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Russian Circles – Memorial

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The conversation regarding “post-rock” and its vast collection of constituents is an obnoxious one. The one positive outcome of such a large assortment of sounds being marketed under this tag is that when a band latches onto their own branch of the post-rock family tree, and actually flourishes, it’s impossible to ignore. While the rest continue hopping from limb to limb, fearful of becoming stale, the handful of bands who risk dedicating themselves to exploring a single aesthetic and sound stick out from the genre.

Russian Circles has always been the kind of band to build on whatever precedent they’ve set for themselves with previous records. Each album feels almost like a single chapter in a larger story, all different and serving specific purposes. While always relying on the margins. Memorial is by far their biggest-sounding record to date. The dark, rigid tones reach deeper than ever before while the brighter sides soar behind layers of noise. The compositions never really surprise, but only because they don’t have to. This is a Russian Circles record, plain and simple, but with more risks taken than on any previous effort. The only problem is that some of those risks don’t necessarily pay off.

Memorial‘s (and possibly the band’s) high point lies within the album’s longest and most sprawling track, “1777”. Guitarist and founding member Mike Sullivan plays delicately over the bleak landscape, composing tasteful movements that eventually run into a surprisingly appropriate black metal riff before returning to lush drones. The piece continues into the track “Cheyenne”, which works as closure for its predecessor. It bleeds out gracefully, like a dying animal, until every drop is gone.

One of the risks taken on this record are its nods to black metal influences, which don’t always work — especially in “Burial”, where they sound almost juvenile in the context of how talented these musicians are. Not all is lost here, thanks to this track and the penultimate “Lebaron”‘s quick-witted rhythms and crunchy breakdowns.

The simplest way to sum up the problems on Memorial is by reaching the final track, and realizing that without proper context, sometimes beautiful songwriting isn’t enough to carry a record. The bookends that frame the expansive nature of this album are equally appealing as the rest of it, but don’t seem to make sense as a whole. The concluding title track, featuring an almost eclipsing vocal performance by Sargent House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe, is as gorgeous as it is unnecessary. Following a song like “Lebaron” with a quiet, underwhelming peroration almost does an injustice to everything that came before.

If each Russian Circles album works as a chapter in their ever-growing narrative, this particular one helps tie together themes from past, gives closure and offers new arcs that will hopefully continue for many albums to come. It is their most realized moment and it puts them on another post-rock plane, but at the expense of coherence and harmony.

Memorial comes out on October 29 via Sargent House; preorder it here. The entire album is also currently streaming at Pitchfork.

— Lukas Hodge

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