Russian Circles have it. That's really what it all boils down to in the end, after all the promotion, the interviews, the advertisements, the one-sheets, the haranguing from publicists: Does this band have it -- that impossible-to-define something that you can't explain, but instantly recognize? It's what makes a band indelibly memorable and sends people scurrying to the merch table after their set.
Up until recently, Russian Circles didn't have much to sell those people besides a self-released four-song demo. That's because the band only formed in late 2004, after the break-up of Dakota/Dakota, the math-rock band in which guitarist Mike Sullivan and bassist Colin DeKuiper played. When drummer Dave Turncrantz moved to Chicago after he quit his old band, Riddle Of Steel, Russian Circles cohered into something formidable.
When the band started playing out, word of mouth spread quickly and continues to do so. Russian Circles habitually steal the show from headliners, even though they don't play the most accessible music. First, they're instrumental, which for many people is an instant strike against them. Second, they play an intense amalgam of punk, metal, indie rock and even prog -- not exactly the kind of stuff aired on your local alt-rock station, or college station for that matter. But people who don't even like instrumental bands still rush Russian Circles' merch table after their sets, buying an average of 40 demos per show. For bands hawking their wares at the same table, it's an impressive sight.
With the May release of their debut full-length, Enter, for up-and-coming indie label Flameshovel Records (Chin Up Chin Up, The Narrator, Maritime), Russian Circles now have something else to sell at the merch table. Recorded over the course of five quick days with Greg Norman (Zwan, Guided By Voices, Pelican, Neurosis) at the renowned Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago, Enter contains only six tracks, but they pack a lot into them -- the album clocks in at 44 minutes. Each song flows into the next as if the record were one single composition in six movements.
"We just wanted to make sure it was one giant piece, not disjointed song by song," Sullivan says. "Just very thematic, not all over the place. We went into the studio knowing what songs were going to be in what order and how we were going to segueway." He laughs before adding, "It was way too thought out."
But Enter doesn't seem forced, and Russian Circles don't sound like a new band clumsily over-thinking their songs. Four of the songs appeared, in a different form, on the group's demo, so they have a lived-in feel. The stunning opener, "Carpe," throws the gauntlet down early and doesn't let go for nine minutes. Russian Circles specialize in shifting dynamics, and not just the binary code of loud/quiet. The songs seem to hold their breath through intense moments (check the beginning of the fantastically titled "Death Rides A Horse"), but exhale through sweeping, airy horizons that slowly collapse into dense panoplies.
Instrumental bands have to compensate for the presence a vocalist would bring, but with Russian Circles, vocals seem extraneous. Who needs some dude's caterwauling when you have Sullivan's richly textured playing? It's got enough technical flair to make guitarists in the audience reconsider taking lessons, but it flows naturally, never resorting to wanky theatrics. DeKuiper's thick, growling bass lines provide the punch in the low end. Drummer Turncrantz's propulsive, polyrhythmic beats make him the "Jesse's Girl" of the indie scene, leaving band dudes everywhere wondering, "Where can I find a drummer like that?"
Taken together, Russian Circles prove that people who whine about the dearth of good bands just aren't looking hard enough. Enter is an exhausting 44 minutes, but it leaves listeners wanting more. What can you say? Russian Circles have it.