Russian Circles – Memorial
Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong.
The career of Russian Circles thus far is a good example – they started out as something of a post-rock/metal band when it was a genre on the wain, it’s reliance on that old simplistic tension and release quiet-quiet-LOUD dynamic sounding pretty old and tired. They came out of the blocks sounding quite refreshing for obviously having just as much Neurosis records in their collection as they did Godspeed! You Black Emperor. It was good to hear a payoff with that much bite and venom, that was just as happy to crash as it was to ascend. Their second effort Station was more of the same to slightly diminished returns – a common pitfall of the infamously ‘difficult second album.’ Even at that early stage in their career one could be forgiven for worrying that there wasn’t much left in the tank for them. How much milage could be left in their three man instrumental set up? I feared it would be a case of them going gently into that long good night, releasing lesser versions of that one record until an inevitable quiet break up somewhere down the line. Goodbye and thanks for the memories.
Memorial is the third record in a row in which they’ve proved that worry unfounded. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, weaning yourself away from that old formula that worked so well in the past, but they’ve continued to evolve in surprising ways. On Geneva they showed a song writing nous and a new found weight to their sound, incorporating strings in neat, affecting ways. But even then I was mentally patronising them for wringing a few more golden drops out of their sound and waiting for the seams to come apart. That was surely as good as it would get I thought. But then they went and stepped up a further gear with the stunning Empros, an looser, more groove oriented album -packed full of riffs and invention. And now comes Memorial, quite possibly their finest hour in a series of mighty fine hours.
Memorial has few of the kinds of crescendos that were littered throughout Enter and Station, and the few it does aren’t framed by the quiet contemplative bits often utilised for maximum contrast in these post-whatever records. What we have instead is a masterwork of mood and of texture. It feels more of a piece than anything they’ve produced yet, a thrilling journey full of foreboding grandiosity and righteous metal chugging.
The album is bookended by Memoriam and Memorial, the same melody played out twice, once as introductory acoustic instrumental and once as sullen yet beautiful closer featuring the vocal’s of Chelsea Wolfe, a woman who can’t get into a review without the word ‘goth’ featuring somewhere along the way. Her’s aren’t the first vocals to appear on a Russian Circles song, but whereas on Empros’ Praise Be Man they felt like the act of a band out of ideas (often the case when a band folds it’s instrumental hand and brings in a singer) this feels entirely natural. Her words are barely audible, her voice wrapped in echo and reverb, playing out purely as an instrument that fits seemlessly into their sound and adds a mournful, elegiac texture. It’s an album and arguably career highlight and a brilliant way to play out the album.
In between these two pillars stand 6 tracks. From the brooding, ominous sounds of Deficit’s impending doom to to Burial’s chugging, insistent riffs and stratosphere-scraping effect-laden melodies via the heroic, oddly uplifting fret-tappathon of Ethel (a fantastic name for an instrumental metal song that has me praying that if Red Sparowes return anytime soon they ditch the pompous chapter length song titles and call their next track Mildred). It’s shorter album than they’ve produced before which works in it’s favour – it seldom loses the attention of the listener, often the curse of instrumental work.
If you pay attention to the prevailing trends in music these days there’s a good chance you think post-rock/metal/whatever has had it’s day and no longer has any relevance. And perhaps you’re right – there’s a good chance Memorial will mostly be discussed as either a counterpoint or an an exception to that rule. It matters not – whilst a lot of bands of their ilk struggle to find a next level to go to Russian Circles always seem to get a step ahead. This time I’m not going to rule them out pulling something as thrilling as Memorial out of the bag the next time they find their way into the studio.