On their sophomore release, this Chicago duo inches closer to post-rock without completely abandoning its metal trappings.
Given the level of contention that surrounds the "post-rock" label in critical circles, the more recent "post-metal" offshoot finds itself occupying some pretty tenuous ground. Sure, bands like Pelican, Isis and Jesu are an order of magnitude heavier than most of their supposed post-rock contemporaries. But does that heaviness, when coupled with dynamics that are atypical in traditional metal, really warrant the creation of a new sub-genre? Pelican, for one, seems to think that the answer is a resounding 'no' -- the band's members have often distanced themselves from both metal and post-rock in interviews, claiming that their music has more in common structurally with punk and hardcore. Judging by their second album, Station, it looks like fellow Chicagoans Russian Circles agree, though they're content to let their instruments do the talking (they are an instrumental band, after all). On Station, the duo inches closer to post-rock, while managing to subvert that genre's more formulaic attributes. Unlike crescendo-worshippers like Explosions in the Sky, Russian Circles often build toward dead-ends on Station, favoring the ambush over the head-on attack.
For example, opening track "Campaign" is all build without the requisite release. The nearly seven minute-long song spends its first half with its head in the clouds, a haze of melodic feedback and ride hits providing the backdrop for guitarist Mike Sullivan's looped hammer-ons and pull-offs. Slowly, the track starts to build, piling on layers of guitar, more feedback and eventually, some propulsive drums. Around the 3:30 mark, it all sounds like it's going to blow, like the crescendo is going to give way to a moment of explosive bombast. And then, with a thud from the kick drum and a cymbal hit, the bottom falls out of the song and it all washes away, leaving only a single guitar. Of course, the band starts building again, intertwining a second guitar line and backing it all up with a steady drumbeat. However, instead of building upward, they end up building laterally, sticking to a limited number of tracks and letting the melody stretch out before retreating to higher registers. The song ends with a shower of ringing high notes and the steady tap of the ride before receding into the distance. Looking for a release? You'll have to wait for the next track.
"Harper Lewis" makes its intentions known from the outset, with pounding drums and a synth's low-pitched hum providing an ominous backdrop. Soon, studio bassist Brian Cook makes his entrance, dropping a bass line so jarringly low, it sounds like the strings are hanging limply off of his bass. Speaking of Cook, at this point, the song sounds less post-rock than it does metal, recalling Cook's work with both slinky post-hardcore outfit These Arms Are Snakes and metal-core pioneers Botch. This all changes, however, at just past the 1:30 mark, when the bass and drums give way to a palm-muted guitar line and the clicking of drum sticks. As we soon find out, this is just the calm before the storm: before long the clicking sticks are trading off with chugging riffs, until the dam finally breaks, birthing a wall of roaring guitars. However, this too passes. Before its close, the song segues into bits of mathy noodling, an atmospheric coda and a heavy interlude before finally petering out, closing not with a bang but with a whimper.
While there's no song on Station that quite matches the headbanging intensity and spiraling riffs of debut LP Enter's "Death Rides a Horse", title track "Station" comes close, playing a hand heavy with towering guitars and slow, lumbering beats. It's also the most straightforward of the songs on the album, its ebb and flow following what feels like a natural progression. "Verses", meanwhile, is a thing of beauty, its delicate, warm melodies recalling Explosions in the Sky and Mono.
Clocking in at just under four and a half minutes long, album-closer "Xavii" is Station's shortest song by more than two minutes but that doesn't mean that it has any less to offer. Setting the stage with a shuffling, jazzy beat and the steady warble of a church organ, the song initially feels like a study in restraint. Then the drums come marching in, with double-tracked clean guitars in lockstep. You can almost picture Sullivan's foot hovering over the distortion pedal anxiously as he furiously strums out power chords on the beat. And then, just as you brace yourself for the coming onslaught... the album abruptly ends.
As subversive as Russian Circles can be structurally, sonically, Station is less distinct than Enter. While the album feels like a reaction to the post-metal label, on the whole, Station makes a strong case for the band's inclusion under the post-rock umbrella instead. Part of the credit here is due to Matt Bayles' crisp production, which renders the Circles' clean tones more defined and adds a layer of polish to the band's sound. Still, there's no denying that Russian Circles are intentionally playing with the listener's expectations here, knowingly thumbing their noses at an empty taxonomy that should have no bearing on the music. This gesture only that negates itself, however, for in so doing, Russian Circles have also undermined the intensity that made them stand out in the first place.