Contrast is an important part in all types of music. Within the fluid boundaries of interlocking opposities, like great heights of emotion and the capacity for truly moving and unique composition. All genres of music know this, but post-anything is usually signified by it. The whole idea of the “post” moniker is that something has moved beyond a certain definition, a definition which is still central to whatever is born anew. Thus, post-rock and post-metal build on elements found within their parent genres but contrast them with new ideas. Since both rock and metal were often defined by noise, that contrast is usually achieved through silence.
The crashing crescendo, the muted blastbeats, the expansive guitar lead, all thrive and harness their power from the tension between them and the quietness that came before them, the contracted power of the quiet buildup. The bands that have blazed the path in this regard are many: Mono, Isis, yndi halda. And, of course, Russian Circles. Over their by-now long career, Russian Circles have been one of the pillars of this sound. In their discography, silence and noise bray against each other, rising and sinking in an intricate dance. But, like all rushes and drugs, diminishing returns are always a danger; once you’ve heard the resolute waves of rock crash against the wall of rock of post, you won’t be moved the same way when you next happen upon the shore.
And thus, we have Guidance. While this isn’t a bad album by any means (in fact, it’s a lot better than most of what gets released under the “post” genres today) it still falls short of the true greatness one has come to expect from Russian Circles. Its problems are several but they can be narrowed down into two key flaws. The first, and less consequential, is the runtime. Clocking in at forty one minutes, Guidance is simply too short to gather momentum. A short runtime isn’t a flaw in and out itself but here, it definitely detracts from the band’s ability to whisk away into their musical landscape.
Couple this with an extremely top heavy track list, and you get an album that’s short and yet which often feels like it has outlasted its welcome. The first three tracks, “Asa”, “Vorel” and “Mota” represent the best that this album has to offer. From the lucidly melancholy opening lines, through the crashing riffs of the middle track and on to the synthesis of the last, the first three tracks are premium Russian Circles. “Mota” especially deserves recognition, an elegant piece of heavy post-rock. The guitars play both opening and closing roles with exceptional clarity and skill and the drums rest perfectly in their embrace. However, even that becomes a disadvantage near the end of the album as one finds oneself pining for those initial moments, the flames of memory burning bright in contrast to the smoldering and lackluster sparks of the dredges of the album.
It’s in this metaphor of kindling, of setting ablaze, that we find the second, and major, flaw within this album. Simply put, something in the contrast just doesn’t work. “Afrika”, the track right after our celebrated trio, is a perfect example of this. After the explosive ending of “Mota”, comes a delay-heavy attempt at contrast. The buildup is there: the sticks and leaves have been gathered. All that is now needed is the crescendo, the spark, to set a bonfire alight. But, instead, it fails as if Russian Circles are running on cruise control; every step is obvious, every tone, drum roll and hit in its well designated place. Nor is there a punch to justify that, a massive delivery that would tip over our pile of wood into ignition.
At this point it’s also necessary to point out a somewhat unsettling, if not wholly unexpected, trend in the band’s music and seeming trajectory. The band’s first four albums – Enter, Station, Geneva, and Empros – each had their own very distinctive feel to them. They were very diverse and were representative of a band exploring, reaching, and honing their sound – Enter in particular sounds very little like the rest of the band’s discography. The problem with Empros it seems – as terrific a record as it is – is that, in retrospect, it feels like the point in which the band finally hit upon a sound and style that they loved so much that they didn’t want to continue pushing beyond it. Their following record, Memorial, tinkered with the Empros formula a bit, infusing with it some more ambient melancholy, but it felt less like a genuine step forward for them than a vigorous jog in place.
Unfortunately for Guidance, too often it feels like the band are at a complete standstill. From around “Mota” on, we’re left with exactly what we’d expect. The band seem intent at revisiting places we’ve been to together before. The two-step rhyme of build-up, release, build-up is maintained religiously and the manner of those pulses remains the same as well: quiet guitars and light cymbals lead to crashing riffs on top of kick-drums heavy fills. The sudden modular changes – often in the form of a whole step down or a minor 3rd jump – that provided such a shock to the system previously and served to propel tracks towards their climax, now feel utterly predictable, as if the trio, uncertain where to take a song next, simply did what they knew worked in the past. Even the best tracks on Guidance fall prey to this in some way. In short, the formula that is heavier post-rock (or lighter post-metal, if you’d prefer) is applied in a frenetic attempt to get some heat going, to affect the listener. However, sadly for Russian Circles, we are somewhat jaded.
We’ve heard the crashing waves upon the shore; we’ve witnessed many fires burn and felt their heat upon the skins of our heart. This band themselves were one of our guides to those places, back when our journey had only started. But now, while the sites remain the same and their aesthetic is still generally pleasing, their impact has worn out. We need a new type of rush, new thrills. Most of all, we need a new kind of contrast or at least some sort of variation on how it is generated. Otherwise, we remain unmoved, closed off to these appeals which we have heard too many times before.
Sadly, too little of the spark is to be found on Guidance, leaving it an album which we can appreciate but appreciate from afar. Taken in isolation from an unknown band, we would likely be celebrating it, for it has many great moments. As we like to stress repeatedly here at the blog though, context matters, and a band will always be judged in some part against their own history. At its best, it remains a skilled execution of their style from a talented and seminal band. However, even during those rare moments of excellence, a frigid wall separates us from the music. While we can certainly observe the grandeur of the intended effect, we can’t help but feel unmoved by its obvious and familiar structure. Something more is needed if Russian Circles still wish to set our hearts ablaze: a new type of contrast, a new type of tension which would pull us into their musical world. On Guidance, it is sadly shuttered.