REVIEW: RUSSIAN CIRCLES – GUIDANCE (2016)
Russian Circles enter their second decade fully confident in what it is they do. Guidance shows a band “at the top of their game” as they say, expertly crafting instrumental post-rock full of endless creativity, equal parts aggressive and ethereal, rich with requisite tension and release.
After working with Secret Machines frontman Brandon Curtis on their last three albums, Russian Circles look to Kurt Ballou (Converge) and his God City Studios to help them explore new sonic depths on Guidance. Guitarist Mike Sullivan has said the band steered away from working with Ballou in the past because the pairing seemed “too obvious.” Ballou excels in making Russian Circles sound the most Russian Circles they possibly could. It would be easy for a band in their tenth year to “try new things” (and in some ways their last outing, Memorial, did just that). But no, with Guidance, Russian Circles stick with doing what they do, and doing it really, really well. As a result, Guidance is an album that flows, naturally, and feels completely unforced or formulaic.
Guidance’s cover art depicts a man being led to his execution – one of a collection of photos handed off to a bandmember with no background or history. The album seems to explore these themes of war and execution, public condemnation, sacrifice, martyrdom and remembrance.
“Asa” is a man waking up on his death day. Somber, maybe remorseful, unsure of how he ended up here. Sullivan contemplatively plucks through his guitar with folksy reverence, using space and silence expertly, building tension before the march ahead.
If “Asa” is those brief moments of remorse, “Vorel” is the anger of the condemned towards the men who wish to see him die. The rhythm section of Brain Cook and Dave Turncrantz drive “Vorel” as Sullivan explores new sonic registers of doom. Fitful rage driven by guttural percussion. Throughout Guidance, Turncrantz drumming continues to drive Russian Circles songwriting, as it has done on the band’s five previous albums. With surgeon-like precision, Turncrantz dissects the pulses of his melodic counterparts, creating a counter-point to every chordal shift of Sullivan and Cook, almost jazz like — think Elvin Jones on A Love Supreme.
“Mota” finds our non-narrator at peace. Back to the cover art, we see a man marching, not marched, to his execution. We don’t know what brought this man here but we know he faces his fate with head held high. “Mota” revolves around an anthemic melody, midway through the song shifts into a head nodding, Quicksand-esque groove. Much like Ballou’s Converge, Russian Circles here make the heaviest heavies feel purposeful, far from the “heavy for heavy’s sake” of many of their peers.
“Afrika” is our executed’s emotional plea to his followers. A “don’t forget me when I’m gone” lament. Uplifting, driving, ready for the next challenge, chapter, phase of the fight. “Afrika” is Guidance’s signature sound and Russian Circles’ nod to their still bright future, a hint that their best songwriting may still be ahead of them.
Fade to black. “Overboard” opens with a return to the somber timbre of “Asa.” A smokey sunrise on the morning after execution. “Where do we go from here.” Minimal drums, textural if anything, Sullivan’s guitar work again the focus, drawing from a seemingly endless tonal palate.
“Calla” is a triumphant march to glory. “Lisboa” the redemptive conclusion to the story of our unnamed condemned.
With Memorial, Russian Circles tipped their hat to ten years of recording together. Guidance shows the band isn’t going anywhere. Exploring new ideas while staying true to a sound that has defined them for a decade, Russian Circles may be have produced their masterpiece with Guidance.