As I’ve grown older, I’ve come around to the belief that perhaps the most important thing that we can strive for in our individual existences is balance.
Until recently, I’ve often found it near-impossible.
I’ve struggled against a compulsion to go full-steam ahead towards opposite ends of any given spectrum, with no luck in the middle.
When I encounter balance, or, an execution that showcases an effective splitting of the difference, I’m both humbled and hypnotized.
I’m compelled to seek understanding.
This is both in the interest of growing my appreciation, and hopefully, discerning some little nugget of information that will allow me to bring more balance into my own life.
On “Guidance”, Russian Circles 6th full-length album, they’ve achieved some semblance of nirvana, perfectly splitting the difference between beauty and brutality.
The album is a masterclass in dynamics and mood, showcasing two very different things with a particularly graceful execution.
While they’re only a three-man unit, they make a LOT of noise. Live, through the use of loop pedals and pre-recorded drones, they’re able to bring forth damn-near studio-perfect recreations of their songs: a feat of both craft and collaboration.
Pretty admirable, right?
The band is arguably guided through their numbers by guitarist Mike Sullivan: a master texturalist, and perhaps post-rock’s equivalent of Adrian Belew.
Never especially flashy, save for when math comes into the band’s time signatures, Sullivan is able to conjure both the sensation of floating astral bliss, and vicious, purely evil, sonic carnage.
While his guitar contributions probably have more sonic real estate than either bassist Brian Cook, or drummer Dave Turncrantz, the band’s rhythm section is perhaps the star of the show here, Cook in particular.
His playing is full-bodied, muscular, gully shit. More often than not, it’ll rattle the inside of your skull, and his fuzz bass-tone is perhaps my favorite thing to make it on record since Jack Bruce stepped in to handle the business on Frank Zappa’s, “Apostrophe.”
Drummer Turncrantz is tasked with keeping everything together, and he 100% holds it down. Perpetually in service of steering the unruly beast that is the music, his drumming, like Sullivan’s guitar work, is not necessarily flashy, but it’s always right on the money. In the album’s heaviest moments, he approaches Eric Gravatt levels of mightiness, further accentuating the weight of what the band is bringing to the table.
The album begins with “Asa”. It’s an uncommonly beautiful meditation for guitar that brings to mind the afterglow of a sunset over Lake Michigan, the Chicago-based band’s nearest body of water.
Painting a picture of a horizon, grading gradually from blue, high in the sky, to light purples and pinks as one looks towards the water, it’s certainly the album’s quietest moment, and second-most prettiest.
Charging headfirst into night, “Asa” bleeds seamlessly into “Vorel”, something that brings to mind perhaps an Eastern European death march? It’s an unrelenting, outrageous piece of music that would probably find fans in the members of Three 6 Mafia, circa 1997, when they still made a lot of songs about wonton property destruction, and casually assaulting North Memphis’ hater population.
The album’s middle section is occupied by another two songs that bleed into each other, “Mota”, and “Afrika.”
As seen earlier, “Mota”, employs the legendary Moog Taurus to great effect, allowing Cook to make his bass guitar to sound like a Keith Emerson-worthy piece of synth wizardry (though MUCH simpler). Again, the song is a perfect showcase for the balance that the band is able to find throughout the record. Beginning with almost tear-inducing beauty, the song then veers towards a math-y breakdown whose time signature, I can’t count, closing with some sort of noise holocaust.
In doing so, the transition to the ethereal, “Afrika”, is all the more stunning.
One of the more striking, and generally humbling piece of music recorded in the 21st century, “Afrika” is a towering thing. I’ll know that I’ve found my wife if she agrees to let the wedding party stroll down the aisle to the sounds of the song’s first 2 minutes and 38 seconds. It’s an exotic piece of music, best enjoyed with headphones at full-volume: alternating blinding, and earth shaking.
“Overboard” is a slight respite before the fireworks of two-part closer “Calla”, and “Lisboa”. It’s an ear-candy song— well-suited for guided mediation, and free of drums until halfway into the song. Its placement is strategic, and well-executed, soothing the listener leaving them fully-unprepared to have their all their teeth knocked out within the first 19 seconds of “Calla”.
A lumbering piece of music, probably best suited for some battle scene in the upcoming TV version of Lord of the Rings, “Calla” is the least sonically adventurous song on the album. It pretty much stays in one gear, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, its aural narrative is much less interesting than that of its peers. To be clear, it’s still a great song, it’s just very straightforward in its execution.
The album rides into sunset with “Lisboa”, a piece that opens with what sounds like high noon for a gunfighter 10 years past his prime. Its beginning sounds inevitable: melancholic as it moves forward in slow-motion, with ample regret. When the band finally hits the gas, it’s one of the more satisfying moments on the album, and fitting of the last song. It’s a glorious blast of violence and angst— still moving in slow-motion, but now, with the weight of the world fully on its shoulders, and hurricane-level winds in its path.
All in all, listening to the album in one go can be a taxing experience, as it’s such a roller coaster ride, but it’s also an incredibly rewarding one, and the best way to consume the music.
These songs have an arc, actively encouraging the participation of the listener, and rewarding them with a very rich panorama in their mind’s eye, if they want to work for it.
An album for all seasons and all moods, “Guidance”, is perfect in my book. Turn out the lights, and lay down with your eyes closed, or, pour yourself a glass of wine and watch the sunset.
It works well for either, and everything.