The label “post rock” is one that is rather dissatisfying when it is levelled at so many artists who create broad guitar based soundscapes. This generalisation will most probably be used to define the sound of Chicago based three-piece Russian Circles. “Memorial” is their fifth release, and far from feeling formulaic, the album shows a band that have many disparate layers of sound at their disposal.
Opening with the gently lilting ‘Memorium’ which weaves an almost sinister guitar line through fragile layers of keyboard, ‘Deficit’ fills the space with a downpour of guitar, bass and thundering percussion. Chord progressions aggressively propel the tune forward, increasing passion and tension, and leaving nothing in their wake.
“Post rock” can be characterised by a sense of drifting in sound and intensity, whereas the overall sense here is impetus and pushing ever onward. The tension is broken on ‘1777’ but the underlying unease remains. The overall ambience could not be described as heavy and dense, as the guitars in particular have a heavy lean towards the treble, but the ethereal is never far from the mix. Again, the intensity builds, ebbs and flows, which holds the concentration and the attentive listener.
‘Cheyenne’ continues the ominous narrative, with fragile arpeggios overlapping echoing layers of guitar, before ‘Burial’ increases the momentum and reintroduces the wall of sound guitar and bass riffs. The spiking guitar lines on ‘Ethel’ bring hope and a sense of salvation following on from the menacing onslaught that came before. Now we have a piece of music that is uplifting, almost spiritual, in essence. The authoritative, clamouring drums are at the forefront of ‘Lebaron’ whilst the guitar lines appear to enter at right angles and add familiar attitude. The album’s journey comes to a close with the reintroduction of the ‘Memorium’, titles ‘Memorial’ which uses the opening tracks framework and adds the friable vocal lines of Chelsea Wolfe. This technique gives the impression that the story has ended where it begun and in same way provides reassurance to the experience.
Cover art by Ryan Russell should not be ignored in an appraisal of this release as the stark, almost Scandinavian landscape imagery is the perfect companion to the music found within. A sadly neglected aspect of album releases nowadays, it is good to see that attention is still being paid to imagery and environment.
“Post rock” would be a convenient way of categorising the sound of Russian Circles on “Memorial” as a way of introducing those who are unaware of the bands body of work. But it is inadequate in conveying the subtle nuances present, and the layers of emotion aroused, on this release. It has been suggested that the album concerns itself with the five stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance, as described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book “Death and Dying”. If this were not to be the case, the allegory is still beautifully apposite.