Sound — 6
Russian Circles is a three-piece band from Chicago. Since their first EP in 2004, they have played an ambient form of music that can be described either as post-rock or post-metal, though I would consider it closer to post-metal due to their use of chugging riffs and heavy distortion. Still, many of their songs are very soft and use quite the opposite of these techniques, keeping them in the territory of post-rock as well.
Semantics aside, the prime goal of Russian Circles is to create an experience for the listener. While many will disagree with me, I believe that their lack of vocals (all but one of these songs are instrumentals) actually makes it harder to create an experience because it leaves the task of interpreting the experience to the listener whereas other bands (Led Zeppelin) force the listener to interpret the experience in a certain way.
Maybe it's due to my lack of creativeness, but I fail to register any direct experience with this album. The musicianship is somewhat interesting (for all I know this has more mathematical calculations than a Tool album), and the transitions between sections are flawless, but this album fails to connect with me. The only thing I can feel is the idea that the setting for this album is in some post-apocalyptic future, although the song titles indicate a veiled US history lesson.
This album, though the songs are interconnected, can be easily cut into two halves. The first three songs feel more like a drumming montage; the drums are creative center of attention while the guitars lay the baseline. The second half, starting with "Cheyenne," is guitar centered with the drums providing the baseline, as is usually the case in rock music. The eerie thing is that "Cheyenne" is devoid of drums, so I feel like it's a signal of the transition I've mentioned.
As far as the guitars go, they set a nice landscape and have a few good riffs here and there but they aren't really a big deal. Other than the nice, peaceful tapping on "Ethel" and the quick rhythm on a certain part of "Deficit," there isn’t really much to say for them. Even when they were the center of attention during the second half of the album, the guitars were not that remarkable. Honestly, drummer Dave Turncrantz showed the best musicianship on the album. His parts were much more engaging and interesting to listen to than the guitars or bass was.
One of the positives of the album, as I mentioned before, is its ability to transition between different sections beautifully. The album is best divided into sections because all of the songs literally blend into each other, usually in an extended chord of feedback. Anyway, these sections range in sound from the subtlest acoustic guitar to the sludgiest distorted guitar, yet the changes are hardly noticed and everything flows in harmony as one, single unit.
However, the album still, after a second full listen, does not make me experience anything distinct. Since there isn't much that is tangible in this album, like a catchy riff or chorus, the album's appeal rests almost solely on the experience imposed. And again, I cannot feel one.
Of course, other listeners will almost certainly feel differently than I do and since these types of albums rely almost solely on the "experience," which is an extraordinarily subjective phenomenon, I can say with sincerity that my opinion will not speak for all, maybe not even most, listeners. The point of that very long sentence was to convey a word of advice; give this album a listen; you most certainly will feel different than I do.
Lyrics — 6
Most of this album is instrumental, though the last song (section) has some shoegaze-like vocals by Chelsea Wolfe. On that note, it's interesting to note that the first and last songs follow the same rough structure and use the exact same quiet progression in an apparent tribute to a Pink Floyd album. The sad thing is that neither section appears innately related to the rest of the album and the ending seems somewhat forced. Still, these sections managed to transition well between the more relevant parts of the album. On their own, the sections sound fine. They just feel forced into this album-starts-and-ends-the-same mold.
Overall Impression — 5
Overall, this experiment in experience falls short. While the sections are beautifully intertwined, there is no easily discernible meaning, at least to me. Again, since the idea of an "experience" is subjective, I encourage everyone to give this album a listen because while it didn't strike a chord with me, there is certainly nothing in it that would immediately turn anybody off.
For anybody looking for something melodic, the best song to listen to would be "Ethel."