December 8, 2013

Russian Circles - Memorial

Written by Justin C.

Photography by Ryan Russell

Instrumental music has never really gotten a foothold in pop music, outside of the occasional one-hit wonder. There are probably a lot of reasons for that. I remember a long-ago interview with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, during which he mentioned that people often told him they didn't like instrumental jazz because without the vocals/lyrics, they didn't know what the song was about. And if we're honest, pop music isn't a genre that values high levels of musicianship--if you strip the vocals away from most pop music, you're not left with a whole lot to get excited about.

Photo by Pedro Roque.

But metal is a genre that doesn't care too much about mass appeal, and the musicians it attracts often have some serious chops both on their instruments and their songwriting abilities. Enter Russian Circles and their fifth full-length, Memorial. I've long been a fan, and although Memorial might not be their heaviest work so far, it may be their best. "Memoriam" opens the album with a delicate, finger-picked guitar figure, but it's just a brief prelude before "Deficit" kicks in with soaring guitar leads and a thrashy main riff, along with probably dozens of other layers that make these songs such an immersive listen. They may be a trio, but they throw out a heck of a lot of sound. "1777," the longest track on the album, is the soundtrack for an epic flight over a mountain range, and it also shows off one of the band's many strengths: Dave Turncrantz's fantastic drumming. The production of the drums is noteworthy in itself because of the crystal-clear, natural drum kit sound. But even if you don't geek out on production, the playing itself is a revelation. The song features a drum solo that mixes percussion and melody in a way that only the best drummers can manage.

Photo by Pedro Roque.

It's tough to pick out a favorite track. "Burial" is probably the most aggressive song on the album, with plenty of menace and some black metal-style guitars, but immediately following that, "Ethel" is an almost-rapturous release, featuring right-hand guitar tapping throughout its length that, unlike most tapping wank-fests, doesn't make you want to punch someone in the face. The album closer and title track has another great twist in store: vocals from the band's touring mate and reigning goth/folk queen Chelsea Wolfe. Their last album, Empros, also ended with a track with vocals, but Wolfe's incomparable vocals about loss and ghosts, drenched in reverb, add a perfect end cap to this amazing album.

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  1. Tapping, when used as effect rather than showcase (i.e. the title track of Owl's new album) can be quite effective.

    1. Agreed. Sadly, I grew up and started learning guitar in that blighted decade (the 80s) when the guitar mags were all-tapping-all-the-time.

    2. I started playing in 1994. Not sure if things were any better, really.

    3. Hmm I never got around to that Owl album... I really should.