4 out of 5
Produced by: Brandon Curtis
Label: Suicide Squeeze (CD version)
My most common complaint about Russian Circles (as in: every album) is that, despite enjoying their music, I’m always hearing other groups. They are always indebted to one sound or another, too much for me to definitively identify anything as belonging to them. At the start, it was definitely groups of the Pelican / Matt Bayles / metal variety; latter years went more toward Mogwai soundscapes. It makes sense that they’d have to transition at some point, yes?
Guidance is that transition point. It’s also – interestingly, as it sits between two “sounds like” endpoints – the album where they emerge as their own identity. Perhaps it was the fresh blood of Secret Machines-er Brandon Curtis on production, and maybe that did or didn’t encourage the excellently used addition of Alison Chesley’s cello, Susan Volez’s violin, and good ol’ Greg Norman’s horns, but whatever the genesis of the version of Russian Circles evident here, the way they surge between math dynamics (the title track) to epic fighting sprints (the appropriately titled ‘Melee’) to glacial and contemplative moments (‘Hexed All’) is radical. This would have been the album of fulfilled promise for me; the extra instrumentation isn’t an aborted attempt at lushness so much as exactly what’s needed for the mood – which concisely comes across as passionate to me, through and through – to be elevated.
Dave Turncratz’s drumming is especially impressive, or perhaps its the groove the group is able to achieve. Tracks such as ‘Malko’ have the core trio ebbing and flowing as one, slightly off time but supporting one another so that it’s likely an intended stutter-step. The only letdown is the doubled up long-running tracks at album’s end – When the Mountain Comes to Mohammed and Philos. Individually, these tracks display some excellent instincts, with Mountain taking its down to burble into a controlled release – not all out, just a clenched fist, but it’s the right touch – and Philos a masterpiece of withheld fury, never breaking but playing with the expectation. These tracks together total 18 minutes. The problem is that this is a back-to-back promise of an explosion that never comes; an explosion the group proves their capable of creating earlier on the disc, so it definitely sets us up to want something a bit more rattling to go out on…
Worse sins have been committed, though. And the fact that, despite this, I’d still consider these two songs as wholly original works (though leaning more toward their Mogwai stuff in the to-come albums…) adds to the overall highly positive impression the album leaves.