Russian Circles crafts epics, with no strings attached
Want to know when you’ve arrived as a musician? A good sign is when Guitar World magazine comes calling to pick your brain about seminal influences, go-to pedals, and, of course, that one axe you’d throw yourself in front of a Japanese bullet train to save.
Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan is one of those who’s received his own spread in the American glossy. As someone who spent more than one afternoon flipping through Guitar World’s pages, he finds it hard to believe that he’s someone the six-string warriors of tomorrow are reading about today.
“If anything, it’s flattering,” Sullivan says humbly, on the line from his hometown of Chicago. “I definitely never thought that things would come to this level, where people care about what kind of stupid gear I’m using. It’s all very shocking to me.”
Fans of Russian Circles are likely nowhere near as surprised by the recognition the guitarist is getting. Over the course of the past eight years, the three-piece has proven itself to be one of the most forward-thinking acts in instrumental rock. That status is solidified by the group’s beautifully bombastic—and often just plain beautiful—latest, Empros.
For good reasons, the record represents something of a sonic step back for Russian Circles. On 2009’s Geneva, Sullivan and his bandmates—bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz—seemed on a mission to out-ornate Godspeed You! Black Emperor with songs draped in seasons-of-sorrow strings. To the group’s dismay, that ambitiousness presented a bit of a problem when it was time to play Geneva’s songs on-stage.
“The strings were something that we always wanted to do, and we finally had the time and the means to do it,” Sullivan says. “The problem was that a lot of the string parts were written purely as string parts. So when it came down to the first tour for the record, it was like ‘Shit—which ones of these can we actually play without sacrificing the melody or rhythmic part of the song?’ It became frustrating because we couldn’t do a lot of the songs from Geneva live. We dug our own grave. With Empros, we really wanted to be able to play every song on the record.”
And what monumental songs they are, with Russian Circles proving that it doesn’t need strings to send chills up the spines of postrock metal-punk fans. Connecting the songs to past efforts, it’s often all about the slow build and violent release. “Schipol” starts out with delicate acoustic guitar and ambient, tombstone-grey distortion, then explodes into a stadium-size prog rocker around the three-minute mark. “Mládek” opens as bright-eyed, break-of-dawn hard pop, before pulling a violent U-turn halfway through, burning across the finish line with salvos of neck-snapping chugga-chugga riffage. The kickoff track, “309”, meanwhile, is almost uglier than Big Black, and one of the reasons Empros has been called Russian Circles’ heaviest album to date.
Through it all, Sullivan proves himself to be epically accomplished. Speaking volumes about his humility, though, the guitarist—who was a huge Eddie Van Halen fan as a kid, until Shellac’s Steve Albini changed his life—doesn’t see things that way.
“I’ve always been a fan of the guitar, and guitar music in all of its forms,” Sinclair say. “As a big fan of the instrument, I’m always trying to learn stuff, and am embarrassed to say how far behind I am in things like theory. That’s why, to be featured in magazines like Guitar World, which I grew up reading, is cool. It’s something to show the parents—like, ‘Look, I know you hate our music, but check this out!’ ”
Russian Circles plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (June 22).