From their 2006 debut through to 2019’s Blood Year, Chicago trio Russian Circles are yet to release a bad album, so choosing their finest hour is a tough ask, but there’s certainly a strong case to be made for 2011’s Empros. Four albums in, the band had refined their sound almost to perfection, confidently finding an inch-perfect middle-ground between crunching heaviness and melancholic serenity. The group’s ability to swing instantly from the beautiful to the punishing is something we’ve begun to take for granted now that they’ve been doing it with aplomb for a decade and a half, but the balancing act the band pulled off on Empros was nothing short of extraordinary.
The group emerged following a post-metal renaissance spearheaded by the likes of Isis, Pelican and Cult Of Luna, and certainly had their work cut out for them in standing out amongst a scene that was by all accounts bursting at the seams. At the time, it was hard to see how post-rock could continue to progress and stay fresh amongst such oversaturation, but the trio soon carved out their own niche and earned their status as instrumental innovators.
Empros was the peak of this ascent, boasting six expansive tracks across one stunning listening experience. The album was simultaneously the band’s most streamlined and yet boldest endeavour to date – where pompous complexity for its own sake occasionally riddled the trio’s preceding albums, Empros executed each transition with remarkable precision, and always undertook such strides with confidence. The tracks don’t so much shift back and forth as they do lunge ambitiously into uncharted territories – the driving chug of ‘Mlàdek’ gives way to a phase of distorted chaos without so much as a hitch, whilst the desperate folk of ‘Schiphol’ lasts almost a full three-and-a-half minutes before the band usher in a seismic shift with all the subtlety of a ten-tonne truck. It’s easy to see why Russian Circles don’t bother with a vocalist – expecting them to keep up with the shifts in tone would be unreasonable.
And all that comes before closer ‘Praise Be Man’, to this day one of the band’s most surprising turns. The folk-gospel number features a rare vocal performance from bassist Brian Cook, and initially seems so out of character that it comes across as a step too far in terms of audacity. Once the initial shock fades, however, the track proves to be quite an elegant wind down – a unique chance to take in the ambient side of the band’s sound without it immediately giving way to earth-shaking metallic heft.
Russian Circles are nothing if not consistent, so much so that when looking at their career as a whole, it’s easy to dismiss Empros as simply another quality album in a career lined with them, but whilst it is only arguably their best, it is without a doubt the most important chapter for one of the finest names in the game.
Words: George Parr