Friday, November 4, 2011

Russian Circles - Empros (2011)

The "post" prefix is exploding in popularity, finding itself placed in front of every musical style, from rock to hardcore. But there are so many expectations that come along with those four genre bending letters, and a vague sense of meaning seems to accompany their use. Russian Circles have, throughout their discography, sought to define what the genre is, rather than what it can or should be. On "Empros," they try to take an evolved stance, a strong sense of timing, and a new found love of low end to the top of the heap.

The soft, clean tones quickly descend into a dirty mix, taking "309" to top speed in no time flat. This is definitely that heavy edge that so many "post"-anything bands miss out on, often choosing to go with a more atmospheric approach. Tempo and mood changes abound, the smashing of the drum kit accenting each new section. The sound of the kick drum, in particular, is enough to keep your eyes wide open. The production is raw, but not in the traditional sense. Rather, it maintains the integrity of each instrument, without covering them in the gelatinous goo of pitch corrected, over processed computer work. Thankfully, this choice leaves us with a bass line that is both disturbing and welcomed. There remains a sense of unwashed purity in each note, as honest as the concept itself. Even as the track fades into the remnants of chords and distortion, it is hard to believe it is actually over.

There is a decidedly more melodic approach in "Mladek," with clean guitar tones echoing in the sea of snares and cymbals. This is not to say that mood set in the opening track is immediately tossed aside. You will still fill the darker side holding on to some of the lower register chords and bass slides. Tracks like this one seem to have purpose, going from point "a" to point "b" in a clearly visible way. I refuse to use the word "predictable" to describe it, but if a Shyamalan-esque twist is what you crave, you won't find it here. Instead, you run head on into a strong, guitar driven track that relies more on timing than momentum, moving along in a logical progression from beginning to end. A brisk chugging outro is the perfect means to an end. The band's evolution is never more evident than on "Schiphol." Melodic, airy, and rich, the opening stanzas are played with a deft hand and steady fingers. With each clean guitar strum, each singular kick drum stomp, you are woven into the fabric of the track, surrounded by threads of notes fading. Finally, it all comes down, and the same concept that made the song beautiful now brings you to your feet. The rhythm section is formidable, taking the low end to places this band rarely sees, guiding the wailing guitar notes down the winding path to greatness.

The air of beauty continues into the early moments of "Atackla," acoustic tones softly falling to your ears. But as the plucking becomes more forceful, you get the sneaking suspicion that something is afoot. Snares enter, then the rest of the drum kit. Each crashing cymbals tangled with the clean tones, erupting in a rattling show of distorted strength. The same melody repeats, but fades into the mix, overwhelmed by the sheer murkiness of the guitars. You will surely leave this fray bruised and bloody, tossed around on the wave of sludge mastery. But, like a life this time of year, the delicate outro will allow you to float back to Earth. Don't expect a gentle dust off, though, as "Batu" surrounds you in a haze of reverb and delay. This could be the "post-metal for dummies" handbook, as it guides you through all of the best elements the genre has to offer. It combines melody with massive riffs, backed by an incomparable presence of percussion. Fast to slow, slow to fast, the tempo changes allow for each individual piece to shine. Layer upon layer of distortion, settling upon one another in a sonic assault.

Having weathered the unrelenting storm, the finale is your reward. While the intro may seem like little more than assorted noises and feedback, "Praise Be Man" is much more than that. The near lullaby feel puts your mind at ease, with muddled but soft lyrics easing your eye lids. The key to the entire sound lies in the production, flawed but necessarily so. No need to be cleaned up, polished and corrected. The bass slides into action, as gritty as a bass can be. Guitars hum to each side, notes high and piercing. Until it all disappears.

Russian Circles are innovators, taking the post-rock/post-metal genre to its limits. They have continued to push the boundaries of their music, and you, the listener, are the one reaping the rewards. Six tracks and over forty minutes of music later, we are left with a clear idea of what that "post" really means. Throughout "Empros," you get a taste of clean and distorted, heavy and soft, light and dark. Those contrasting characteristics define Russian Circles, and, in turn, define their genre.


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