Blood Year stays in the lane that the band has carved for itself, though as ever the group wades in slightly new directions.
Russian Circles has been one of the bright spots of post-metal in recent years, ardently defending the faith of sludge-prog of Isis and Neurosis extraction. Compared to their colleagues, Mike Sullivan, Brian Cook and Dave Turncrantz tend to keep things at manageable levels; instead of plodding along for 10-plus-minute exercises in dynamic control and repetition, their songs tend to stay in the 5-7 range, downright brief for the epic swells and ebbs of post-rock. The band retains the Romantic beauty of post-metal’s elemental, hypnotic movements, but their concision gives tracks a focus and blistering crunch that serves as a welcome reminder that sludge was informed as much by Black Flag as Black Sabbath. Blood Year, the trio’s seventh LP, stays in the lane that the band has carved for itself, though as ever the group wades in slightly new directions.
After a gentle, western-tinged guitar pattern that opens “Hunter Moon,” the album launches into gear with “Arluck,” which gallops out of the gate with Turncrantz’s pounding drums before Cook’s thickly distorted bass joins in and the two sound like they are putting together a punk track. Only the entrance of Sullivan’s guitar, knotty and bright, disrupts this charge, weaving between the rhythm section and deepening the straightforward phrasing into something proggier. It’s one of the most succinct summaries of Russian Circles’ strengths that the band has yet recorded, gorgeous and carefully modulated instrumental rock that nonetheless chugs with force.
Elsewhere, the trio incorporates other styles into their sludge. “Milano” clearly pulls from black metal, employing both tremolo-picked guitar and blast beats. Yet even this raw sound is upended by Cook’s slow, molasses-thick doom bassline, which wraps around the track like a lead weight and forcefully contrasts the runaway tempo. Sullivan breaks down walls of noise with occasional soaring breaks, which further complicate the track by sending it off into elegant glides before it crashes back down into murk. “Ghost on High” could be one of the acoustic interludes on old Black Sabbath albums, those creepy bits of brittle folk that tied the group’s industrial decay to a longer history of pastoral unease. The buzzing electric guitar that gently intrudes toward the end only exacerbates this feeling of natural and synthetic dread.
On the longer tracks, Russian Circles branch out even further. “Sinaia” keeps the slow, fragile tone of “Ghost on High” and gradually stirs in pure post-rock swell as Sullivan’s guitar floats higher and higher. When the band lurches into view together, Cook and Turncrantz groan and plod underneath Sullivan’s cresting guitar. The three band members all slide in and out of sync with one another, each spiraling off into their own directions before meeting back on common ground and splintering again. “Kohokia” trudges forward until it explodes nearly three minutes in, locking into a fearsome riff as Turncrantz beats his cymbals like they owe him money. Like “Sinaia,” the track is the most traditionally post-metal work on the album, but even as the overall thrust of the composition is driven by the sort of rise-and-fall structure of guitars soaring thermals, there remains a fundamental muscle that charges through cliché.
Most Russian Circles albums end on a more somber, downbeat note, but Blood Year concludes with its hardest number. “Quartered” is pure, savage metal, a stomping, riff-driven piece that sounds like it could have slotted onto one of Strapping Young Lad’s later, less frantically paced albums. It’s a strong ending for another sturdy collection of burly-but-flowing rock from a band that can produce it seemingly without effort, and the album is yet another excellent collection for one of the most consistent bands in contemporary metal.