The doors opened twenty minutes late last Friday as an eager line-up formed outside the Biltmore Cabaret. Russian Circles fans clearly made up the majority of those in attendance, but an impressive number of giddy and devoted And So I Watch You From Afar fans made their presence known. We happily filed in around 8:30 p.m., chilled from the rain, and scrambled to secure a prime spot in one of the famed venue’s beautiful booths.
Comprised of Rory Friers (guitar), Johnny Adger (bass) and Chris Wee (drums), Belfast’s ASIWYFA hit the stage at 10:15 p.m. and quickly electrified the room with their exuberant, frantic rock. Sweat and smiles quickly spread throughout the crowd as the three-piece jumped back and forth between trippy ambient bits and hard-driving, balls-out riffs, all of which exude an undeniably infectious positivity. While focusing largely on tunes from 2011’s Gangs (such as the thumping “Think:Breathe:Destroy” and the spacey, 10-minute epic “Homes – … Samara to Belfast”), the set still provided a comprehensive sweep of their back catalogue, including pieces from 2010’s Letters EP (“S Is For Salamander”) and their eponymous 2009 effort (the huge “Set Guitars to Kill”, “The Voiceless”).
ASIWYFA set the bar very high with a powerful, engaging performance that featured a lot of genuine crowd interaction and appreciation, and prompted some spirited yelping, howling, and not to mention surfing from the crowd.
Chicago’s Russian Circles – who take their name from a hockey drill exercise (I always thought it had to do with communist crop formations… huh) – had the daunting task of harnessing the still palpable energy in the room and using it for their own purposes. Being the junior veterans of the post-metal genre that they are, the trio succeeded in pulling their capable opener’s lively, upbeat vibe into a more progressive, drawn out, and often much darker place.
The Biltmore crowd, who had so recently been bopping around à la human popcorn, quickly adapted and morphed into a messy congregation of slow-head-banging devotees. Mike Sullivan (guitar) and Brian Cook stacked layer upon layer of sonic texture as drummer Dave Turncrantz played Master Percussive Engineer and provided everything from intricate, galloping rhythms to minimal, almost empty drumming passages that gave the songs (as well as the crowd) room to breathe and flow.
Russian Circles performed much of their latest effort, Empros (2011), to the delight of the many hardcores and newbies present. My personal highlight, however, has to be the title track from 2009’s Geneva (which I believe they played third… my notes got wrecked in all the post-show insanity) – this is one of their best songs, in my humblest of opinions. The aggressive riffing, the busy and bang-on drumming, and the fat-as-fuck bass line meld together to create what is certainly one of their heaviest, most menacing, and ultimately satisfying songs ever. I dig it.
With Russian Circles, you really get the sense that no one else will ever… ever… see the show you’re seeing happen in front of your eyeballs, even if they never changed their set list ever again. Much of this band’s charm is found in their expert technical ability and musical prowess, which together generate countless unique moments. Whether it’s a particular extended feedback squeal or the immeasurable depth of a building, ambient loop, the sounds created by these three musicians can never be replicated exactly.
Whereas so many groups seem to play their material by rote, often so sadly and visibly uninspired after years of repetition, Russian Circles seem instead to follow unfinished musical blueprints that allow them to build their monumental songs anew, again and again.