Writing about instrumental music is a tricky task, as you’re trying to read meaning into songs that are inherently textural. In the absence of lyrics, it’s easy to look to recording details to gain a better understanding of where the musicians were, both physically and mentally, during the creative process. While that’s often foolish, in the case of Russian Circles, those facts mean something. Their new album, Blood Year, builds a direct link between the band’s past and present.
Recorded with Kurt Ballou, both at his GodCity Studio as well as Chicago’s revered Electrical Audio (where they’ve now recorded four of their seven albums), Blood Year reunites the band with the producer who pushed them to new heights on 2016’s Guidance. On songs like “Milano” and “Sinaia,” Ballou understands that guitarist Mike Sullivan’s black metal-styled riffing is not meant to pummel the listener, but is meant as an expression of his own introspection. Where lesser producers would bring Sullivan’s tremolo-picked riffs to the forefront, on Blood Year those moments hang back in the mix, showing that as the band move further away from their math rock-indebted beginnings, they’ve found ways to insert their interest in aggressive music without it going into rote or predictable territory.
No song on Blood Year highlights the fact that Russian Circles have been able to build upon their original ethos as much as “Arluck.” Throughout this moving tribute to Matt Arluck, the Sweet Cobra guitarist who died a decade ago, Sullivan builds some of the poppiest guitar parts he’s ever recorded, the kind that are reminiscent of 2006’s Enter, or even his old band Dakota/Dakota. But around the midsection, it gives way to a darker, chug-heavy motif, one that the band always reached for, but never made into something as potent as they do here. It speaks to the fact that, after all these years together, Russian Circles are still growing as a band, incorporating new influences into their sound while still honoring the foundation they first set down all those years ago.