It may share its name with another second city, but the third LP from the Russian Circles calls to mind a fairly famous quote from one of their hometown's favorite sons. "Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring," Nelson Algren wrote, and Geneva's an October sort of album no matter when you put it on. Geneva feels very much like the city its members hang their hats: rusty and steely and shifty, overcast and a little cold, and-- Algren again-- "battle-colored." It evokes a long early morning's drive down the length of any one of Chicago's city-spanning north-south thoroughfares, blowing through both industrial grit and beatific parkways, eyes peeled for crumbling facades and flashes of chrome and the not-so-occasional pothole.
There were signposts to Geneva all over the spiny, immediate Enter and last year's prettier, driftier Station, but on their third go, the Circles are clearing a path all for themselves. Debts are still due to genre godheads like Mogwai and Slint, for certain, but like the best work of their obvious forebears, on Geneva the Circles have found a way to make three guys in a room sound like a lot more than three guys in a room. Credit where credit's due: a great deal of Geneva's success lies in the string work of cellist Allison Chesley and violinist Susan Voelz, who add a resonant depth to many of the record's best moments, filling in the gaps around these insistent compositions with a kind of sweeping gothic grime. But even without the hired hands, Russian Circles are penning limber, purpose-driven tunes, then playing the hell out of them. And, in their structure and execution both, this is doubtless their finest work yet.
Instrumental prowess is a double-edged sword in just about any genre, but when instrumental's all you do, you run the risk of the dreaded wank with every flick of the wrist. That's something the Circles in general and Brian Cook in particular have handled admirably through the years; they're capable of sneaking thunderous Lightning Bolt-style blastoffs and fingery Yngwie thingys in with opulent drift, while coming across as neither tossers or tossed-off. Drummer Dave Turncrantz gets plenty in, but favors the boom over the barrage, and guitarist Mike Sullivan, as Pitchfork's Cosmo Lee pointed out in his review of Station, often cedes the presumptive lead role for the good of the group. But it's Cook who's come into his own here on Geneva, consistently holding down the low end with inventive but unshowy aplomb. And when he's given a shot at the spotlight-- a position he takes only a handful of times throughout-- the record is his.
The Circles have long done peaks far better than valleys, and there's really only one such dip on Geneva: "Hexed All", a tune they all but give over to Chesley and Voelz, flipping the melee of, well, "Melee" for a supine string-laden swoon. It's clearly meant as a respite from the relative brutality that surrounds it-- much like the first few minutes of "Verses" was to the middle of Station-- but it also works against the album's momentum a touch, the widescreen beauty of Explosions in the Sky reformatted to fit your screen. It's fine, but it's not necessary; the string section is so seamlessly integrated into the Circles' sound on meatier tracks like "Fathom", putting them front and center feels more like a conciliatory gesture than a Russian Circles tune.
The record's second half favors an enveloping crumble over the opening trio's crushing hypnotism; tracks unfurl more patiently, perhaps more gracefully, but with nearly the same sense of purpose that underlies the weightier start-up. Save the proggy "Malko", this stuff is textbook post-rock; songs start soft and slow, more elements get thrown into the mix, and we eventually have our climax. Still, there's a sense of internal dynamics in the tunes that makes this particularly good textbook post-rock; instead of a simple gradual increase in volume, they pull in sounds from left-field, lending the tunes a ratchety, rust-covered feeling that is unusually complex. Nearly all of these tunes die screaming, they just take a bit longer to get there as Geneva goes on. It's more a matter of contrast than anything else; were the running order reversed, you'd sit on your hands through the first half waiting for the impending blowout. I suppose this, too, is like Chicago, with the livelier South Side giving way to the statelier North, both with their unique merits. Either way, Geneva's a record with dirt underneath its fingernails and resolute urgency at its heart, and like the place from which it hails, it's worth the bluster.
item # 40380