Russian Circles have made something of a name for themselves by making music that sits somewhere between Mogwai and Mastodon on the noise spectrum – vast, intricate instrumental soundscapes that build on repetitive guitar riffs, overlain by thumping bass and some remarkable drumming. Over three increasingly diverse albums, guitarist Mike Sullivan has tried to develop their sound, adding horns and strings, without compromising what they can do live. And so, to the Underworld in Camden, a small-ish venue that they seem to have sold out fairly easily.
First thing to say about it is that Russian Circles fans are tall. I mean, proper tall. I’m over six foot and even I was struggling. Thankfully, we managed to somehow get ourselves a plum spot at the front of the raised area, with a great view of the stage, and although I wouldn’t be able to see Mike Sullivan messing around with his effects pedals (being a bit of a geek like that), at least I’d see something. Support act Earthless were pretty decent too, with their Kyuss-on-speed the perfect taster for what was to come.
And what came was glorious. It’s hard for me to spell out highlights, partly because I can’t remember any song titles, and the wall of sound that emanated from the stage was overwhelming.
Reader, I zoned out. When listening to instrumental music, the emotional bond that comes with singing is removed, so the part of your brain that deals with words and language and all that switches off, and it doesn’t matter whether the singing is in English, French, Esperanto or a made-up pixie language; you don’t listen to singing in the same way as you deal with instruments. So, as the music grew and swelled, I entered a weird zone of being, well, utterly monged out.
As you can imagine this makes writing a review somewhat harder than usual. Notes are hard to make when you can’t remember the song title, and given that the band had no mics whatsoever (other than for the drums), so we didn’t even get a “Hey, this is called Malko, it’s from our new record!”1. And notes such as “The one that went da da da daaaaa DAAAA DAAAAAAA KRCHUNG KRCHUNG was really good, like” are no use whatsoever.
So this is more a random collection of thoughts. In general, the more intricate numbers got you wondering why wildlife documentary producers haven’t got hold of them yet – maybe some Icelandic wailing over the top would do the trick, and would do wonders for their bank balance. The brutal clarity of the records is somewhat lost; the delicacy amongst the noise is largely lacking, but you expect that at a gig. Sullivan’s tapping technique is astonishing, and mixed with his dexterity and use of looper pedals, allowed him to create a stunning orchestral sound from his Les Paul. And the thundering drummer Dave Turncrantz was possibly the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. The noise between the songs whilst the band tune up, or in the case of the fantastic drummer, a well-earned rest, is like the low metallic drone from the engines of some huge intergalactic spaceship. And talking at gigs is a mortal sin alongside murder and putting used matches back in the box.
One of the tracks featured a wonderful drum solo – and how often can you say that, eh? – before exploding into the sound of twenty million untuned valve radios. At the end, a bloke shouted “Play that song again!”. It was hard to disagree. Of the few tracks I remembered the names of, “Youngblood”’s staccato metal churn showed that they aren’t your average post-rockers, whilst “Philos” clearly demonstrated their increasing range and their development into something more than a metal/post-rock hybrid. And encore “Station” turned the place into a huge moshpit, which was then delicately calmed down again by the Godspeed-style closing section. I came home with “Philos” earworming its way through my skull, which didn’t leave till a few days later. Some band, some tune. See them soon.
Death Rides A Horse
1 They did wave very enthusiastically when they walked off stage though. Which was nice.