Russian Circles is an instrumental trio whose music doesn't have room for a vocalist. It's not like they're looking to add one, but to imagine a voice competing with the band's difficult-to-define metal-edged music suggests something would be shoved to the background. After hearing the band's third album Geneva, released on Suicide Squeeze Records Oct. 20, that seems unimaginable.
Removing the element of vocals--and a vocalist--from the band didn't necessarily make Russian Circles' process any easier. Guitarist Mike Sullivan calls Chicago home, drummer Dave Turncrantz lives about an hour-and-a-half away from the city and Brian Cook--who originally only came on to help with the recording of 2008's Station (Suicide Squeeze) after bassist Colin DeKuiper left--is based in Seattle. The touring process isn't exactly simple either. En route to San Francisco, Cook explained that they've had a couple of bumps on the road--and they're only two weeks in. For one, an expensive custom Gibson guitar was stolen.
"Some junkie just swiped it and sold it for $200," Cook said. "We know who he is, but he doesn't live anywhere and he doesn't have a phone," he said, making it nearly impossible to track down the thief.
Though they chalked it up to bad luck, some of the shows they've played thus far haven't exactly made up for the loss. Most of their early dates have been in the South, a region they historically don't do so well in.
"The South, in general, is never the greatest for us. So the first two weeks [of the tour] have been sort of [rough]. We had a guitar stolen and now we're in the South," Cook said.
It's not that Russian Circles' music doesn't translate in the lower areas of the country. It's more likely a combination of the band getting used to playing their sets this early in the tour coupled with laid-back audiences.
But whipping audiences into a frenzy isn't exactly Russian Circles' style. They've been criticized for not engaging with their audiences, a task that would naturally fall to a frontman. Banter between songs occurs rarely, if at all.
"That's a deliberate move on our part," Cook said. "We're an instrumental band. We don't talk; we play our songs."
So it's up to the audience to decide where they want the music to take them. Cook explained that on a good night, people are nodding along and cheering, and other nights, people seem to take the music very seriously, and behave stoically. "They're polite and they clap between songs, but it's not wild," he said.
Russian Circles' music, though, could aptly be described as wild. And controlled. Often compared with fellow Chicago-based, sans-vocals instrumental brethren, Pelican, Russian Circles music is also dropped into the post-rock and post-metal pigeonhole. But it's more, less and something in between.
Songs like the title track are thick and layered and complicated. Guitar riffs move between sounding like heady drum beats to epic lines that soar and soar until they collapse back into a thump-thump-thump.
The bass, which tends to be chameleon-like, isn't relegated to a rhythmic back seat, but instead pushes and pulls as hard as both the thrashing guitar and fierce drums.
Chords fade into a not-unpleasant distortion only to ramp back up to crashing cymbals.
Russian Circles may be post-rock in that there's no vocalist and metal in that it is, at times, hard and heavy, but some narcissistic solo would seem jarringly out of place, like a German shepherd at a kitten's birthday party. There's an urgency to the music as well--surprising when the tracks range in length from nearly five minutes to almost 11--a sort of anxious drive to completion even in the likes of "Hexed All," a deliberate, slow, melancholy drift of a song.
Ultimately, no matter where the songs fall on the genre line, they're difficult to take at face value, to decipher, embrace or ignore on a first listen. It's soaker music. It needs time to settle, to seep in. In the band's bio, Cook suggests that he hears "two general themes in our music ... on the heavier side of things I hear impending doom and violence, and in the prettier moments I hear solace and redemption." Those are heavy issues not easily disseminated even in a positive light. Even favorable press may not get that point.
"I want to say that I don't actually read our press, but I am guilty of it every now and then," Cook said. "I don't know. I get frustrated. Even if they like it, they still miss the mark on certain things. Sometimes people listen to something once and make a judgment based on that. You can make a pretty safe claim about how you feel on a pop record, but I feel like we make records that take a little more time. We're more of a slow burn."