Russian Circles

support Helms Alee
author AP date 28/04/19 venue Jazzhouse, Copenhagen, DEN

This is my second time in the cozy confines of Copenhagen’s Jazzhouse, which of late has been busy expanding its scope to encompass experimental and avant-garde forms of rock music as well, and I’d be lying to claim the place hasn’t already grown on me. The venue is intimate, yet even at sold out capacity, never too jammed with people to reduce comfort; and where else can you couple good cocktails with a rock show? Tonight I am here to watch a band who, for some reason, have managed to elude review by this webzine on all of their past visits to Denmark; one a colleague of mine aptly refers to as belonging to the top of the top in the post-rock genre: the critically acclaimed Russian Circles. And just as was the case for my last visit to Jazzhouse, the concert manages to sell out in the hours leading up to showtime, suggesting there must be something to the talk.

All photos courtesy of Peter Troest

Helms Alee

Before coming to any conclusions, however, there’s the evening’s support act Helms Alee to consider, a band I’ve heard of only by name. The trio comprising guitarist/lead vocalist Ben Verellen, bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Margullis, play an eclectic sort of heavy rock primarily alternating between sludgy pummel, atmospheric post-rock and pop, regrettably accompanied by a rather static performance in which Ms. Margullis quickly establishes herself as the absolute centerpiece with her inventive percussion and fierce passion for the trade, with the rolling, ritualistic drums in “Grandfather Claws” especially beckoning my intrigue. Her two compatriots are much more reserved, though there is a certain allure to James’ gentle grooving, so ultimately it is left to the music to pull the brunt.

Fortunately, from an instrumental and technical perspective Helms Alee leave little to be desired, as their songs are extremely well written, rich with dynamics between the quiet, loud, heavy, atmospheric, and dreamy that seem to have the already sizable audience spellbound. Verellen’s high-pitch bellows — reminiscent of Black Tusk’s Andrew Fidler — are an acquired taste, to say the least, but their atonal character is not enough to ruin the overall experience for yours truly given the bountiful texture found in songs like “Dodge the Lightning” and the fantastic “Paraphrase”. Expectedly, Helms Alee are sent off with thundering applause once their 10-song set winds to its conclusion to the tune of the latter, though I myself am left wondering if the trio wouldn’t be better with Verellen focusing on strumming his six strings, and the vocal harmonies of James & Margullis assuming the role of lead vocals. Be that as it may, this is a fine introduction to a band whose name I’ve heard too often to not yet recognise, and a strong motivator for me to check them out again given the opportunity.

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Russian Circles

Given Russian Circles consists of just three members - bassist, samples maestro and occasional guitarist Brian Cook, guitarist Mike Sullivan, and drummer Dave Turncrantz - it is remarkable what a wall of noise the band is able to generate in the live setting. When the trio go heavy, they redefine the word in a way that raises every hair on the body and dictates that everyone in attendance must stand their ground and feel the power of songs like the opener “Deficit” off the “Memorial” LP. But the volume and depth of the soundscape is far from the band’s defining element; of the ten carefully selected tracks on the setlist tonight, not one fails to divulge an astounding wealth of detail in all three instrumental channels, not to mention an understanding of dynamics seldom witnessed. Indeed, even for someone as unfamiliar with the discography of Russian Circles as myself, the sheer complexity of thought underlying the music suffices to hold me bewitched, as at every turn there seems to be a section, passage or brief moment worthy of awe.

Russian Circles are not a band to offer much interaction - in fact, they offer none. The songs bleed into one another through ambient noise, giving the concert a sense of continuity, and the band the semblance of being mere vessels to convey music most likely birthed in some other dimension. Visually, too, the trio is veiled in a shroud of enigma: no lights are shone on them, and the combination of copious amounts of smoke and back-lighting transforms the three members into silhouettes, dancing without pause like marionettes to their own music, the puppeteer.

The concert balances the band’s 5-album, 9-year discography well, with no more than three songs picked from each of the albums (2006’s “Enter”, 2008’s “Station”, 2009’s “Geneva”, 2011’s “Empros”, and 2013’s “Memorial”); and the fact that between these tracks there are no noticeable lapses in quality serves only to emphasise just how accomplished an ensemble of musicians Russian Circles are. Whether it’s the humbling “Mlàdek”, or the monolithic “Youngblood” in the encore, the audience is a single mass of constantly banging heads, front to back, side to side. Judging by tonight’s performance then, there’s little reason to argue against those that proclaim Russian Circles one of the torchbearers of the post-rock genre; in any case, this writer is sold.

Setlist:

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