“We should totally start an instrumental band and just jam,” said someone, somewhere, in the last few minutes. Sure, there’s a fair point to be made about instrumental bands that wear out their welcome after the first 10 minutes of a single hook building into what amounts to an epic wheeze. Groups who do it successfully tend to deliver “compositions” rather than songs, forcing listeners to gaze down the barrel of redundancy for the better part of an hour. While that might elicit nightmares of sanctimonious dudes in tweed jackets, think of the opposite end of the spectrum: Jagger-channeling, attention-demanding vocalist. If you’re going to go instrumental, the drama of the music usually needs to up the ante to fill that void.
That’s not to say that bands with a vocalists can phone it in while the singer dances around. It’s just that bands who choose to engage their listeners directly sans vocalist should, by virtue of that choice, be that much more cognizant of just where the hell the music is going and how they plan on taking it there. With their latest, Guidance, instrumental rock outfit Russian Circles again avoid treating their music like a post-rock Lego set or treating said Lego set as if the instructions were written by a four-year-old who’s been freebasing Pixy Stix for a month. Instead, they take an “anything goes” approach that avoids the “anything else but this please” results. Instead, they mindfully arrange their music with an eye for weight and listeners’ attention spans.
The 10 years since Russian Circles’ first record have been good to the Chicago-based trio. That debut, 2006’s Enter, garnered the band enough attention to earn a spot as opening act for Tool on their UK tour. Perhaps even more noteworthy than the success of their early years, though, is the fact that Russian Circles’ five releases since then have not only expanded upon that formula, but continuously reinvented it. Rather than spend their time building on a strong start, the trio have managed to give each of their albums its own distinct narrative, a powerful unpredictability from a predictably outstanding act. Guidance adds another tremendous chapter to that tome.
While Russian Circles have avoided the pitfalls of repetition in instrumental music, there are of course similarities and connections within and between tracks. Bassist Brian Cook’s penchant for taking his instrument on Moog-induced acid trips is a welcome touchstone, largely because it dovetails with the just as potent dynamics of his bandmates. Mike Sullivan’s versatility as a guitarist easily rivals any of his contemporaries and Dave Turncrantz continues his incredibly discerning and effective drumming. Taking as many cues from Godspeed You! Black Emperor as they do Genesis, the trio maintains a firm grasp on the minimalist ebb and flow of the former underscored by the hook-laden melodic complexities of the latter.
From the outset, Guidance is a clear removal from its predecessor, the more brooding Memorial. While that album was arguably the band at their darkest, these seven songs have replaced finely tuned feels with what just might be the heaviest music yet from Russian Circles. Guidance isn’t a collection of slapped together riff-slop, though. A testament to the aforementioned consistency, the album at times seems like a clever sendup of the band’s debut. Though Russian Circles haven’t eclipsed their best work, Guidance is more a subtle nod to the coexistent depths and heights that have defined and run through the band’s music from the very outset.
Essential Tracks: “Vorel”, “Afrika”, and “Calla”