Russian Circles works in a relatively esoteric area – an instrumental trio that finds the sweet spot at the intersection of metal, hard rock, progressive and experimental music. Its five albums, culminating with last year's elegiac "Memorial" (Sargent House), demonstrate just how expressive and dynamic a rock band without a lead vocalist can be. If an album can be both thrashy and poignant, "Memorial" is it.
Guitarist Mike Sullivan says he and drummer Dave Turncrantz (later joined by bassist Brian Cook, who replaced cofounder Colin DeKuiper) didn't set out to be an instrumental band, but ended up loving the freedom of being able to compose music without being restricted by a singer's range or a lyric sheet. He describes early rehearsals as open-ended, guided only by a motto of "keep it simple, stupid."
"Find the groove, line up the kick (drum) with the bass, create a solid foundation, get into repetition. It wasn't about having notes coming at you at a million miles an hour. It was more about building themes than licks. We wanted to look at composition and arrangement, and learn more about the song than individual parts."
Early jams could sprawl past 10 minutes or more. "That would've been tough for a vocalist, and after a while we didn't see why it was necessary. Besides, when Dave and I started playing together, if either one of us sang, it would've been an abomination. If we ever try to sing, we should be put in front of a firing squad. Fortunately, it never got to the point where we even had to consider singing because the music was working on its own."
Sullivan had moved to Chicago from St. Louis in 1999 to attend DePaul University. He was already a fan of the city's independent music scene, and soon put together a band, Dakota/Dakota in that spirit. After that band imploded, he rejoined forces with Turncrantz, an old music companion from St. Louis, to launch Russian Circles. The band takes its name from training drill that Turncrantz and Sullivan remembered from their high school ice-hockey practices. "We needed a band name for our first show …," Sullivan explains, and it stuck.
"We practiced every day, holed up in our practice space, and friends like Pelican helped immensely by putting us in touch with booking agencies and playing shows with us," says Sullivan, affirming that his long-distance admiration for the Chicago music scene was not misplaced.
Along the way, all the band members worked jobs that they'd rather forget.
"I was a greeter at a (retail) store," Sullivan says. "I'm not the most social person, but I had to say 'Hello' to customers. It was like asking me to climb Everest. I had to wear a headset. That was a fun one to walk away from. But it's great to have jobs you can't stand. What better motivator is there than that? I'd get to practice and it would be like, 'Let's jam, because I need to forget about that eight hours of embarrassment I just went through.'"
Despite low expectations – "our only goal was to play with a few bands we like, to have fun playing music, and have a few beers" – things evolved where day jobs were no longer a necessity, budgets increased and established labels distributed the recordings. A rigorous set of standards has evolved, where the trio is constantly challenging itself to stretch boundaries and expectations, with Cook playing a key role as a kind of editor for the songs written by Sullivan and Turncrantz.
"We're very hard on ourselves and each other," Sullivan says. "It's brutal. No one's afraid to say, 'That's not working, man.' I can work on a part for 18 hours and they can say it sounds like some band I can't stand. We move on. It's important to have that, and I'm grateful for it. It makes it harder, but it also makes the music better."
The last three Russian Circles albums were produced by former Secret Machines member Brandon Curtis, with an uptick in sophistication and density. "Memorial" covers a range of textures, from acoustic delicacy to rapid-fire aggression. It also includes a rare vocal from a guest singer, Chelsea Wolfe, whose voice doesn't articulate words so much as apply another color to the chillingly beautiful title song.
"We toured together two years ago, and we're huge fans," Sullivan says of Wolfe. "The song was written in a key with her vocals in mind. When we asked her about doing some vocals, she says, 'That's funny. I always sing along while watching you guys.'"
As Wolfe suggests, the freedom the musicians find in not being bound by a vocalist also applies to their fans. "Memorial" is an album that evokes a certain darkness, various stages in the mourning process. But there are no lyrics to spell that out. Even Clarke's vocals are less about literal meaning than sound.
"The song titles mean something to us, but we like to keep it cryptic and open to interpretation," Sullivan says. "The goal is that people can get into it and apply whatever they hear in the songs to their own lives."