Cinematic instrumentalists Russian Circles are at it again. In late October, the musicians released "Geneva," their third album of muscular, undulating rock that slithers and swells with palpable menace.
While the Circles' compositions follow a dramatic arc, the trio isn't as predictable as many of its instrumental peers. Some songs, such as the disc's title track, warm up quickly and then slowly unwind, like a car circling down from the top of a parking garage. Others, like the eight-minute "When the Mountain Comes to Muhammad," crash like waves before bursting with a droning wail and receding into the horizon.
Circles' latest continues to widen the Chicago trio's sound. String arrangements on songs like "Melee" further explore the musicians' moody landscapes with a suppler, more refined sensibility that puts even more distance between them and post-metal acts like Pelican and Isis, to which the band is often compared.
"Some of the songs are just as heavy or even heavier, but I think they don't manifest themselves in conventional metal riffs," guitarist Mike Sullivan said. "We don't really consider ourselves a metal band and never really have. We're fans of a lot of metal "¦ but we never set out to write a metal part, just heavy or soft. It's not so much by genre as what's the feeling. Is it a loud part? What's happening here? Is it creating tension or is transitioning into another part, or is it climax or is it just a dark, brooding part that's setting up for something else more depressing?"
Sullivan said the spirit of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the Manhattan Project, hung over "Geneva"'s proceedings. The members were fascinated with the scientist's life and troubles before and after the atomic bomb " an obsession that inspired the vocal samples percolating in the back of "Muhammad."
"We were always open-minded about other elements, and other instruments being thrown in the mix and different ideas that we've never really pursued before," Sullivan said. "We had more time to sit back and think, 'What else could a song use?' And not worry about reproducing everything live necessarily to see what the songs wanted, fill in the gaps we were hearing in our minds, and see how it sounded."
Besides having more time to write and record, the Circles benefited from having bassist Brian Cook on hand. Cook, who also plays with Seattle post-hardcore band These Arms Are Snakes, replaced original bassist Colin DeKuiper, after his departure in late 2007, but most of 2008's "Station" was already written when Cook came on board. This time, Circles flew Cook in from Seattle for a few weeks several times last year to hone the compositions for "Geneva."
His addition made a significant sonic difference, Sullivan said.
"It's a little more commanding, a little more authoritative and less forgiving," he said. "The record has a rigid kind of feeling to it that's not overly structured but is really dense, and not mechanical. It sounds a little more powerful and it's allowed me to explore different things on guitar while he's holding the bass line. It really gives Dave (Turncrantz, drummer) and I more freedom to work within the songs."
The overall effect is of more space. Like a wide-angle shot of a mountain range from across the plains, there's an openness and broadened scope to the "Geneva" arrangements that diminishes the reliance on a crush of sound, instead leaning on more subtle sonic effects. The dynamics are greater and the loud parts more isolated, seemingly increasing their stature and impact.
"As we get older, it seems more natural to us " more pleasing to leave more room and let the songs breathe," Sullivan said. "You can often say a whole lot without getting too technical."
But that's really Russian Circles' modus operandi: saying a whole lot without uttering a word.
Russian Circles with Red Sparowes and Young Widows perform at 8 p.m. Sunday at Tthe Conservatory, 8911 N. Western. "Chris Parker