Even if you’ve constructed a unique, creative style that’s all your own, after six albums it’s perhaps time to take stock and start thinking about where you want your project to go next. Is this the moment to throw caution to the wind with your boldest material to date? Or is it safer to stay the course and risk stagnation? Leave it to Russian Circles to figure out the cleverest route – a balance of the two. The post-rock giants’ seventh album, Blood Year, is spearheaded by a formula that fans of the band will know and love, yet it still takes a markedly different approach than their previous outings.
For one, it is undoubtedly their most direct and heaviest material for some time, a bold move for a band whose defining trait is their inch-perfect balance of heavy and serene; light and dark; minimalist and maximalist. “That was definitely pre-determined on our end,” guitarist Mike Sullivan tells Astral Noize via a transatlantic Skype call. “We intentionally didn’t worry as much about the melancholic desperate folk songs”.
When we first ring Sullivan, he misses our call. “I was just playing some guitar with headphones on,” he says apologetically – is he working on new material already? “It’s always fun to be staying active, keeping the brain busy. It’s a compulsive habit at this point. I have no choice.”
As a founding member of the instrumental trio, Sullivan’s impulsive creativity has helped fuel the trio for a decade and a half now, with Blood Year proving to be yet another critically adored album in a career lined with classics. The band’s prior album, 2016’s Guidance, saw them tour extensively around the world, something which seemingly inspired the band’s decision to keep the new album heavy. “Going in we said ‘hey let’s have some songs we can play live’,” the guitarist explains. “So we thought we’d focus on that and see where it takes us. I think we were all really grateful at the end that we took the heavier road ‘cause it just feels like a more honest and natural representation of what we’re trying to say.”
It’s interesting that Sullivan cites darker material as natural and honest, given that he also tells us he finds minor key passages tougher to write – is this perhaps exemplative of his wish to challenge himself musically? “In minor key sometimes you gotta dig deeper,” he tells us. “And I think it’s worth digging deeper to find something that’s gratifying and therapeutic. I’m putting more words to it than actually happens in the thought process – a lot of it’s just chiselling away until you’re happy with what emerges. It’s more of a thoughtless process, in a really freeing way. But that’s just the guitar parts, once we get the drums in the mix and start arranging and seeing which bits go where, that’s more mechanical; shifting things around to see what works together rhythmically and what sounds good. But then it changes again when Brian [Cook, bass] comes in the mix, ‘cause he adds more texture and melody and he can draw out more emotion or any kind of other nuance that I’m not providing, so it’s a multi-faceted process.”
This process takes time, it seems, but like many of their post-rock/metal peers, it is lacking one ingredient that for most bands is key – a vocalist. But where some would see this as a limitation, the band see it only as an asset.
“We’d be totally fucking over any singer that was singing over our shit,” Sullivan admits. “It’s not fair to them, to drag them all over the musical grid and expect them to keep up. I don’t know what their comfort zone would be over that kind of music, where the songs are vastly different track to track. If you have a vocalist you gotta stay within their wheelhouse, and not having to conform to that in the mix allows us to free up space for the instruments to breathe and bleed more.”
Listening to the band’s music, it’s easy to see what Sullivan means. It’s unrestrained, free to drift from heavy riffs to majestic serenity and back again as it pleases. It allows the band to write about whatever they like whilst still leaving things open to interpretation for their audience – though the guitarist admits this was more of a happy accident. “We just kind of stumbled into that comfort zone of embracing the instrumental perspective,” he says. “I played in instrumental bands prior to this and I’ve always gravitated towards this type of music, so it’s familiar territory for me. I’m not a singer, I can’t sing. If I had a good voice I’d probably sing more, but I’ve never written from that standpoint, with a vocalist in mind. So it’s kind of just been the way I’ve rolled for a number of years at this point.”
The lack of vocals is such an innate facet of the band’s musical DNA that it’s almost unnoticeable in their music. Russian Circles aren’t a band who are desperately trying to fill the gaps where a singer should be, rather they are a band who don’t have room for a singer – they’re already using those gaps to create something denser and more exploratory than comparatively standard fare.
Crucially, being an instrumental band doesn’t mean that the band aren’t expressing something in their music, but Sullivan is open about admitting that the band don’t write to a particular theme or concept. “Speaking for myself,” he begins. “I think it’s more to make a connection on an emotional level. Not to tell a particular tale of narrative but just say ‘hey, do you identify with this particular feeling?’ And any avenue could lead you to this emotional result, so I feel like less information makes it more open to interpretation – more welcoming.”
So whilst there isn’t one particular theme that fuels Blood Year, there isn’t technically not one, either. The band certainly aren’t against listeners finding their own meaning in their work. In fact, they encourage it. “No one’s wrong,” Sullivan explains. “There’s no misread, by any means. It’s completely open. If you deride some direct correlation or meaning then that’s great, you’re not wrong – that’s just one way to look at it.”
This sense of freedom is a defining trait for Russian Circles. Not only are listeners free to interpret the music as they see fit, but the band aim to write without restriction, leaving anything in the mix so long as all members enjoy it. On Blood Year, the band strived for this by recording together despite all now living in different states. Once in the studio, they opted to forego a click track. “It’s very convenient to lock in the click track, map it out through the song and then cut and paste as you see fit,” Sullivan tells us. “But once you’re on the grid like that in the studio, it can get kinda muddy as far as what’s ethical with cutting and pasting guitar parts.”
The band’s live set makes use of sampled guitars, he admits, “so it’d be a fallacy to pretend I’m anti-digital recording.” Instead, the band simply prefer to keep things organic by recording live as much as possible. “When we’re all in a room jamming it just has the natural organic feel,” the guitarist says. “And we play differently. If you’re playing to a click you’re thinking differently and not really connecting with each other in the room as much, so we definitely seem to get a lot out of recording not worried about a click in any way.”
The lack of a click, though a small issue in the grand scheme of things, again exemplifies the band’s striving for sonic freedom. Though their records are tight and make good use of typical studio wizardry, the band seek to create a recording environment that rewards creativity and improvisation. “There’s spontaneous nuances that pop up,” he tells us. “It was cool to let those play out and see how it sounds in the final mix; each song has variations. Particularly when you’re trying to nail drums, Dave [Turncrantz] would take things differently sometimes and we were all for it. That was cool to watch – the songs had a pulse, they were real. They weren’t just robotic and mechanical, they were each real entities. They weren’t just blocks on a screen, they were something that could be performed differently each time.”
And it’s clear this method has influenced the result – Blood Year is direct and to-the-point, all chugging riffs and pummeling percussion, with the sombre and exploratory passages either taking a backseat or bolstering the heaviness instead of replacing it. It was, we suggest, a record designed to be played live. “Exactly!” Sullivan responds. “On past records we’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner with over-producing songs, and when it comes to shows we feel like we’re not giving it the proper treatment that it deserves. This record’s intentionally rather stripped-down just so we can bring all this to a live situation without losing any elements.”
The contradiction that arises here, though, is that writing for the live environment comes with its own limitations. It’s impressive that Russian Circles have managed to forge yet another fantastic record, but whilst there are slight tweaks to their style this time around, it still very much falls within the wheelhouse they have created for themselves over the preceding six albums, and what they’re able to faithfully recreate live. “I think it’d be fun to put us in an environment that encourages us to be more experimental and not be concerned about what these songs sound like live,” the guitarist says, seemingly excited at the idea. ”Because the minute we’re worried about how we’re going to recreate it, that’s working within our limitations. Not in a negative way, but in an earnest way of ‘Okay, how will we perform this?’ I think it’d be really cool to do a record where we just have no limits, where we just add whatever musical component we think will serve the song.”
“Hopefully, that could happen” – a tantalising prospect, but it isn’t as if writing for touring is the only motivator behind Blood Year. Sullivan also reveals some of the musical inspirations behind the album. “I don’t shed influences,” he begins to explain. “If I love it, I love it for life. Even if it’s love in a nostalgic way, that’s still seeping into the influences and the output.”
With those earlier influences – from Shellac, Jesus Lizard, Portishead, Craft, Gorgoroth, Melvins, Faith No More and Fugazi, who the guitarist cites as staples for himself and the band, to the old instrumental bands who predated the post-rock movement – still present, the band’s growing sound is more a case of their influences expanding rather than changing. The sonic spine has remained the same, but the band have attached more and more new limbs and appendages as they’ve continued. “Popol Vuh are a band Brian introduced me to a few years ago and that’s been all over the place for us,” Sullivan gives as an example. “That’s been seeping into all parts of the songs. If not sonically, then in approach in some way.”
With some of the new music the band are hearing somewhat altering their approach, it’s only a matter of time before the trio decide to take a more distinct left-turn. “I think some of us are hungry to shape things differently,” Sullivan says frankly. “A lot of it comes down to what riffs we settle on. For instance this record, two-thirds of material that was written and submitted to the collective band wasn’t used, just because it didn’t fit or it was too out-there, too fast, too slow, too bizarre, too fucking minimal… but we’re always exploring every boundary possible.”
“This record could have sounded way different if we chose different tracks to work with,” he continues. ”And mixed together different ideas and messed with different time signatures. Some songs get mixed into 4/4 when they were once a more unconventional time signature, and tempos get raised and lowered just to make parts fit better. All these decisions make a completely different record at the end of the day.”
Such “what ifs” are hardly necessary here, though, because the decisions that the guitarist cites have led the band to Blood Year – a heavy, imposing album that remains vast and exploratory whilst prioritising big riffs and driving drums. As such, the band’s upcoming tours will no doubt be some of their most thrilling yet, and with some fantastic setlist material now locked in, who knows where they could go next?
Blood Year is out now on Sargent House. Pick it up here.
Words: George Parr