Guidance offers silver linings to its mushroom clouds.
When listing favorite music genres, few people will think to include instrumental dirges. Outside of the jazz or jam band scenes (or ambient music albums), instrumental music struggles to get a foothold in general, much less when it’s doom-inflected post-metal without growl or wail. That makes Russian Circles’ success all the more impressive. Now six albums deep and nearly a dozen years since their inaugural show, the Chicago-based trio has achieved their lasting success thanks to an uncanny ability to meld extremes, and their latest effort, Guardian, proves both beautifully transcendent and punishingly bleak.
The biggest pitfall that wordless music can fall into is repetitiveness. Russian Circles have staked their career on sidestepping this peril, as each new release during the past decade has carved out its own sonic space and told its own story. For Guidance, they tapped Kurt Ballou of Converge fame to produce, and this change of pace at his Salem, Massachusetts studio further aided the band in keeping their sound fresh. The infusion of melancholy on 2014’s Memorial has been drained away on this latest effort, and Guidance instead lets in slivers of light that shine onto some truly beautiful sequences, only to then plunge everything into apocalyptic darkness.
Guidance opens with a perfect example of this. “Asa” comes in gentle as a lamb, tender strings resting on a bed of delicate atmospherics. It’s like a pleasant walk through a sun-dappled meadow that ultimately leads toward a nuclear test site. Shit goes down on “Vorel.” Militaristic drums thunder and roll, the ethereal effects of the opening track taking on a sharper, grittier edge and the track unfurls into an inky black monster full of snarl and bite. “Mota” blends the moments of light and dark into a single track, as it opens pensively, with an introspective tone shrouded in gloom that swells to outright dread by song’s end.
The dust settles again on “Overboard,” a track that serves as a soft, meditative echo of the opening “Asa,” but it’s only the eye of the hurricane. “Calla” again cranks up the doom, diving to the darkest depths on the entire record as a chugging salvo of guitars triggers minor-chord mayhem. Meanwhile, closer “Lisboa” punctuates both the album and the band’s latest demonstration of its ability to dance between poles. Crawling to a start with barely a whisper, it erupts into a metal crescendo that’s transcendent and glimmering even at its discordant peak.
Graced with cover art of a man in wartime being led to his execution (a decades-old photo that was given to the band with no context), Guidance captures both brutality and grace. There are no guest vocalists this time around—Memorial featured Sargent House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe on its final track—but this latest Russian Circles album speaks to the often paradoxical duality inherent to the human experience. In an increasingly chaotic world, doomsday music can be a catharsis, especially when an album like Guidance is able to offer silver linings to its mushroom clouds.