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We Should Get Him One of Those Collars: Original Russian Circles members Dave Turncrantz (left) and Mike Sullivan look everywhere for bassist Brian Cook. The band plays this Tuesday at the Crepe Place.

They Are Legion

The Russian Circles bring their orchestrated metal head-drone to The Crepe Place in Santa Cruz.

By Paul Davis

Anthemic and swelling, the music of Chicago's Russian Circles is often referred to as metal, even though it calls upon many elements far outside that genre's typical scope. Unfazed by the prospect of exploring melody, even unafraid to be occasionally pretty, the band's sound is powerful in a way that is more suggestive of symphonic metal than typical boilerplate metal.

Indeed, this is orchestral music, boasting heavy instrumental compositions made all the more remarkable by the fact that the epic sound is summoned by only three members--guitarist Mike Sullivan, drummer Dave Turncrantz and new bassist Brian Cook, who joined the band during the recordings of its latest release, Station. Live, the band reaches soaring heights seemingly unobtainable by so few instruments. If a three-piece such as Shellac prides itself on self-imposed Spartan limitations, Russian Circles finds a way to sound like a legion. Perhaps the only trait the band shares with other three-piece outfits is its sense of compositional economy. Unlike other instrumental metal groups, such as fellow Chicagoans Pelican, Russian Circles avoids prog-rock excess or deconstructive complexity. Sullivan describes the songwriting approach as such: "If you're too technical, you lose the melody and you start losing the listeners and the overall view of the song."

It's a philosophy born of experience. "We could easily overplay and all that stupid shit--our other band did that," Sullivan says, referring to his and Turncrantz' previous band, Dakota/Dakota. "We were very technical, and it was a train wreck. There are some bands that are great at that, but for us we found it more comfortable building foundations and layering elements. It's more how all of the instruments blend together. It takes restraint for musicians to not overplay, but it's just kind of natural to us to dumb it down, make it as simple as possible--and do it tastefully."

This economy of composition is contrasted by the bombastic performance of the songs, much of which is attained through live loops of guitar that Sullivan overlays. "As far as writing goes," Sullivan says, "it's actually a little easier, as opposed to having another guitarist. You can loop something that would be mind-numbingly boring to another guitar player."

During live performances, the loops help create a far larger sound than most trios are known for, though it took the band some time to hone the mixture of live and electronic elements. "It's the poor man's cop-out for being a three piece--it's kind of a writing device," Sullivan notes with a certain self-deprecation. "When you play the loop live, as long as it's a good loop you can just play with it. If you set up a bad loop, then the other guys in the band have to deal with it."

It's an approach that not only allows the band to assume a much more epic sound, but also allows it to hit upon any number of sonic touchstones that are rarely represented in the often hidebound metal community. The band has a creative restlessness that harks back to Faith No More's voracious consumption of numerous sonic approaches and cultural movements, while also marking them as contemporary heirs of the far-reaching, experimental scope of post-punk icons Fugazi.

"We can't stay with one genre," Sullivan declares. "We're influenced by all types of crap, old metal like Faith No More and Slayer, and then shoegazer and other stuff. Everything from My Bloody Valentine to The Jesus Lizard to Fugazi--they're a huge influence. They never stayed in just one genre, and each album always sounded different from the last--we're trying to follow that spirit."

RUSSIAN CIRCLES appears with the Red Sparowes on Tuesday, March 25, at 9:30pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave,, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 adv/$12 door; 831.429.6994.

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