It's hard enough for lyricists to find the right words to convey their ideas. But for Chicago's Russian Circles, the trick is to find the right music. The instrumental trio plays a spiraling, expansive blend of metal, prog and post-rock, interspersing cacophonous intensity and pummeling brutality with passages of melodic reflection and subtle quietude. But creating Russian Circles' dichotomous and wordless soundtrack isn't a matter of plotting out the music's ebb and flow.
"It's not a conscious effort; there's never a point where we're deliberating about 'we need to write a mellow song' or 'we need to write a really heavy song,' " says bassist Brian Cook. "We take what we have, and it's kind of a spontaneous, subconscious thing when we're writing. Some things just sort of resonate and they work and we follow that gut instinct. There are other versions of 'Hexed All' [from Russian Circles' newest album, Geneva] where it's played a lot more aggressively and authoritatively, but it wasn't really working that way. We scaled it back and altered the melody; it just seemed to make way more sense as a more reserved, minimal ballad."
Russian Circles began five years ago when guitarist Mike Sullivan and bassist Colin DeKuiper reunited after their stint together in Dakota/Dakota, adding former Riddles of Steel drummer Dave Turncrantz. On the eve of recording their second full-length, Station, in 2007, DeKuiper decided to leave the group. Former Botch/These Arms Are Snakes bassist Cook agreed to fill in on the sessions — he knew the band from dates that TAAS and Russian Circles had done together — and ultimately became a full-fledged member.
"They had the recording studio lined up in Seattle," says Cook. "I had only known the guys for a little while, but I already lived in Seattle, so it made sense to go in for that record. They were going to find another replacement, but it's kind of worked out. I already knew the material and had a feel for what they were trying to do."
The threesome is clearly committed to the band; Sullivan and Turncrantz remain Chicago-based and Cook still lives in Seattle. But even with the geographical distance between them, they continue to communicate and create. Because of Cook's provisional status on Station, Russian Circles' latest album, Geneva, bears a number of striking differences from its predecessor. While Station is sparse, Geneva is considerably more intricately arranged, which relates to Cook's role as bass temp on Station.
One of Russian Circles' signatures is the transition of the material from studio to stage, where both Sullivan and Cook employ a variety of looping and sampling pedal effects to intensify their live presentation. With no vocalist to delineate the differences between songs, Russian Circles have to work doubly hard to define the correlation between the emotion of their songs and its sonic representation.
"I think that's where the pedals come into play," says Cook. "All of a sudden there's more attention focused on the instrumentation and there's only three of us. To give every song its own feel, you have to carve out a specific tone for every song, and the pedals become an easy cheat method. I want to play the traditional bass player role and fill out the low end. But being an instrumental three-piece, we also want to add to the melody and fill things out the best we can. Using pedals, I can disguise the fact that, as a bass player, I'm probably playing too much."