Chicago trio Russian Circles is one of those bands that has been churning out a run of consistently good records for the best part of a decade now. Essentially they have been honing the same sound over that time: a blend of post-rock and instrumental metal with the very occasional addition of vocals (Chelsea Wolfe made a guest appearance on their last album). Although you could make the argument that they have yet to make a truly great album, it is just as easy to argue that all of their albums have moments of greatness on them.
As such, a headlining show at El Rey Theatre was the perfect stage for a seriously impressive career retrospective. Although they are nominally touring in support of last year’s fine album, Memorial, the setlist last Monday drew from their entire career. It was a display of power and subtlety that showed just how good an outfit Russian Circles has become. The three-piece has the simplest of setups: a two-man rhythm section (bassist Brian Cook, formerly of the excellent and now-defunct Botch, and guitarist Mike Sullivan, who uses a variety of loop pedals to create a soundscape built from nimble finger picking and monster riffs) that can provide subtlety or thunder depending on what the song requires of them.
The latter of those is perhaps most crucial to the appeal of Russian Circles. For a band that draws on post-rock, they really do remember how to actually rock. Several of these pieces swelled into a mighty wall of sound, enough to reach us on the balcony and consistently drown out the voices of those who insisted on talking throughout the show. As Sullivan layered on the guitars, the drums and bass drove the momentum to the point where it was difficult to know whether to sit back and let the sound wash over you or simply jump around like a lunatic. This was music for both chin strokers and mosh pits.
As if to accentuate the point about their career-long consistency, the two best moments of the show occurred with something old and something new.
“Carpe” was the very first track off Russian Circles’ debut album, but the performance of the song at El Rey, which alternated between chiming, quieter sections and crushing heaviness, merely confirmed that the band had it right from the very beginning. The fret tapping employed during the track was something Sullivan used to minimal effect, which served to heighten its impact.
The other major highlight was “1777,” the centerpiece of Russian Circles’ latest album and probably the greatest track they’ve recorded. It’s the kind of song that truly earns the overused word “epic,” and it sounded immense as the glorious climax seemed to swell the walls of the building. It was a stunning example of why Russian Circles remain relevant, not to mention their being an excellent live band. I went into this show with moderately high expectations only to see them impressively exceeded.
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