries are typically celebrated in the music world tends to be arbitrary. Although these usually come up in neat multiples of five — the tenth anniversary, 25th, 50th, and so on — the fanfare is regularly thrown without any concern for whether or not the time that has elapsed, however neat a number it may be, actually holds any meaning for a particular artist’s career. Come the start of each calendar year, publications across the web and globe ready their lists of album anniversaries for a regular glut of thinkpieces — whether or not the albums in these albums are actually worth the retrospective is up for debate. So when the Chicago-based post-metal trio Russian Circles kicked off 2015 with a tenth anniversary tour, there was only one obvious question: are the past ten years meaningfully significant for this band?

After their final United States tenth anniversary show, a homecoming event held at the North Chicago rock venue Metro, Russian Circles confirmed what their five studio albums in their ten years as a group had already made obvious: yes, this is an anniversary well worth celebrating. Based on the amount of moving bodies and battered eardrums that left Metro just after midnight, much celebration was certainly had.

Russian Circles’ most recent LP is 2013’s Memorial, which I gave a perfect 10 out of 10 for this very publication upon its release. That’s a score no critic should take lightly, and to this day no matter times how many I revisit that record I stand by that rating. Memorial stands as the apotheosis of what Russian Circles have been building to since their solid but unassuming 2006 debut, Enter. That album, a compelling mixture of Explosions in the Sky-esque melodic guitar lines with moments of chugging brutality, displays techniques that have remained constant with the trio ever since. However, it would not be until 2011’s Empros that these techniques would reach a truly distinctive form, and with Memorial that form is perfected in a manner that can only be described as sublime. This is a band that has yet to make a bad album, a feat that on its own is impressive. Even more stunning, however, is that with every outing Russian Circles improved their sound. The only negative thing one could say about this group is that it’s quite tough to imagine them topping Memorial.

For that reason and many more, the sold out crowd that floods the Metro on a chilly Friday night in Chicago is to be expected. The two-level rock venue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood is busy but not packed for the first two sets of the concert. By the time the Russian Circles to the foggy and dimly lit stage, however, rows of people push their way to the front to get the best possible view of the instrumental trio.

The first two sets of the show are taken up by Taiga and Wovenhand, two groups with some familial and genre relation to Russian Circles, but not substantially so. Taiga, the solo ambient/electronic project of Isis member Bryan Clifford Myer, opened up the evening’s festivities in an unassuming fashion. Tinkering around with a vast array of pedals, keyboards, and other electronic equipment, Myer crafts a set of electronic tunes that percolate between moments of latticework sound layering and near-danceable crescendoes backed by beats that boom from the speakers that flank the stage. As he hops back and forth from his various implements, Myer himself remains reserved, clearly into the complicated music he’s making without throwing himself too far into the groove. Once his wordless set ends, he takes a humble bow, the lights come up, and just as quietly as he played he disassembles his rig and leaves the stage.

In contrast to the ebb and flow style of Taiga, Wovenhand purvey in a brooding, intense kind of rock ‘n’ roll. Helmed by David Eugene Edwards, the band — once signed to Deathwish, Inc. but now located at the excellent Sargent House label along with Russian Circles — both benefited from and suffered because of its impressive rhythm section. Drummer Ordy Garrison and bassist Neil Keener prove to be a formidable low end to Edwards’ Biblical musings, but too often during Wovenhand’s set their rumble overpowers the lead instrumentation, namely Edwards and Chuck French’s guitars. When Edwards picks up a curious hybrid instrument, one with a banjo neck and an octave mandolin body, his playing becomes clearer, but on the whole Garrison’s admittedly crisp and intense drumming, paired with the pervasive hum of Keener’s bass, overwhelms Wovenhand’s set.

This imbalance is a shame, too, as the band’s 2014 LP, Refractory Obdurate, is a deeply interesting listen, one layered in enigmatic portents and prophecies. As Justin Cober-Lake put it in his PopMatters review of the record, Edwards’ vocals fall “somewhere between a black-hatted pastor and a warrior resonating from a cave.” Just as he does on the album, Edwards filters his voice through a mesh strainer of effects, singing through a microphone that looks as if it were dug out of a recording studio from the early ’60s. This effect does add something of an apocalyptic menace to his delivery, but even though it’s clear part of his vocal technique is to obscure what he’s saying, it proves difficult to even pick up what he’s opaquely conveying given the asymmetric mixing of the instruments backing him.

Nevertheless, despite the muddy mixing of Wovenhand at this particular show, the group does a fine job setting the stage for their headliners, particularly with respects to the mood it conjures. Edwards and his kin create an ominous air that blends perfectly with the drone Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan sets up when he comes to check his rig onstage, just minutes before the trio begins their performance. Sullivan’s skill in layering multiple guitar loops at once is one of the hallmarks of his band’s sound, which is on full display throughout this gig at the Metro. Wovenhand passed on the torch aptly, proving themselves to be appropriate labelmates to these post-metal titans. With a headlining gig already set for the 2015 Roadburn Festival, Wovenhand have a promising year ahead of them. One has good reason to believe this won’t be the last time this group performs with Russian Circles (who will also be playing at Roadburn).

Once Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook, and drummer Dave Turncrantz take to the stage, Metro is full to the brim with anxious concertgoers. At one point, I’m awkwardly sandwiched between two people as a line of fans crowds their way to the front. While it’s easy to complain in a standing room situation where one is packed in like sardines in a tin, once the powerful music of Russian Circles begins emitting from the stage, all complaints dissipate away. This is a showcase of a trio operating at the height of its powers, and they do not disappoint. At every Russian Circles concert I’ve been to, there have never been microphones for any of the members to speak, but as this night evinces, they don’t need to. The band’s performance shows clear appreciation for how far they’ve come, and the jublilant audience response makes it clear that the “homecoming” designation is no mere appellation. More than most metal shows I’ve been to, this feels like a party — a party with a great deal of headbanging, that is.

I’ve been to a considerable deal of metal gatherings in my time, and while rhythmic head nodding and devil horns raised in the air constitute a regular occurrence in these cases, rarely have I seen a crowd get so physically involved as they do once Russian Circles open with the Memorial cut “Deficit”. On the more rhythmic tracks, such as the militaristic march of “Station” and the near tribal drumming of regular favorite “Harper Lewis”, the crowd goes absolutely nuts. The security at Metro does their best to wrangle the crowd into a moderately unthreatening buzz, but even that is no small task. From the standing-room floor to the balcony area, spectators both look on and goad with eager anticipation. At one point, the requisite mosh pit forms in the middle of the standing room main floor.

Such energy is unsurprising given the dynamic push-and-tug of many of the songs performed. “Deficit” and “Harper Lewis” in particular are masterclasses in building anticipation and then subverting it. The former treads territory nearing black metal as it builds towards a thudding riff, and the latter is the archetypal example of Sullivan’s tension-building, with clipped guitar leads punctuated by chugging riffs. The title track of Geneva gives Cook a chance to shine, with his delightfully gnarly bass riff positively barraging the eager crowd with its ferocity. The frenetic audience reciprocates, matching Cook and Turncrantz’ pitch-perfect interplay with pumped fists and ersatz dance moves.

Although the call-and-response of all three members is what makes Russian Circles so distinctive, it’s the rhythm section that rises particularly to the top. Turncrantz is the kind of drummer that any metal band should aspire to acquire; even though his kit is minuscule compared to, say, Mike Portnoy’s, he utilizes every part of it to its full potential. Beats like those central to “Harper Lewis” and encore number “Youngblood” are of the kind that should send aspiring drummers to their practice rooms for hours on end. No one balances economy and complexity quite like Turncrantz, and even though he is the most shrouded in darkness of the trio during this concert, he constantly makes himself known with his nuanced beats.

To understand what it is that makes Russian Circles so special as an instrumental trio, one need only listen to “Death Rides a Horse”, a track off of the Enter LP. It’s become a major fan favorite over the years, and it’s particularly invigorating in this night at Metro. The crowd goes deliriously wild the second Sullivan’s two-hand tap riff kicks in, and the energy only increases as Turncrantz’s impeccably tight drumming and Cook’s staccato bass build the tension right up until the song’s climactic drum break. Paradoxically, “Death Rides a Horse” shows how far Russian Circles have come and shines light on all of the composite materials that have been there since the beginning: Sullivan’s layered guitar parts, Cook’s gurgling bass, and Turncrantz’s preternaturally taut drumming. (Cook joined the group after Enter with 2008’s Station, but he’s been involved in the core Russian Circles style for so long it’s impossible to imagine it without him.) Simply put, it’s improbable to imagine J.K. Simmons’ totalitarian drum instructor in Whiplash ever saying to this band, “Not my tempo”. If there’s one thing a person can count on Russian Circles to be, it’s on tempo — and splendidly, at that.

I first encountered Russian Circles just after the release of Geneva. At that time, I could tell this was an exceptionally skilled instrumental metal group, but I had no idea that the trio would evolve into the powerhouse that it has today. As I leave Metro just after the next day has begun, I am confirmed in an opinion I made when I reviewed the breathaking Memorial: Russian Circles are the true heirs to the legacy established by post-metal greats like Isis. In fact, not only are they the heirs, but they’re the leaders of the sound at the present: few instrumental outfits, post-metal or otherwise, have made as much of an impact in the past ten years. Ten years may be an arbitrary if neat number, but this trio proves that anniversaries are sometimes genuinely worth the looking backward. The journey from Enter to Memorial has been a crescendo that any artist would have reason to be envious of.

If the buildup to Memorial is any indication, then I think it’s safe to say that one would be wise to toast to another ten years of music from this superlative band.

Splash image: Poster for the 30 January Metro concert by Russian Circles, designed by pencilplan. To buy this design and others, visit pencilplan’s Etsy store.