Russian Circles have continued their ambitious exploration of ambience and heaviness on Empros, the fourth studio album from the Chicago post-metal trio. Station showed their ability to write polished, well-structured songs, and Geneva brought out visceral, unusual, and discordant sounds. Empros is their heaviest album yet, with machine-like rhythms and subliminal noises. Bassist Brian Cook plays melodically and locks in with Dave Turncrantz’s hip-hop influenced drums better than ever. Cook also sings on the final track, "Praise Be Man", making him the first vocalist to be featured in Russian Circles’ music. As always, the transitions between songs are masterful and delicate, providing the glue for the album and solidifying its overall mood.
"309" opens the album with a wavering organ drone and soft, flowing fuzz like steam through a pipe. I assumed Mike Sullivan’s simple, discordant guitar part would build slowly and smoothly over time like the introductions to their other albums, but the snare cracks after a brief lull, pushing the drums into a fast, unique beat accompanied by driving guitar chords. Producer Brandon Curtis (Geneva producer, live keyboardist for Interpol) and his co-engineer Mike Lust (singer/guitarist for Tight Phantomz) captured Turncrantz’s signature drum sound at Chicago’s Phantom Manor Studio with full, bright tone on all parts of the kit -- especially the cymbals. The drums groove along to the monstrous slides of the distorted bass, and a clear, semi-hidden ringing sound slowly moves between the left and right speaker. A sludgy half-time section with hypnotic arpeggios and feedback drops off to droning guitar, and the bass and drums synchronize on lurching rhythms until the track ends in feedback and ambience.
The second track "Mladek" is available for streaming and download below. With upbeat guitar riffs that eventually turn dark, "Mladek" is Empros' equivalent to Geneva's "Malko". During one of the bass-dominated sections, Sullivan uses heavy effects to create an extended pick slide that resembles a hawk’s scream. At high volumes it’s enough to get my heart pumping, leaving me in an elevated state of awareness when it cleanly cuts off for the tight, distorted riff. They end amidst a fury of blast beats, accented by intentionally choppy cymbals and a beeping time bomb sound that floats through the mix.
The relaxing first half of "Schipol" features an acoustic guitar -- a first for Russian Circles. A tremolo-picked electric guitar hints at tones from Explosions in the Sky’s All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, and the band eventually crashes down with intense, distorted chords that sound explosive without crossing into metal territory. The last chord decays while orchestral strings moan and squeak, transforming into something more melodic for the beginning of "Atackla". The guitar in "Atackla" transitions from ambient to precise, allowing Turncrantz to play a complex beat that sets an odd rhythm for the rest of the piece to follow.
The dark and heavy "Batu" ends with a long, soothing drone, and it feels like the album is over until the acoustic guitar of "Praise Be Man" emerges. "Man"'s lyrics are muddied by reverb and not easy to hear, though based on the few lines I think I understood, it could have a secular-humanist message. Just as a meditative feeling sets in, Cook’s bass comes out of nowhere with a new, loud distortion tone to finish the album triumphantly.
Russian Circles will play Chicago's Lincoln Hall on December 3 with Young Widows and Chicago locals Anatomy of Habit.
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