When I decided to review Russian Circles I had no idea that they were instrumental. I thought for some reason unbeknownst to me that they were a post hardcore band. So when doing some pre-gig research I was terrified to find there was no vocals for me to write about. I was out of my comfort zone.
However, with six albums and over ten years into their career, the same cannot be said about the band. They have solidified their place among the pioneers of the avant-garde side of metal, particularly with their 2016 album, ‘Guidance‘.
The Empire is packed on this Thursday night, bodies crammed everywhere, such is the draw of their music. The support comes from Cloakroom, who definitely fit the post hardcore label, and are well suited as openers for the main act. On tracks like “Paperweight” I feel transported to my teens as it reminds me of 90’s alternative rock. That’s no bad thing! Newer song “Big World” trades more in distortion but still has that garage band early 90s feel. Definitely a band to further investigate and listen to.
When the three piece Russian Circles enter the stage and begin with “Asa” from Guidance, the crowd is in rapture. The music is atmospheric and dark and with crashing symbols. For me, it is evocative of a rough sea crashing against rocks on a dark night. This gives way to the towering riffs that collide into each other in “Vorel“. There is a sea of nodding heads as everyone is taken over by the music and moving along to the heavy drums and the reverb of the guitar. “Deficit” has a Deftones vibe for me and, at this stage, I am getting used to the no vocals thing. At times, I feel like my own head imagines possible vocal lines for the songs. It’s a new experience for me.
For a three piece, they have a lot of stage presence and make a lot of noise, with Mike Sullivan on guitar, Dave Turncrantz on drums and Brian Cook on bass. I think it’s fair to say that the band’s music is largely centered around the drums. For me, they are the focal point of each song and the guitar and bass build around them. On “309″ from 2011’s Empros it is impossible to not be mesmerised by the wall of sound created and it solicits cheers from the crowd, who have mainly been silently captivated so far.
On “Harper Lewis” from 2008’s Station, its easier to see the evolution of the band. This track is a bass heavy affair married with off kilter drumming – a perfect match, which is then decorated with blistering guitar riffs and the song simply explodes. This is followed by “Afrika” from the most recent offering, 2016’s Guidance, and although these two songs sit 8 years apart, they both sound as fresh as each other. Afrika is a beautifully hypnotic piece and the melody line played by the guitar is captivating. It is cinematic and expansive and on one hand you cannot stop watching the three guys on stage, but its also easy for your mind to drift. I found it strangely relaxing.
“1777,” from 2013’s Memorial album, is a gorgeous track which calls to my mind their peers Coheed and Cambria with its multi layered instrumental and swirling guitar sounds. “Mota,” whilst a more recent offering, sits happily alongside the older tracks with its arpeggio guitar and takes the full focus for this track. There’s even some air guitar from a chap who is enraptured by the music near me.
“Mladek” is up next and it has a discordant unsettling feel to it, it’s not a favourite of mine from the set. The band briefly exit the stage and re-appear to end the set on the monolith which is “Youngblood“. It is intense, syncopated and yet harmonious and and the perfect set finisher for Russian Circles.
The crowd are all satisfied with the performance they’ve witnessed as they leave into the chilly March night. I have to give a shout out to the guy wearing the Death Metal Ireland shirt who checked a few times that I could see the stage and he wasn’t blocking my view. The metal gigs I’ve attended in Belfast have always been the friendliest, safest places and you are treated somewhat like family because you are there to share the love for a band.
Russian Circles, however, defy genre definition, metal, post hardcore, post rock, post metal – it’s all unimportant when you actually see them live. They captivate yet send you somewhere else, a very difficult task indeed. They definitely won me over.