Russian Circles have logged more mileage as a trio exploring the limits and farthest reaches of their sound than any other band of similar makeup in recent or even distant history. Though the group will sometimes employ the services of string and horn players, like on 2009’s Geneva, or an occasional guest vocalist, like Chelsea Wolfe on 2013’s Memorial, ultimately the ebb and flow of their sound, the swell and its climax, is the product of guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz. And with each permutation they find a new angle through which to capture an emotional arc, heroic narrative or vividly colorful rendering. But rarely does that result in something as nasty and visceral as the focused aggression of their eighth album Gnosis.
The agitated thrum of Cook’s bass that opens “Tupilak” drops us into a place of danger and electricity—the grace that often bridges the more explosive moments in Russian Circles’ ambitious compositions is nowhere to be found here, and only occasionally makes itself known on Gnosis. Instead there’s a marathon of adrenaline, an action thriller of an album that goes for the throat. “There’s no calm or emotional resolve,” Cook said of the album, “it’s a very direct and angry record.”
On 2019’s Blood Year, the group revealed an inclination back toward these sorts of aural fireworks, its directness reflective of how dynamic a band they are as a live unit. Gnosis draws down deeper on that idea, narrowing the spaces between the riffs and snare cracks, revealing more explicitly metal moments like the bilious gnashing of “Conduit,” the blast beat surge of “Vlastimil,” or the frontal assault of “Betrayal.” Yet even on a relatively more subdued moment like the title track, there’s a sense of being in the eye of a hurricane, of a moment to breathe that feels perhaps illusory or at best fleeting. It’s a familiar feeling after several years of unending “now what?!”, anxiety, fear and anger. And in response, Russian Circles offer all the release you need.
The most notable exception to the consistent and stunning bombardment of Gnosis is its closing track, “Bloom,” which feels like a moment of healing or relief, its breathtaking open spaces more Sigur Rós than Sannhet. It feels all the more potent after the gauntlet the band runs to get here, an earned moment of triumph after a labyrinth of slings, daggers and tremolo riffs. Yet the pathway there is invigorating and genuinely thrilling. Memorable as each Russian Circles album is, Gnosis is one of their most purely exciting, a primal scream voiced only by the instruments of three musicians.
Label: Sargent House
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.