Hailing from Chicago, Russian Circles plays brooding instrumentals that combine post-rock’s cinematic scope with doom metal’s sonic heft — instrumetal, if you will.
Like a Windy City winter, the trio’s sound is rugged and austere, its work ethic intense. “Memorial,” out Tuesday, is its fifth LP since forming nine years ago.
On 2009’s “Geneva” and 2011’s “Empros,” bassist Brian Cook (formerly of Seattle’s Botch), guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz ably balanced dissonant chug and deep, melancholic tones. But with “Memorial,” the band doesn’t forge ahead so much as go, well… in circles.
The classically-tinged solo guitar piece (listen) that opens the record quickly proves to be a red herring. What follows is loud. Too loud. On “Deficit” (listen) and “1777” (listen), texture and nuance take a backseat to brute force, a point the red-hot mastering job — emblematic of the “loudness wars” that currently have audiophiles up in arms — drives home.
Of course one wouldn’t expect a record called “Memorial” to be a happy-go-lucky affair, but the eight-song set is, for the most part, exhaustingly morose, one minor-key riff after another. Exceptions — like Sullivan’s bright, agile finger-tapping on “Ethel” (listen) and Turncrantz’s taut sixteenth-note rhythms on “Lebaron” (listen) — are brief, and fleeting.
The title track (listen) is a knockout, however. Featuring haunting guest vocals from psych-folk songstress Chelsea Wolfe, it’s reminiscent of Julee Cruise’s work on Angelo Badalamenti’s moody “Twin Peaks” music — but markedly heavier. Unfortunately, buried deep on the B-side, it arrives a little late to reconcile what’s come before.
While Cook, Sullivan and especially Turncrantz are certainly skilled, “Memorial” lacks the dynamic range and sly humor of predecessors like Scotland’s Mogwai, who’ve been post-rocking since 1995, and the clarity of intent San Francisco newcomers Deafheaven demonstrated on this year’s game-changing “Sunbather,” with its extreme slow/fast, quiet/loud, pretty/ugly dichotomies.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but a new record every other year is a tough model for any band. For Russian Circles, the best course of action might be to slow down.
Stream the whole album here.