Photo courtesy Russian Circles
Atlanta has always provided the quintessentially weird and William Faulkner-esque Southern experience that Russian Circles’ guitar player Mike Sullivan hopes for every time the group passes through town on tour.
“I do and I don’t remember Russian Circles’ first show in Atlanta,” Sullivan says of the Chicago post-metal trio’s initial stops in town, supporting their 2006 debut album, Enter.
“We always played at the Drunken Unicorn back then,”he says. “I remember at one of those early shows that we played, Brent Hinds from Mastodon rolled up pretty early in the evening. He was riding a small BMX bike and he was tripping on mushrooms. That is exactly what you want from Atlanta,” he laughs. “And that was before any of us even knew Brent! He was there to say hi to someone else who happened to be there for the show that night.”
It’s fitting, then, that just over a decade later, Russian Circles’ musical trajectory carried the group from tearing up the stage for a sweat-soaked circle pit at the Drunken Unicorn to performing under the majestic stars of The Fox Theater, opening for Mastodon in 2017.
On October 29, Russian Circles return to Atlanta, this time playing a show at Terminal West supporting the group’s eighth and most recent full-length album, Gnosis (Sargent House Records).
Drop a needle into the record’s swirling orange vinyl grooves, and songs with titles such as “Tupilak,” “Conduit,” and the album’s title track weave together a rapturous opening salvo that is as heavy as it is pure.
Each song rises and falls with screaming, oceanic riffs and gut-pummeling rhythms in an ever-growing compositional sophistication that places the group on a tier that’s far beyond the post-metal continuum.
The guitars, drums, and bass swarm and move in ominous motions, as though they were guided by a hidden hand reaching out from somewhere deep within their collective subconscious. But as Sullivan asserts, these songs are among the group’s most meticulously arranged yet.
Throughout the album’s later songs— “Vlastimil,” “Ó Braonáin,” “Betrayal,” and “Bloom”—buzzing textures coalesce around massive and doom-laden imagery, painting a portrait of a society in decay.
The bleak beauty and the darkness that binds each song together eclipses all of Russian Circles’ previous offerings, delivering a record that is as furious as it is inquisitive, conjuring a mysterious aura of spiritual anxiety that takes shape as a singular work of understated impressionism.
The title itself, Gnosis, is the Greek word for knowledge, which often appears in religious texts denoting a deeper understanding of the universe that is arrived at only through direct engagement with the divine.
“And what is the divine?” Sullivan asks while pushing the conversation closer toward the album’s unrequited mystical angst. “What if we got it all wrong?” He asks. “What if we misinterpreted elements of faith and spirituality? What if we misinterpreted the Bible? What if we’re taking away the wrong message?”
In the end, there are no answers waiting to reveal themselves within the album’s monstrous roar and crushing rhythms, only a profound sense of reckoning with the unknown.
“That’s something that’s personal, and it’s different for each person, but it’s all tied to this idea of spiritual knowledge,” Sullivan says.
Russian Circles’ co-founding members, Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz have been friends since growing up together in St. Louis.
According to lore, they’re both lifelong hockey fans, and they took the name for the band from an ice hockey practice drill.
Turncrantz is a former drummer with fellow St. Louisan heavy rockers Riddle of Steel.
Bass player Brian Cook is also from St. Louis. He has performed in These Arms Are Snakes, Botch, and played bass in Sullivan’s previous instrumental math rock outfit Dakota/Dakota. Cook joined Russian Circles in 2009, replacing original bass player Colin DeKuiper.
Over the years, Russian Circles has undergone a tremendous creative evolution that balances the lilting strings and metallic aggression that forms the backdrop for 2011’s album, Empros. For 2013’s album Memorial, the group enlisted the voice of gothic-folk vocalist and songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, who expands the group’s dynamic with her voice on the album’s self-titled closing track.
Written and recorded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the songs on Gnosis turn inward, capturing a singularly troubled time for the group, and for the rest of the world.
Quarantine orders kept each of the group’s members behind closed doors, creating an environment in which no one was playing music or writing together at all: No practicing, no jamming, no happy accidents, and no opportunity for mutual organic growth. So rather than building songs out of ideas and fragments that were captured live and in the moment, fully formed demos were written and recorded in Sullivan, Cook, and Turncrantz’s respective isolation. Later, they shared their songs with each other and paired the material down to create a stylistically physical and visceral release.
“Gnosis was 100-percent written in our own worlds,” Sullivan says. “It was like, you construct a song on a blank grid, and parts are added, which is a way more immersive experience, as far as presenting a full arrangement: Here are additional guitars. Here’s how it will transition to the next part. It’s a completely different and more controlled approach for us. Before, it was kind of like, we would get together and just hope that something good would happen, which is kind of terrifying,” he laughs. “The songs on our first album, Enter, were just me and Dave jamming together in a room. Now, whenever we get together, we know what we’re working on. There are plenty of ideas to choose from. And if we don’t wanna work on one, there are even other ideas we can start hammering away at yet.”
The bass and drums for Gnosis were tracked at Electrical Audio in Chicago by Kurt Ballou, who also recorded the guitar and synth parts at God City Studio in Salem, Massachusetts. Ballou also engineered and mixed the album at God City.
Gnosis is the third record that Russian Circles has made with Ballou, following 2016’s Guidance and 2019’s Blood Year. It’s also the second album for which the group divided its time between Electrical Audio and God City.
“God’s City is great because we go there and Kurt has the home field advantage,” Sullivan says. “There are so many pedals, and so many different toys to play with, and different amps. As a guitar player, I’ll never complain about heading over to God City. It makes the record way more diverse sounding, just knowing all of the gizmos that he has to play with there. Kurt is also really familiar with Electrical Audio, and he just knows what to do instinctively, and he knows how to manipulate all the rack gear and everything,” Sullivan adds. “He has preferences for mics and compressors, and a lot of it goes off of Dave’s performances and tuning and Kurt excelling at what he does. What those two came up with is the best drum tone we could have captured.”
One of the more compelling moments of Gnosis, takes shape minutes into the album’s title track. The guitar kicks in on a delayed stereo effect, revealing wholly new dynamics and greater depths in the album’s sonic dimensions. It’s an effect that’s mirrored in the album’s closing number, “Bloom,” and was also used in the song “Campaign,” which opens Russian Circles’ 2008 album, Station (Suicide Squeeze).
“It’s interesting when you start utilizing stereo manipulation,” Sullivan says. “It opens up the field just a bit more. Just now, we were jamming during practice, and Dave had in his ear monitors so that he could hear himself playing. All of the drums were in mono whereas the guitar was stereo panned. Ideally, you wouldn’t want mono drums by any means, but having it there opened up the guitars. When some things are in stereo and some things are mono, it makes the mix deeper. The instruments hit your ear differently, and in a really exciting way.”
Back in 2008, when the group recorded the album Station, their engineer at the time, Matt Bayles, as Sullivan recalls, said ‘Let’s utilize some stereo action here,’ which is how the technique became a part of the group’s repertoire.
“That was the first time we did that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is like a little bit of stereo magic. This is awesome,” Sullivan says. “Now, we’re starting to consider how that technique is something we should be doing live, making the most of it, and not just reserving it for records.”
Part of Russian Circles appeal lies in its style and how the group adapts its brand of instrumental dirges to a more traditional songwriting style, as they do with “Vlastimil,” where the group expands upon its already colossal sound, while reinventing its own musical techniques.
The chemistry between the band’s members and Ballou is clearly on display throughout the album. His approach to production and engineering dovetails with the tension that builds throughout Gnosis’ serrated and gargantuan epics.
As such, the nature of their working relationship positions Ballou as something of a fourth member of the group. His presence has become key to Russian Circles’ creative evolution and success.
“If you find people that you have chemistry with, that’s a huge gift,” Sullivan says. “Do not throw that away.”
Together, their work has yielded a late body of work that is greater than the sum of Russian Circles’ parts, even though those parts are quite impressive, summoning a sense of the divine on their own terms as they illustrate the complexity of the group’s songs and history.
This story originally appeared in the October print issue of Record Plug Magazine.
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