Back in June 2015, I was at London’s Scala to see the dark, moody folk of Wovenhand,1 the spin off project of 16 Horsepower mastermind David Eugene Edwards.2 As always, Wovenhand were on a blinder and played a great show but their co-headliners, then completely unknown to me, blew me away. They were Chicago natives Russian Circles. I can’t now remember whether Wovenhand or Russian Circles played first but it doesn’t matter because, whichever way round it was, this was Circles‘ night. This three-piece, playing expansive, heavy instrumental metal, held the Scala in the palms of their hands that night.
Several years on, and having released the epic Guidance in between, Russian Circles are back with seventh full-length Blood Year (if you are unfamiliar with their discography and not yet ready to commit to working your way through it album by album, check out our primer playlist). Blood Year is not a record I took to immediately. I’d heard two of its strongest tracks—”Arluck” and “Milano”—before getting the promo and liked them both a lot but on my first couple of spins of the record as a whole, it felt a little disjointed. One of the distinctive things about Circles‘ albums until this point is their expansive, lush feel, with each track flowing pretty seamlessly into the next. Blood Year, however, feels less nuanced and more direct—a sense perhaps presaged by that beautifully simplistic cover artwork—than their last two albums, Memorial and Guidance, with each track standing on its own. It is also more consistently heavy than any of their previous releases, with only intro “Hunter Moon” and interlude “Ghost on High” providing respite.
After the ethereal calm of “Hunter Moon,” Dave Turncrantz’s drum intro opens the first track proper, “Arluck.” This is also the first point where the album feels a little off kilter as there is zero flow from “Hunter Moon” into “Arluck.” That said, it’s a good track, as first Brian Cook’s bass and then the looping melody of the guitars enter the mix. The layers build before the rhythm section falls away entirely, leaving Mike Sullivan’s almost discordant guitars briefly alone and center stage. From there, Russian Circles don’t look back, moving into the claustrophobic, sludgy heaviness of “Milano” and then the eerie, fuzzy riffage of “Kohokia.” The first half of Blood Year has as much in common with Pelican‘s Nighttime Stories as it does with Russian Circles‘ own Guidance. The woozy qualities of “Ghost on High” appear to build toward something but the transition into “Sinaia”—a track described by Mrs. Carcharodon, on a recent car journey, as “particularly offensive”—doesn’t quite land. That said, “Sinaia” is the undisputed highlight of the album for me, its ominous start and then the stuttering, staccato riffs, recalling at times the heavier, murkier sections of The Ocean‘s brilliant Pelagial. Into the home stretch and closer “Quartered” breaks over you, as crushing bass and churning guitars do battle over pounding drums.
Throughout, Blood Year sounds fantastic, with a dirty edge to the strings but crystal-sharp clarity to Turncrantz’s work on drums. The percussion, it has to be said, really comes into its own here in a way it never has for me on previous Russian Circles‘ albums. The production is excellent and everything feels like it’s in the right place in the mix. The guitars ebb and flow as they should, melodic and insistent by turns, with the bass driving the record along, sometimes threatening to swamp the other instruments but with enough restraint to never do so.
I enjoyed Blood Year a lot. Russian Circles stepped up the directness of their delivery a notch from Guidance, serving up more sustained bursts of heaviness than we’ve seen previously but that has, perhaps, come at the expense of the way the record hangs together as a whole. Taken individually, the tracks on Blood Year are among the strongest that Russian Circles have ever penned but it does feel a little more like a collection of songs than the cohesive whole that I’ve come to expect from these guys. For all that, it’s a great album and this 3.5 feels a bit harsh on Russian Circles but Blood Year doesn’t quite get to the heady heights of a 4.0 for me (though that gorgeous artwork almost convinced me). Can I give it a 3.75?3
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Sargent House
Websites: russiancircles.bandcamp.com | russiancirclesband.com | facebook.com/russiancirclesmusic
Release Date: August 2nd, 2019
- If you don’t know Wovenhand, then I suggest you go and check out Refractory Obdurate and Blush Music. ↩
- And if you don’t know 16 Horsepower, then, first, shame on you and, secondly, high thee to your nearest streaming service IMMEDIATELY and listen to their live album Hoarse. Go on, yes, I mean right NOW! ↩
- Nyet! – Steel Kommisar ↩