Review: Russian Circles Set a New Standard With ‘Memorial’

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Fewer things usher in tedium the way “post” anything tends to. Post-Metal, Post-Rock, Post-Punk, it all manages to blend into one cacophony of mediocrity. Post-Rock has suffered the most. Band after band swearing they have the perfect verse or crescendo. For every End Of The Ocean, there are twenty Xerox copies that do little more than showoff their fancy delay pedal collection. Fast on the heels of Post-Rock, is Post-Metal, which has become an excuse for bands to stretch their embarrassingly dull songs to a point where pretentiousness is a vanishing image in their rearview mirror.

Post-Metal’s penchant for overbearingness and tedium is what makes Russian Circles so curious. Since their full-length debut Enter in 2006, the band has yet to release a bad record. In fact, the band has yet to release an album that wasn’t a step beyond their last release. 2011’s Empros seemed like the band’s limit, I saw no way for them to top it. Cue Memorial, the latest and possibly best offering from Russian Circles. It is a post-metal album unlike any other.

Why do I say that? Simple. Russian Circles believes in leaving you breathless. They want to step into your mind with their instrumental dreamscapes, and then get right back out. Memorial is a scant 38 minutes, hardly two songs for your average post-metal band. Within those 38 minutes, Russian Circles weave together a dense tapestry of sound that is both familiar and otherworldly. Russian Circles maintain their signature on Memorial, and then promptly push it into new directions.

Memorial opens with “Memoriam”, a quiet and subtle acoustic intro that shifts into the chaos of “Deficit” abruptly. If “Memoriam” is the quiet, then “Deficit” is the storm. The song is even structured like a storm. Mike Sullivan’s guitar work here is massive, huge blocks of sound that swell and crashes like waves during a Tsunami. It would be easy for the hammering guitar work to overpower the rhythm section, except this is no ordinary rhythm section. The rattling bass sound of Brian Cook, and the staggering drum ability of Dave Truncrantz, push against the guitars, creating a dramatic tension you feel through your entire body.

I want to believe “1777” was a direct shot across the bow of other post-metal bands. Russian Circles bring all the genre elements to the song. Heavy guitar rhythms, and pounding drums, allow for a maximum use of dynamics. While other post-metal bands would be happy just showing you how awesome they are at repeating the “quiet, loud, quiet, loud” approach to songwriting, Russian Circles use dynamics to layer “1777” until the dynamics aren’t just happening in sections, but all through the song. Instead of one or two huge movements, “1777” has a hundred small dynamic explosions.

Bringing us to “Cheyenne”, one of the most thoughtful, and touching songs in the Russian Circles cannon. Where “Deficit” and “1777” used muscle and power to make their case, “Cheyenne” is all about delicate stitching making up a greater whole. I compare it to a scene in the John Hughes film Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, where  the character Cameron is staring at a painting so intensely, he begins to see into it, breaking it apart into thousands of small particles. If you close your eyes and allow the dulcet tones of “Cheyenne” to flow, you’ll feel the music breaking apart and lifting you someplace else.

Russian Circles have also done something interesting with the construct of Memorial. Each of the songs stands on their own merit. Whether the metal-meets-prog sounds of “Burial”, or the pop influenced “Ethel”, each of the songs on Memorial can stand-alone. In the same breath, a case could be made that these songs all work in tandem. I don’t think of Memorial as a concept album, but more a collection of songs that have a unique context when played together. Most bands go for either concept or singles, leave it to Russian Circles to master both ideas at the same time.

Not enough can be written on the power of closing track “Memorial”. Take achingly gorgeous music, and then layer the vocals of Chelsea Wolfe over it. The result is a dreamlike state where Wolfe beckons to you over a dark, snowy mountain. “Memorial” is haunting and bleak, but always inviting. It’s the come down, the soft hand that gently lifts you from the chaos of the album and allows you time to breathe and contemplate what you’ve just experienced.

Russian Circles have crafted an elemental album in Memorial. This is a winter record. The music conjures images of crisp winter days, cold nights, snow flakes falling in a hurried fashion, and that quiet, peace that hides just underneath the season. Memorial plays like all of those feelings and becomes a new benchmark in just how good this genre could be.