MAKE NO MISTAKE: Empros is rock as heavy as you'd care to have it. The new album from Russian Circles has plenty of full-throttle rampaging, with whip-crack drums, growling bass, and guitars that flow like angry magma. There are howling wind shrieks and cataclysmic rumbles and passages that set the inner workings of your ears aflame.
But the (mostly) instrumental trio holds a firm grip on a full range of dynamics, and some of Empros' best moments are its most subtle. "Schipol" flickers beautifully and quietly for over three minutes before unleashing its hellish monoliths of chords; the mathily arpeggiated introduction of "Mlàdek" is downright uplifting; and the album closes with "Praise Be Man," a gentle folk hymn with murmured vocals and a lovely plucked guitar backing.
Bassist Brian Cook—whose writing, incidentally, has appeared in the Mercury—lives in Seattle and commutes to Chicago for marathon rehearsals with guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz. For their fourth album, the band was incredibly conscious of not repeating themselves. As Cook says, "We did [2009's] Geneva at Electrical Audio, which is Steve Albini's studio in Chicago. It was built by Albini from the ground up. The aesthetic and sort of velocity of recording there is that you set up, throw up the microphones, and you just play live. There's not a lot of trickery. Their whole idea is to capture what the band actually sounds like.
"I love a lot of records that come out of that studio and I love that sort of aesthetic," Cook continues, "but there are also times where you do want to elaborate and experiment with different sounds and do some things that may not be completely true to how a drum kit sounds in a room. So we went with this place, Phantom Manor, and we spent a lot more time and didn't actually do as much recording live as a full band. But the whole idea was we wanted it to be a more raw-sounding record and not as elaborate as the album we had done before—so it's in some ways a sort of a backward way of approaching things."
The result is that Empros is their most involving record to date, partly due to the band's emphasis on leaving their work largely open to the listener's interpretation. "We try to avoid really overt iconography," Cook says. "We don't want to have, like, skulls and bugs and snakes and daggers all over our records. We try to allow people to project as much as they want onto the music, which I think, in turn, has allowed us to have a really diverse fanbase, which I really like. The song titles are in keeping with that—for the most part they're just references to things that we've gone through, or homages to people that we work with, or just things that on a strictly phonetic kind of level just sound appealing to us. There's not a lot of deep meaning behind it. It's deliberately a little cryptic, I guess."
The strength of Russian Circles is that, while certain moments are designed for maximum heaviness, there's always an emotional tug in their music that's hard to define—and there's little of the technical flash in their playing that often capsizes other instrumental acts. "That's something that comes up quite a bit," Cook says. "Especially being an instrumental band. All the focus is on the instrumentation as opposed to the singer or the top cook. It's like everything is under much more of a microscope because you have three people who are trying to fill this sonic scope and make it engaging—and not fall under the trap of trying to make things really busy and technical to try to fill that space. As we progress as a band, it's not necessarily about how you can make things more technical and flashy, but how you can make something that's resonant and engaging.
"Once you've seen someone play a lot of notes really fast for five minutes, it's all just a big blur," Cook continues. "Being able to balance things that are more technical with things that are simpler, it's definitely a balance that we try to strike. It's part of keeping the band interesting and dynamic and hopefully engaging. But that's up to the listener to decide."