We have already seen the first great death of post-metal. Last decade, the style exploded in the underground — spearheaded by groups like Neurosis, Isis, and Pelican — and we soon found that there was nary an underground metal group against dosing their work with the post-hardcore and doom metal movements of the genre, whether it be in their main work or in side projects. At the time, Russian Circles was a well-acclaimed group in the middle of the pack, producing records such as Enter and especially Station that are held up alongside works by Cult of Luna and Minsk as some of the best deeper cuts of the genre.
As the decade wore on and the 2010s were just on the horizon, though, the genre seemed to die out. First, Neurosis slowed their output to near zero, then Isis disbanded (still the largest blow the genre suffered). It seemed that the zeitgeist had moved on, with even the more abstract approaches to the genre in groups such as Altar of Plagues radically reorienting their sound. Russian Circles offered one last record in the traditional style of post-metal, 2011’s Empros. But embedded on that album were the germinal seeds of new directions, seeds which began to flourish on 2013’s Memorial before developing more fully into a promising new direction with the group on 2016’s Guidance.
With Blood Year, their latest work, it must be said that Russian Circles did not reinvent the wheel; the band knew they hit on something special with their reformulation on their previous album and see to it not to throw out those developments. Blood Year takes the more concise and driving approach of Guidance and, under Kurt Ballou’s masterful hand behind the board, introduces both a sense of rawness in the parts and recording as well as a sonic transparency that more full allows the group to articulate their musical thoughts. The average track length on this record does creep back up a bit, but still there are no ten-plus minute slow-burn epics across the runtime, with the extra minute or so average addition being used more judiciously across the tracks to linger on certain riffs or develop a more sinister atmosphere just a little bit longer before the coming transitions. The music on Blood Year still errs away from any vast technical flourishes, preferring instead to generate moody layers of guitars and bass. The more abstract and cliche-avoiding cover art and record title work well, too. We may refuse these things sometimes as critically important, but there’s little that will turn off a prospective or even long-time listener to a record than groan-inducing eye-rolling cliche, something post-metal has its fair share of, and the smart design choices here leave the intriguing question of how it ties into the atmospherics and emotional/experiential imagistic core of the record.
Russian Circles mirrors similar developments in Pelican following that group’s own comeback. It is a wise move; while there is no lack of love for earlier records in this style, the decision to branch away to a more direct approach, even if just for a few years, helps make those moments in live set lists when the longer musical statements of previous records rear their heads have greater impact. It’s hard not to imagine that the live arena was in mind when composing for Blood Year. There’s a blast beat for christ’s sake, something one can imagine punching up the average energy level of a post-metal show quite a bit. It’s easy to imagine these songs generating more pumping fists and banging heads than their more ponderous and developmental work from before.
It sounds, in brief, like the band has committed to leaning more toward the rock elements of their sound.
Which is not, thankfully, to say that they have abandoned more cinematic concerns. If anything, they are dialed slightly back up on Blood Year compared to Guidance. One supposes that the root experiment of Guidance, whether Russian Circles’ compositional and playing styles could still survive and even thrive in more compact, direct, and up-tempo statements, was proven successful to the group’s satisfaction that they now are willing to reincorporate that style back into their older and more established approach. As a result, unfortunately, Blood Year does feel more transitional than full-throated compared to that previous album, which was a refreshing enough break stylistically that it caused more than a few heads to turn back to a band they may have stopped paying attention to.
But in terms of both the group 15 years into their lifespan and the overall underground experimental music and metal scene of 2019, a rougher, dirtier, more rocking post-metal record feels like a fine addition and a sign that Russian Circles are not yet devoid of interesting things to say. The legacy of this record seems like it will indelibly be tied to the record before it and what comes after; we’ll see they if they deliver on that promise. - INVISIBLE ORANGES