Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Concert Review: Russian Circles @ Union Transfer - Philadelphia, PA 09/29/16

Stars can frighten...   

I’ve heard Daniel Lanois talk about The Edge’s obsession with creating a landscape with his guitar playing. I would even have described his playing style using those exact words (up through the Joshua Tree any way). It was brilliant! It was an acknowledgment of his limitations as a musician but something else expanded as a result. It was (lament) a powerful, aggressive, visceral style of playing that goes for the whole band for that matter. Who else but those three musicians could have possibly brought out such a sound.There was a momentum you could almost feel. As a result the record covers dove tailed perfectly with the sound. Which brings me to Russian Circles in the live setting.

Instrumental music, I might venture, is a polarizing thing for some people. Reaching for the meaning of more allusive lyrical styles can challenge, and in some manner elevate, the listener. Nonverbal communication is another monstrosity all together. I played in very a few bands. Two of which being instrumentally based. One of these bands was a Jazz based Afro Cuban improve project. There was a bond created in that unit. It’s a micro verse. Maybe when the stars align the bands of energy surrounding the musicians can loosen, expand and wrap the audience in an actual experience. Russian Circles are very consistent in this ability on record. Live??? The listener, head banger, observing musician, hot chick who stands out like a star on Orion’s belt (who went with her artsy girlfriend to meet a guy friend of hers who she should meet but knows he’s way too out there and she’s way too practical to hit it off yet they end up falling into each other and making out on the floor by the time RC played "1777") are taken in and held inside the band of energy in a Russian Circles set.

This was the first time I saw Russian Circles live. They are equally captivating having watched previous shows archived on YouTube. DO NOT MISS THIS BAND when they come around. They are masters of building tension and suspense. For instance, after they tuned and readied their instruments the lights went down...there they remained for a full 10 minutes.

Then the cavernous electrical humming, a small bright white light in the pitch black showing a sliver of Mike Cook manning a baritone guitar for the moment. I imagined Nikola Tesla in his lab during this scene. The hum intensifying  in relief with the dawning purple light from behind the band into the chiming chord fragments of "Asa",

Sound continues to expands into the floor, into the mouth of the river of "Vorel", Both songs are opening tracks to Guidance, their sixth studio album  I love the way the band uses the fairly dark stage to accentuate  sonic dynamics. I don’t know how much the band relies on it but its very effective along with the color choices. Mike Cook mentioned in an interview that the stark lighting was a strategy to keep the audience in the moment instead of trying to preserve it on a camera phone. I remember watching an old interview with Roger Waters about making a connection with the crowd at this level. While Gene Simmons slammed Floyd for being boring visually, it has to be acknowledged at the same time, the respect Pink Floyd had for both it’s audience and sonic quality.

"Vorel" eventually resolves into a hum until the heave of "Deficit" with its machine like chomping breakdown around the four minute mark. "309" was launched next like a wild-eyed and snorting crazed horse. "Afrika" and "Harper Lewis" with it's tell tale rhythm, from Station, came next. Its hard not to notice the melodic role Dave Turncrantz  takes as a drummer. Mike Sullivan’s soaring cinematic guitar is very much an ephemeral element that at times suggest a melody but other moments its the exact opposite defining melody with a gaseous quality. Same for Cook's bass and baritone guitar parts, that at the turn of signature becomes a tool of Cyberdyne Systems.

This leaves Turncrantz in unusual territory and for a drummer he gives definition to what the curtain is hiding. I now know the burned copy of the unknown RC disc I own to be Memorial as the hum returned with Turncrantz delivering what was like the sporadic flashes of lightning that would coalesce into "1777", a song that captures a sense of flight i haven’t heard since Micheal Hedges "Ariel Boundaries". That's what I’m talking about when I say nonverbal experience. You don’t simply listen to Russian Circles. There is action and sensation  in this music. I am sure its only a matter of time till RCs are commissioned for sound track work. A truly phenomenal live act.

Earlier I mentioned Pink Floyd. I bring them up again for a different reason. Helms Alee’s, the opening act, has a sound that puts me in the same room occupied by Astronomy Domine. No, all of their songs do not sound like AD. It’s the vibe of the song and it’s landscape the band exude; menacing and cerebral. They make super effective use of three part harmonies, 2/3rds being women. It produces an effect like the nightmare in it’s nightie from The Grudge. The guitar shifts back and forth effectively from metallic references (as metal as Cave In could be) to wind torn sail chime. The rhythm section, like in U2. Who else could do it like these ladies? Very unique bass playing and absolutely stellar drumming.

Creative and brutal but with out the more typical plodding along rhythm of bands of this type of genre. The screaming vocals, normally I can do without it. In this setting it adds to the dynamic and "Fall of The House of Usher" aesthetic. It wouldn’t surprise me if they forgo it in the future the same way Mastodon eventually did in favor of more dynamic range.  Helms Alee is a great band I’ll expect good things in the future from them. 

If you have the opportunity, dear reader, catch Russian Circles live. Something will stay with you for a long time afterward. It will be hard to explain to others yet you’ll know some how you where spoken to and part of your mind tapped that has been dormant or uncharted. Its a very humanizing experience to feel the touch of such intangibles.

Keep the windows down and your eyes on the horizon!


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