Russian Circles | Blood Year | Album review

Review by: Jimmy Hutchinson

Chicagoans Russian Circles have been steadily releasing material since 2004’s self-titled EP, and Blood Year is their seventh LP to date.

The record begins with the mournful, restrained ‘Hunter Moon’, before segueing rapidly into album highlight ‘Arluck’. This second track begins with insistent drumming and a distorted bassline, before guitarist Mike Sullivan unleashes a series of intricate lines and riffs which jump out of both sides of the stereo field. Despite its sonic assault, the track is restrained in its layering, and therefore retains a fairly sparse quality. This allows the drums – recorded in Steve Albini’s studio – room to breathe.

Blood Year may arguably be Russian Circles’ heaviest and least compromising record yet, although the band members take their time to develop the dynamics on even the busiest tracks. ‘Kohokia’, for example, features an excellent performance from the rhythm section (Dave Turncrantz on drums and Brian Cook on bass), who anchor the piece while Sullivan runs through a varied set of textures – including an uplifting harmonic break reminiscent of 2011’s ‘Mladek’.

Most of the songs are over six minutes long – the two quieter, shorter pieces serving as introductions to each side of the record. ‘Sinaia’ is Blood Year’s longest piece, and one of its most intense. After seven minutes of furious tremolo picking, the guitars drop out altogether, leaving Turncrantz to finish the track on his own.

Judging by the relentless, sludgy riffs on ‘Quartered’, someone was ‘hung and drawn’ too… It’s a dark and stormy end from a band who have often finished their albums with quieter, pensive pieces (e.g. ‘Praise Be Man’ on 2011’s Empros, or the title track on 2013’s Memorial). 15 years into their career, Russian Circles show no signs of compromising their vision, although their ability to structure tracks and balance dynamics continues to grow.

Blood Year is available on vinyl and CD (or as a digital download) from Sargent House on the 2nd of August. Make sure you get a copy, and try to catch them live as well.


Brian Cook from Russian Circles talks to us about upcoming UK gigs and more

GJB had a chat with Brian Cook from Russian Circles ahead of their tour. They have managed to squeeze in a couple of UK dates. Catch them in Leeds 15th May and London 16th May 2018.

Guidance still feels really fresh, exciting and new to me. Writing is I realise it’s nearly two years since it was released. Do the songs still feel new to you? What is your favourite song to perform from that record?

We recorded Guidance back in December of 2015, so most of the material is over two-and-a-half years old for us at this point. But most of last year was spent on the road with Mastodon where we were playing four songs spanning our whole catalog, so we didn’t touch upon much from the new record. It’s a bit surreal because the record now feels pretty old, but given the circumstances we haven’t exhausted ourselves on it yet. I still enjoy playing all the songs off the record, though “Afrika” is probably my favorite.

The Mastodon tour last year, seemed like a great pairing style-wise, how were you received? How does it feel to finally get out and play full sets again?

We went into the tour with some trepidation. We’re all Mastodon fans, and we’re all admirers of how they’ve charted their own musical path and rejected a lot of metal conventions, but we’re wary of the more mainstream rock world. We’ve garnered a cool grassroots fanbase and there was some concern about drawing in new people. That might sound elitist, but one rotten apple that stirs up trouble in the crowd can ruin a whole show. And there’s always a little uncertainty when you open for a bigger band because there’s no guarantee another band’s audience is going to appreciate what you’re doing. I don’t want to have to police crowds or deal with knucklehead behaviour. We’re comfortable and content with our current size, and we’re happy that folks that come to our show tend to be respectful both to us and to other attendees. So we viewed the tour as a gamble, but we also wanted to try something different, so we went for it. Fortunately, there is a strong cerebral component to Mastodon and that translates into a fanbase that has an actual appreciation for the music instead of just a bunch of dudes looking for a soundtrack for pushing each other around. We were fortunate to go over well with their crowd, but it feels good to play to our audience again.

You have limited stops in the UK this time around but I’m really excited to see you in Leeds again, the Brudenell show in 2015 was one of my favourite gigs of all time! How do you find UK audiences compared to home and any plans to tour here more extensively?

The UK feels pretty similar to the US in terms of audiences. There’s a bigger disparity between UK crowds and European crowds. I think a lot of that stems from nightlife culture. UK venues feel a lot like US venues in that they have a nightclub feel to them, so people tend to be in more of a party headspace. European venues tend to feel more like dedicated performance spaces or art centers, so the vibe feels a little more like a cultural event. I like the vibe of both. I like people letting their hair down and having a good time, but I also like shows being treated as these art-focused communal events. This will be our fifth trip across the Atlantic on this record, so it’ll likely be our last tour over there for awhile.

Any plans to record a follow up to Guidance once touring is complete? Can you give us an insight into your songwriting process? Are the songs born in the studio or do you get together and write as beforehand?

We meant to get started on the new album last spring but all the support tours put the writing process on hold. Since we all live in different corners of the US, we can’t just meet up a couple of times a week to jam. We have to block out weeks of time where we all convene in Chicago to work. We’ll come up with song bits and pieces individually in the meantime, but they don’t really come together until we’re all in one room. So hopefully this summer we can start threading together all the riffs and arrangement ideas and get something together to record in the fall.

Any Festival plans for this year?

Just the ones we’re doing on this upcoming tour… Dunk!, Freakvalley, a few more.

What is the last gig you went to as a punter?

It was either Kikagaku Moyo or Grails and Daniel Higgs. Or maybe it was this local Seattle d-beat band called Fucked & Bound. I just moved back to Seattle from NYC a few weeks before this tour started and I went to a bunch of shows in that time. Can’t keep the timeline straight though.

What album or band are you currently listening to and just can’t get enough of?

It’s a toss up between Can and Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. The Can obsession has been a continuous exponential growth over the last decade-and-a-half, and now i’m finally delving into the late era albums where Czukay relinquished bass duties.  Exile just gets better with every listen and sounds good in every environment, so it’s my current default album when I can’t decide what else to listen to.

Russian Circles UK tour 2018

Russian Circles play Leeds Stylus on 15th May 2018. They’re bringing Brutus with them too! Which should prove amazing, I’m really looking forward to their set. Here’s a teaser. Make sure you get down early!

MASTODON | RED FANG | RUSSIAN CIRCLES – December 2017 – Northumbria Uni – REVIEW

Mastodon | Red Fang | Russian Circles – 6th December 2017 – Northumbria Uni

Review by Neil Ainger

I hate to lean on an old cliche but I am reminded of the saying that ‘good things come in threes’. Not a saying worth putting any stock in, of course. For starters, there also exists the saying ‘bad luck comes in threes’ and for that matter, if we believe there to be any real meaning in sayings such as these, good things also ‘come to those who wait’ and ‘come in small packages’. On this particular evening, however, good things almost certainly came in threes when Mastodon rolled into town with two heavyweights in tow.

The significance of the occasion was not lost on the majority of those coming out to see one of heavy metals current big hitters and a very healthy number of people ensured they were on time to catch Russian Circles kick the night off early on.

I feel as though bands that play post-rock and post-rock metal are often handed support slots because they set the tone for the rest of the evening. A kind of slow-burning and easily digested introduction to proceedings.

To make such claims about Russian Circles, however, would be nothing short of an insult. Delicate, fragile and effortlessly intricate one moment, as they slowly build a precisely crafted atmosphere, and chaotic the next as they tear it all down to the ground with intense and explosive riffage. The instrumental trio from Chicago are worthy of so much more than their quick half an hour set on this evening.

Red Fang from Portland, Oregon are no strangers to opening for some heavy hitters. Serving as the support for Opeth and In Flames will teach you all you need about working some big tours I’m sure. It’s, therefore, no surprise that the stoner riffers are about as professional as you could ask for, rifling through track after track while never forgetting to engage the audience and have a little fun.

Red Fang are a welcome reminder to those amongst us attracted more closely to the gloom and the doom that metal can be fun, while not sacrificing any credibility. Charging through favourites such as ‘Hank is Dead’, ‘Blood Like Cream’, ‘Wires’ and ‘Crows in Swine’, the crowd were full to capacity and primed and ready for the closer ‘Prehistoric Dog’ which landed predictably well.

By the time Mastodon took the stage there was barely a space to fill, made only too apparent by the arduous task of battling one’s way to the bar or to the toilets. With their two most recent albums making the top 20 in the UK and the top 10 in the US, the shift towards more commercially friendly music in recent years has been notable.

In fact, Mastodon have shown a real skill for writing compact, hooky, dare I say pop songs. The setlist on this evening was understandably dominated by tracks from the latest record, ‘Emperor of Sand’, with ‘Sultans Curse’, ‘Show Yourself’, ‘Precious Stones’, ‘Steambreather,’ ‘Roots Remain,’ ‘Ancient Kingdom’ and ‘Andromeda’ all featuring. Opinion is likely divided, but I feel the new material blends effortlessly into the fabric of a live Mastodon experience. Some of it perhaps lack the punch of a ‘Colony of Birchmen’, which was met with nothing but a positive energy, the tech-metal trademark sound of the likes of ‘Megalodon’, which sent the pit a few paces in front of me in to overdrive, or the complexity of the 13 minute ‘The Last Baron’, the closing track to the bands progressive metal masterpiece ‘Crack the Skye’ and a somewhat odd but welcome choice to open the show.

Mastodon are a band that haven’t forgotten where they came from and while the albums ‘Remission’, ‘Leviathan’ and ‘Blood Mountain’ are certainly not represented in the way they once were, the tracks that do make the cut offer the perfect balance to both remind us of where they have come while celebrating where they are. By the time the band close the set with eternal favourite ‘Blood and Thunder’, the pit has had a decent workout for the evening.