“Consistent” can be a damning term for many bands. For some, it implies that the band puts out material of a uniform quality, without any real dips or peaks. It can also mean that the band has become utterly predictable. On Empros, Russian Circles firmly establish their consistent credentials. The Chicago-based instrumental trio has always delivered high-quality product, but have they become predictable? Absolutely. When a Russian Circles album is popped in, one can expect a collection of six or seven long songs that usually go from being really quiet to really loud, that juxtapose moments of seismic metal force with more tender moments that sometimes border on ambient. What keeps them from becoming stagnant is how they shuffle the deck each time, differing the structures of their songs and evolving as musicians while sticking reasonably within the boundaries they have set for themselves. It’s an approach that has earned them a spot near the top of their field, seemingly immune to sudden turns in critical favor, something fellow Chicago instru-metalists Pelican were plagued with on 2007’s City Of Echoes.
On 2009’s Geneva, it was bassist Brian Cook who snagged MVP status, his jagged bass blasts injecting additional power into what may go down as the trio’s most subdued album. On Empros, it’s guitarist Mike Sullivan’s time to shine (for those keeping score at home, drummer Dave Turncrantz’s star turn arguably came on their 2006 debut Enter), and it comes on their most fierce set of tracks so far. Never the type of guitarist intent on hogging the spotlight, Sullivan’s greatest moments on this outing come when he hangs back and utilizes space between his riffs. Opener “309” may resemble the gallop of Enter’s “Death Rides A Horse” during its first half, but when Sullivan just lets his guitar ring out, feedback and other tones bleeding in while Cook and Turncrantz lock into a primal death march on the track’s back half, the effects are downright chilling.
As noted earlier, it’s the trio’s capabilities as arrangers that make each of their albums worth listening and returning to. “Mladek” begins with one of the band’s prettiest, most major key moments. On a dime, it switches to a punishing series of basslines from Cook and more ethereal guitar work from Sullivan before culminating in an assault of gritted-teeth, neck-snapping riffage. This might sound like things are happening at a haphazard pace, but it instead demonstrates an expert grasp of the element of surprise. The chord progression that appears on “Schipol” is a little too on-the-nose for Russian Circles at this point, but they win the track back through the sheer power and size of their playing. Closing track “Praise Be To Man” actually features vocals, but they’re used more as a backing instrument, the lyrics borderline indecipherable.
Fat notes from Cook and tiny bottle rocket guitar parts from Sullivan conclude the album on a content note, whereas previous albums usually ended with the shrapnel of the last song’s final buildup-blast cycle slowly dissapating. It’s a fitting emotion to end on, as Empros proves Russian Circles’ ability once again, without going horribly out of its way to prove something or make some sort of grand statement. They may be consistent now, but they’re definitely making it work for them.