Russian Circles

(Sargent House)


Gnosis, the eighth album from instrumental metallers Russian Circles, is well-named. Derived from Gnosticism, the term refers to spiritual knowledge, specifically the esoteric means through which humans can glimpse the true nature of the divine.

The Chicago band are veterans of expressing these kinds of expansive, portentous themes through their music. The trio utilise dense textures, mesmeric grooves and an effortless understanding of movement to convey a hefty range of emotions. The enormity of their music can be imposing, but is counteracted by their compositional invention and emotional depth. 

Gnosis is Russian Circles’ most stark, doom-laden and straight-up heavy album. Its writing period eschewed the band’s usual method – loose ideas fleshed out via practice room sessions – in favour of whole tracks written by individual members. This gives the seven tracks here a unique sense of clarity and urgency. The intense linearity of ‘Conduit’ or the rugged simplicity of ‘Betrayal’ are bruised but laser-focused, like characters in a Béla Tarr film trudging through a mire. 

Previous Russian Circles albums explored prog-rock textures and mellow psychedelic inflections, however Gnosis rarely strays from this uncomplicated mode of brutality. The riffs here are among the most punishing the band have ever written, from the breakdown in ‘Tupilak’ to the black metal blasts that open ‘Betrayal’. The album’s gnostic commitment to murky portent takes the album in some dark and gloomy directions, however the sense of scale on display is undeniably awe-inspiring. 

There are moments of levity within Gnosis’ magnitude. The first half of the title track echoes explorations on earlier Russian Circles albums through progressive structures and effects-leaden grandeur. Closer ‘Bloom’ is also notably mellow; a light at the end of the tunnel recalling Mogwai at their heaviest. These tracks serve as moments of gnosis, rare shafts of light breaking through the viscous dark. 

As is the case with every Russian Circles release, Gnosis’ production is remarkably well-realised. The recording setup was handled by a dream team combination of bass and drum tracking at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio and guitars, engineering and mixing by Kurt Ballou at his own God City studio. This top-drawer ensemble have constructed a sonic palette that adroitly shifts from blunt and to-the-point to subtle and meticulously-arranged. Backed by Ballou’s extensive range of guitar tones and Electrical Audio’s iconic drum sound, Gnosis’ journey through this dark terrain is made all the more compelling by some masterful soundscapes. 

This is among Russian Circles’ most harsh and unforgiving albums. It takes the bleak angles explored on previous full-length Blood Year and injects them with a renewed heft and intensity. It’s simultaneously corporeal and cerebral, an intentionally-colourless exploration of a gnostic worldview that weighs as heavy on the head as it does the soul.