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The Haul 2010: Russian Circles' Geneva

2. Russian Circles – Geneva 2LP – Sargent House, 2009 – $24 (Newbury Comics, 1/6)

Russian Circles' Geneva

Perhaps the biggest statement here is that I bought the new Russian Circles album, not the new Pelican album. The comparison isn’t as unavoidable as it was when Russian Circles debuted with Enter in 2006 in the wake of The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, but even if you Google “Russian Circles,” the info text for their own web site includes “similar to fellow Chicago residents Pelican.” That’s a strange combination of deference and realism—yes, we also play instrumental post-metal/rock, yes we’re from the same city and formed after they did, yes they’re a higher profile band. But the tides have turned with regard to their respective standings. Seemingly every conversation about Pelican begins and ends with a derisive comment about drummer Larry Herweg, which leads Pelican fans to seek other options for their post-metal fix.

(Side note: I don’t think “post-metal” fits the current output of either band, but it’s still the prevailing genre tag. I’ll give Pelican’s first two releases, the self-titled EP and Australasia, some leeway given some doom-metal tendencies, but since The Fire in Our Throats they’ve been much closer to Explosions in the Sky. Russian Circles was mostly in the post-rock camp on Enter and at this point, I’d limit their connection to metal to a pinky toe.)

The tired “Pelican’s drummer sucks” argument isn’t at the heart of why I enjoyed Australasia and The Fire in Our Throats and was so disappointed by City of Echoes and What We All Come to Need, or why I greatly prefer Russian Circles’ Geneva to those two recent Pelican albums. The issue is scope. After The Fire in Our Throats, Pelican decided that they were done with writing ten-minute-long epics and pared their compositions down to more manageable sizes. This knee-jerk, “let’s change for the sake of changing” decision removed the drama from their songs, making even four-minute tracks plod. I simply don’t know who prefers a four-minute Pelican song with a tidier structure to a mammoth beast like “March into the Sea,” which still amazes me with how many riffs and ideas it crams into its running time. Even recruiting Shiner / The Life and Times vocalist Allen Epley to sing on What We All Come to Need’s dirge-like closer, “Final Breath,” which should have been a merger made in fanboy heaven, was ultimately underwhelming. Why can’t he sing over a song I care about? The songwriting is the main issue here, not Herweg’s drumming.

Fortunately, Russian Circles stole Pelican’s scope for Geneva. (My dad loved telling me about what happened when his favorite baseball player growing up, Duke Snider, moved out to Los Angeles along with the rest of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Snider was heading out onto the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when Willie Mays pointed at the 440-foot-deep right field wall and yelled, “Duke, they stole your bat!” Ebbets Field in Brooklyn only had a 297-foot-deep right field pole. Snider’s power numbers stayed there.) An even bigger slight—the majority of these songs have comparable runtimes to the tidied Pelican tracks. The reason why Russian Circles succeeds with this set-up and Pelican fails is that the former group recognizes its weaknesses and accordingly plays to its strengths. Drummer Dave Turncrantz is the best musician in Russian Circles, so everything runs through him, especially on the dynamic, foreboding opener “Fathom.” Bassist Brian Cook fills the low-end with the appropriate texture for a given song, whether it’s the rumble of a held note, a distorted lead, or the melodic anchor on the bridge of “Philos.” Guitarist Mike Sullivan isn’t as nimble as the riff-machines in Pelican, but he can carry a song like “Malko” with his razor-sharp leads. More importantly—and he deserves a ton of credit for this move—he lets contributing instruments like violin, cello, trombone, and trumpet take the lead during the beginning of “Fathom,” the entirety of the wonderfully lulling “Hexed All,” and the triumphant peaks of “Philos.” When I first heard Geneva, I dismissed it as Pelican with strings, but the ways these elements take charge, set the atmosphere, or lock in with Sullivan gives the album a much longer shelf-life. Unlike the recent Pelican output, where I’m likely to single out the most memorable element of a song—usually a guitar riff like the Hum-on-steroids “City of Echoes”—everything here serves the song and the album as a whole.

Part of me hates framing the discussion of Geneva with the ongoing comparison with Pelican, but seeing Russian Circles come out from under Pelican’s shadow and actually surpass them by a wide margin is a huge achievement. Since Enter, Russian Circles have been a group that’s very good at what it does, but Geneva changes the discussion. Now I’m considerably more excited for the next Russian Circles album than the next Pelican album. There’s no longer any question who has the scope and the songwriting in Chicago.