Chicago post-metal trio Russian Circles don't so much write songs as build them, piece by piece. It goes like this: Guitarist Mike Sullivan presents ideas, drummer Dave Turncrantz picks some that he likes and then the two start "working out skeletons of songs," bassist Brian Cook says. Those skeletons are then shipped to Cook, who lives in New York, where he adds his bass lines and begins an extensive editing process.
"We kind of just do it in layers," Cook says. "Having been in bands in the past where songwriting is everyone getting into one room and trying to play over the other person so their part comes out on top, it feels a lot easier to do it this way. It's very focused. Very diplomatic."
Which is not to say that tension doesn't occasionally run high when three bright minds focus on one tiny part of the puzzle. But Sullivan and Turncrantz have been making music as Russian Circles since 2004, and Cook joined them in 2007 after stints in heavy Northwest bands Botch and These Arms are Snakes. The trio's time together and their proven results across five albums have given each man a set of tools to deal with the kind of conflict that's splintered countless other bands.
"In this band, I think we're pretty good at realizing that just because one-third of the band likes an idea doesn't mean it's a good idea," Cook says. "So, there will always be more riffs. There will always be more bass lines. There will always be more drum parts. You've just got to move on."
That attitude is working. Last year, the band released its fifth album, Memorial, a typically thunderous work that straddles the blurry line between sludge-metal and shimmering post-rock, this time with a heavier-than-ever dose of dark, somber atmosphere. After a delicate, fingerpicked intro called "Memoriam," the band gets brutal on "Deficit," which churns slowly for three minutes before surging into a storm of heavy-metal riff-bludgeoning. Later, the stout and buzzy "Burial" is a window into Russian Circles' pitch-black nasty streak.
Elsewhere, "1777" and "Ethel" find the band harnessing the euphoric power of post-rock. The former swells for five minutes before a crescendo of cymbal crashes and Sullivan's skyscraping guitar sweeps, while the latter's sunrise-on-Mars vibe lets a little light into Memorial. And on the closing title track, gorgeously gauzy vocals by experimental drone-folk artist Chelsea Wolfe (who's toured with Russian Circles) rise and reverberate as the album fades out, cementing its downcast feel.
Russian Circles play Jan. 25 at Soda Bar
Wolfe's incantations cap a record that showcases not only Russian Circles' muscle, but also their sense of restraint. In a genre where the temptation to wring marathon running times out of each song runs rampant, Sullivan, Turncrantz and Cook use their sharp eye for editing to ensure their output is more meat than fat. Memorial clocks in at less than 40 minutes, with only two songs extending past five minutes. It's a masterwork of efficient (mostly) instrumental music, and of making epic music without tipping over into bloat.
This month, Russian Circles is playing a series of 10th-anniversary shows—a milestone worth celebrating for any band, but particularly for one that continues to attract larger audiences while playing a niche style of music.
"I think everyone in the band's kind of stunned that it's been able to sustain itself this long, you know?" Cook says. "I don't think a lot of bands are able to get to five albums without imploding or breaking up or throwing in the towel because people start having careers or family life. But somehow we've sort of been able to keep it going and keep people interested."
Russian Circles will spend much of 2015 touring internationally, with a European trek planned for April and stops at the prestigious Roadburn Festival (in the Netherlands) and Hellfest (in France) on the docket. But they've already begun talking about a follow-up to Memorial, Cook says. And that album's somber tone is likely to carry on to the next one.
"Mike just says he wants to bum everyone out," Cook says with a laugh. Russian Circles want to make their music "more and more depressing and dark. One of the muses that Mike's had in mind while he's been writing riffs is he wants to replicate the feeling of having a dream where you're about to die, and what that feels like in that dream."
Sounds bleak, to say the least. But Russian Circles have established a way to get there. Indeed, talking about the band's aesthetic aim going forward sparks a memory in Cook's mind—of a moment during the making of Memorial when the trio's democratic song-building process was tested. And it passed.
"We were trying out different ideas, and Mike had this riff that was a very classic, '80s thrash-metal riff. I was on the fence about it, and Dave was, like, Eh, I don't know. I'm not feeling it.' And Mike said, What's wrong with this riff? It's a great riff. Why is this riff bad?'" Cook says.
"I was, like, Mike, in your defense, I think it's a good riff. It's a really fun riff,'" he continues, his voice trailing off a bit. "And Mike was, like, Stop. I understand. It's out.' Fun riffs are not allowed in this band. Once someone says something is fun, it's, like, Oh, OK. We're throwing that shit out.' "No fun here."
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