Monday, July 29, 2019

Russian Circles - Blood Year

At this point, there are certain things one would expect from a new Russian Circles album upon its release. The three-headed monster that is the the thick bass tone of Brian Cook, Mike Sullivan's crunchy guitar riffs, and the continued underrated brilliance of Dave Turncrantz's drumwork is a beast that has continued to stand the test of time. This tried and true formula, while evident throughout their career, has allowed the band plenty of room to move within its parameters. Each album has carved its own niche that stands alone to anything that came before or would come after. With the newest entry in their discography, Blood Year, the band takes a straightforward approach in terms of delivery; one that is more morosely heavy than blissful but still continues to push their sound in a logical (and welcome) direction.

"Hunter Moon" opens the album with a sombre and solemn pace of gently plucked guitar notes. Eventually accompanied with another guitar line whose single note twangs reverberate throughout to build the tension, this track feels like the yin to "Asa's" (the album opener from Guidance) yang. Almost as soon as you've been seduced by the relative quiet, the band's first single, "Arluck", crashes in with a solo cascade of heavy-pounding drums. As is the case with much of Russian Circles' material, no notes are lost in translation here. Between the opening drums, the opening bass solo that immediately follows, and the finger-tapped guitar lines, each instrument has its time in the sun right from the get-go. The gradual buildup and unity among all of "Arluck's" layers is so palpable that it resonates on a primal level. Their mastery over volume and the pacing of its highs and lows is done so well it makes you wonder why more bands don't take the "less is more" approach. "Milano" follows suit by taking the speed up a notch. Coming across as more of a faster-paced version of "Deficit," this track's rhythms wallow in distortion. A nice change of pace from "Arluck," "Milano's"
heaviness flows more than it punches. "Kohokia," the midway point of the album, acts as a bit of a reprieve. The track is one of two halves. The first is centered on one riff and how its variations run the gamut from clean, ominous notes to an impenetrable wall of sound. The second half is built on more finger-tapping from Sullivan's guitars, which helps to brighten things up.

The first half of the album is all well and good, but the second half of Blood Year is where the album truly earns its stripes. "Ghost on High" is a simple transition track whose elegant charm seamlessly weaves into one of the two best tracks on the whole album. "Sinaia" is a melding of the best elements of "Milano" and "Kohokia," and is perhaps the most emotionally charged outing of the album. The track's guitar riffs push and pull between soaring tremolo-picked anthems and thunderous crashes. These peaks and valleys foster an intoxicating dynamism that, as a result, will take you across a range of emotions while listening to it. Traditionally, Russian Circles will end their albums on softer notes. Not so in the case of Blood Year's closer, "Quartered." This track was the biggest pleasant surprise of the whole album. Not only is "Quartered" easily the heaviest thing on Blood Year, but it's the most continuously heavy thing the band has ever put out, period. It continues to ramp up in intensity until its very last seconds; so much so that it gives the track an unhinged quality that makes it seem as though the band threw caution to the wind and really wanted to get after it for the closer.

Time will be kind to Blood Year. Though it skews more towards the band's heavier sensibilities, it still has everything you've come to know and love from Russian Circles. While they have demonstrated in the past that they can cohesively mix the ebbs and flows of serene soundscapes and deafening heaviness, it's a refreshing change to hear them be more laser-focused on each of those things and then play around with the extremes of that dichotomy. This directness is something that can't be lauded enough. Blood Year is a forceful reassertion of what defines Russian Circles and damn does it sound good.

- Mick

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