I’ve always wanted to love Russian Circles’ music. As a native Midwesterner with a Canadian father, the Chicago-based band, whose name comes from a hockey drill, Russian Circles always had a latent personal appeal. Their music, much like their dynamic songwriting approach, was full of peaks and valleys. I see why fans love their scenic, cinematic style, yet I appreciate detractors who decry the band’s unique style as rather tedious. It probably doesn’t help that Russian Circles are a band who don’t fit into any box neatly. They aren’t really a metal band, in that their sometimes sludgy riffs are an accent piece, not a main attraction. They aren’t really a post-rock band, even if they dip one toe into that sonic well from time to time. No, Russian Circles blaze their own trail, with tribal rhythms, siren song leads, and pulsing bass-work. They just never really wrote a full album’s worth of incredible tunes, as if they were always on the right track, but something was holding them back.
I’m not entirely sure we can credit production maestro Kurt Ballou entirely, but Guidance is definitely their most succinct and (completely unsurprisingly) heaviest album yet. None of the songs goes much past a six-and-a-half-minute run time, so they feel more powerful, more punchy, and more dynamic. As is always the case with a Ballou production, the guitar tone is truly wonderful, maybe a touch cleaner than usual for him, but it helps make “Vorel” and “Calla” such captivating numbers (I mean, Jesus, those riffs). There are honest to God incredible riffs here that feel like they’re extending what Russian Circles are capable of, almost adding a new depth to their dynamic ability. Smartly, Russian Circles also tip the scales deep into the other side with “Asa” and “Overboard” serving as wise, pensive interludes to the coming storm. The latter track feels a bit underwhelming in between the majesty of “Afrika” and “Calla”; however, it serves as the eye of the storm well enough.
The album’s art came from a picture a veteran gave to a band member’s spouse, and it resonated deeply. It features a man being led to his execution, and while that is certainly cause for dark reflection, the band chose to look at the doomed man’s dignity in his fatalistic march. Here was someone who knew his fate and boldly marched toward his destiny. That sense of purpose guided (pun maybe intended) Russian Circles, and probably explains why these songs carry a more determined sense of identity and pace. The band have always been phenomenally talented musicians, and their ability to write truly incredible songs was only plagued by bouts of inconsistency. Whatever factor (Ballou’s production, the photo, the band’s longevity) factored into the subtle yet significant tweaks that made Guidance such an excellent album are not the point. Russian Circles have created their best work yet, and they feel more focused and driven than ever before. It’s not about me, but I’m glad the band finally delivered the album I always hoped they’d write.