Russian Circles are a band that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. In fact, they are one of the last shows I saw in 2009 before I started Chicago Jam Scene. Their show at Bottom Lounge was one of the last shows about which I said, “This is awesome. I should write about this,” and just started doing it. This band has consistently been in my rotation since I discovered them around 2006 because they are such a versatile band for a number of situations. While their melodic, instrumental style makes a great soundtrack for studying (or other cerebral activities), their heavy & aggressive sound is the perfect way to get fired up while bike riding (or any other physically demanding task). This is quite the odd combination but Russian Circles is far from an ordinary band.
Lincoln Hall was crush-packed as the members of the band were setting up their instruments following an opening act. I managed to squeeze my way to the front somehow, ending up right in front of the speakers. This would have been a whole lot cooler had I not somehow lost my earplugs on my way to the show. But I was there, dammit, I was gonna get some photos and stand there as long as I could handle it. What’s a little more hearing damage at this point? A small bit of photography room opened up at the stage, which I immediately seized, as they started a long & measured build up to the opening song from their debut album Enter: “Carpe.” Enter is still my favorite album and the one I’ve listened to the most. So it really struck me how much more frantic the drumming of Dave Turncrantz was in the live setting. It might not have technically been much different but it sure felt different. Since they just released a new album, Empros, they could have easily hit us over the head with that material, so it was gratifying that they came out of the gate with a song from their oldest release.
Despite the fact the that these guys are hardly a jamband and don’t really seem to do any actual improv, their penchant for sprawling & expansive compositions is reminiscent of the jam ethos. In addition, their distorted, droning milieu of sound not only formed a foundation under each song but continuously linked songs together in a segue-esque manner as well. This pair of jamband-like qualities–from a band completely removed from that entire scene–is part of why I like them so much and speaks directly to their crossover-situational ability. I managed to stay close to in front of the speaker for one more song, the first taste of the new material in the form of “Atackla,” a devastating & mosh-inducing song. I had to slowly back away as elbows started flying to my left and, before I knew it, I was on those stairs all the way along the wall. My eardrums were not at all upset with this development.
My favorite song from their second album, Station, was up next. “Harper Lewis” was a monster, and by that I mean it had just a massive sound that felt like it was being made by a whole lot more than three people. When I first started listening to Russian Circles, I thought for sure there were five people in the band. But through clever juxtaposition of the bass guitar & lead guitar tones, they are able to seamlessly flow through complex guitar-scapes that seem impossible coming from only two instruments. Then again, bassist Brian Cook was playing with some electronic gadgetry that I couldn’t see, so there possibly could have been some looping effects used as well. “Geneva” rolled out of the soundfuzz–the softest darkness imaginable–and immediately began launching mortars of bass. Cook’s bass was at a subterranean level of that seemed to throb directly up through the floor. Which laid a nice base for Mike Sullivan to lay some clear-toned, crisp guitar work where he deftly switched between picking and finger tapping styles. If you’re keeping score at home, we’re four songs into the set and already each of their four albums had been represented. Now that’s awesome.
They went back to the new material with “309,” which definitely felt like an incredibly mature composition from these guys. It was almost orchestral in nature, with the guitar sounds being simultaneously blunted and sharpened to create a swirling sea of sound. Turncrantz’s jarring, tumbling percussion acted as an anchor for the fuzz, holding it together while also driving it forward. ”Philos,” the second selection from Geneva, was an exercise is delicacy amongst density. A pulsating, lead bassline from Cook allowed for a wall of Explosions In The Sky-esque guitar static from Sullivan. The segue into “Mladek” confirmed that Cook was indeed using some electronic toys to aid in creating a rising wave of sonic energy to tide up to the song. A song which positively exploded into a furious finger tapping showcase from Sullivan. It’s rare that I get to see a band that so heavily utilizes this mind-boggling guitar style. The guitars once again crossed paths in this one. At times the bass guitar carried the song, allowing the lead guitar to get a little weird. And at other times the bass guitar fell right back into the rhythm and allowed the lead guitar to take command of the song.
The final song of the set, “Youngblood,” was yet another demonstration of Sullivan’s ability to smoothly transition between playing styles. From using a pick to carve out violent riffs, to firing off machine gun bursts of finger tapping, and back again multiple times. His style is simply something I haven’t seen very much of and absolutely love seeing in person. It’s stuff like that that drives my obsession with seeing live music performances. They briefly left the stage only to return with the song I absolutely hoped to hear. It’s funny how sometimes it’s just really easy to pick out what a band’s magnum opus has become: “Death Rides A Horse” somehow became my favorite song of theirs while also apparently becoming their most popular. The roar from the audience was vicious as Sullivan tore into his best display of finger tapping insanity. This song was just so violent, so aggressive, so… amazing. The most striking thing was that the way that skidding/tearing sound Cook made with his bass guitar came alive in person. It was like a rocket hot saber slicing through the air. It’s horrifying on the album but in person it was downright evil. This show was waiting in the wings for over two years and, in the end, it was worth every second of anticipation. Russian Circles is a band with a wealth of skill and a dastardly brand of music that held up in every way during the move from the headphones to the stage. They covered a cross-section of their whole catalogue, crafting an evenly distributed and nearly pallindromic setlist (speaking in terms of album material distribution) that satifyed every craving I had. Waiting another two years until the next time I see them is something I really don’t want to deal with. I want more. Soon.