For their fourth album, Empros (first directly for Sargent House), the instrumental three-piece Russian Circles returned to producer Brandon Curtis of The Secret Machines, who also helmed 2009’s Geneva. The reasons why are fairly obvious: What the Chicago outfit was able to accomplish with Geneva was their most formidable blend yet of ambience and post-metallic heft, and for the sheer sounds Curtis was able to capture from guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook (also ex-Botch/These Arms are Snakes) and drummer Dave Turncrantz, their wanting to recreate at least that element of the Geneva experience is well justified. That said, Empros and Geneva are different enough albums that, even without vocals as the latest is – except for the psychedelic lullaby closer “Praise be Man” – it becomes clear Russian Circles approached the construction of these songs with something altogether heavier in mind. It’s not so much that their tones have changed, though right from opener “309,” there’s a lot riding on the sometimes Godfleshy and mechanized feel of Cook’s bass, but the way the material is put together. Where some of Geneva’s ambience was allowed to wander, the six tracks of Empros are less so, so that even when the heaviness breaks into a stretch of indie-infused airy atmospherics, loops and long-ringing tones, there’s a pointedness and direction to them.
Likewise, when Russian Circles do launch into one of the crunching parts through which they’ve helped innovate post-metal instrumentalism, they sound heavier than they ever have. Four albums in, they also know how to make that work to their advantage. Both “309” and “Mlàdek,” which follows, build to stunning apexes, the later propelled by a galloping riff worthy of YOB but played faster and still cut too short. The second track has a kind of pop drama in its earlier stretch, with Turncrantz setting an upbeat pace and playing well off Sullivan’s cues. The name reportedly comes from their bus driver on their European tour for Geneva, and it’s one of the most discernible structures on Empros, twice repeating a section cycle before launching into the build that comprises the aforementioned second half. A lot of what Russian Circles do on Empros will sound familiar to heads who’ve watched post-metal come of age, and while it probably won’t change too many minds who are either sick of the sound or bemoaning the inevitable sacrifice of crushing sonics that comes with ambience, Russian Circles have grown into a band who not only can manage both, but who helped bring the subgenre to what it is. I’d include the likes of Red Sparowes and fellow Chicagoans Pelican in this as well, the latter perhaps most of all, but Russian Circles have consistently managed to concoct solid matter from distant waves of sound. The added transitional elements they bring to Empros only show an increase in overall focus and maturity in how they think about their work on a larger scale.
Titled for Amsterdam’s international airport, “Schiphol” uses noted feedback (it might be e-bow) for a near-classical effect in Sullivan’s guitar. While they’ve pushed into ultra-heavy parts on each of the two tracks preceding, “Schiphol” marks a change in method, bringing the atmosphere to the fore even Turncrantz comes in on the cymbals and toms to add to the righteousness of the build. If “Mlàdek” had pop drama, then “Schiphol” ups the stakes. Each pulse of Turncrantz’s kick bass stuns, and Cook holds true to the momentum of the song perfectly, allowing Sullivan to move off into spacier realms. A clarity of vision is reaffirmed in that it only happens once. Russian Circles don’t repeat the effect, and were “Schiphol” not six minutes long and followed by a transitional drone, you might almost be able to call it an interlude before “Atackla” gradually returns Empros to its stated course of ambience met with weighted groove. Cook gives what might be his highlight performance on the side-B opener, providing start-stop intricacies to offset Sullivan on guitar that mesh with Turncrantz’s skillful fills. “Atackla” feels darker for its focus on the low end, and culminates in a grooved series of hits that seems to echo “Mlàdek” even as it pushes further; again, ending too soon. “Batu” continues that vibe. There isn’t so much a tension created in the track as you wait for “the payoff,” but the build and more mathy-seeming guitar line from Sullivan – at least prior to the triplets that come in just before the four-minute mark – make the peaceful sunshine of the beginning of “Schiphol” seem even more distant.
And though it’s invariably met with some level of novelty simply for the fact that it includes vocals – far back, melodic singing that’s primarily responsible for the already-mentioned lullaby feel – “Praise be Man” has more to it than just that. To compare it to Pelican’s “Final Breath” from 2009’s What We all Come to Need (which also was an unforeseen foray into vocals), “Praise be Man” is far more subdued, despite the swaying bass from Cook that swells to prominence. Soft acoustic guitar tops droning to underscore the otherworldly element of the singing, but Empros still ends with noise that in some way manages to echo the intensity of the first couple tracks without actually adopting their methods. Russian Circles fans who’ve let themselves be taken previously along the band’s sweeping progressions will doubtless herald their latest outing as their best, and the unconvinced will remain unconvinced. What works most of all about Empros, though, is how it’s not the atmosphere that’s dominant, or the heaviness, but the band itself. If this is Russian Circles coming of age as a trio, then the textures they create are that much more vibrant, and all the work they’ve done to this point has been justified. It’s an easy release to be excited about, and never loses its focus no matter how dreamy and psychedelic it gets. It is an accomplishment that, on a creative level, pushes Sullivan, Cook and Turncrantz to the front of their subgenre.
Tags: Chicago, Illinois, Russian Circles, Sargent House