Post metal is, without a doubt, metal’s most misunderstood stepchild. Black metal has its corpsepaint, and death metal its gory imagery, but there’s very little that binds post metal . The genres heavyweights, Neurosis, Isis and Godflesh, all sound relatively different, and there’s not much of a visual element to speak of (if black jeans and band tees count as post metal, the entire last 20 years belongs in the category). Now, with the rise of Deafheaven and the “blackgaze” genre, post metal might even be getting left behind. A vague term from a time when metal was searching for the next big thing.
Which is what made Russian Circles release of Station in 2008 such a valuable moment. This was post metal, undiluted and pure. Taking cues from, but never outright copying, their heroes, the Chicago instrumentalists made a bold artistic statement on what metal could, and should, grow to be.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room. Station is entirely devoid of vocals. As such, it can be hard to determine a theme connecting the album together. But if song titles like “Campaign” and “Xcvii” (Roman numerals for 1914) and album artwork of a platoon of black-and-white soldiers are anything to go on, the album turns its head to the First World War. Of course, without lyrics, it’s possible to imagine the songs to be about anything at all. This is one of Russian Circle’s great strengths.
Live in Madrid
Opener “Campaign” plays it safest of any of Station’s tracks. It’s on “Harper Lewis” that the band really let go. Eschewing the usual post-anything method of songwriting (washy intro, slow crescendo then back down), Russian Circles packed “Harper Lewis” with riff after riff after riff, demonstrating almost eerie tightness between the band’s musicians. You know that moment in a jam session, when everything fits just right, but can never be repeated or even remembered once recording time comes around? That’s how most of “Harper Lewis” sounds.
Without a singer, you’d think it would be hard to declare a “frontman” to a band like Russian Circles. He may not be down front, but its drummer David Turncrantz who consistently steals the show. Listen to his performance on “Verses” and the title track to hear the heights metal drumming can reach when it slows down and allows the right dynamics to take over. Turncrantz’s ability to make his drum licks sound just as catchy as anything the bass and guitar can offer up cannot be overstated. It makes Station grow beyond its three-member lineup, and gives it the same sense of giddy musical abandon that marked Led Zeppelin’s freewheeling live performances. Not a comparison to be made lightly.
Station’s climax comes in the form of “Youngblood.” Here, the band are truly firing on all cylinders. If you don’t feel the rhythm in your bones from the moment the spidery guitar comes creeping in, you might want to check your soul for any spark of life. It’s like the best work of Rammstein got locked in an elevator with some pseudo-academic music philosophy students and came out a changed band. The impeccable precision returns, as Mike Sullivan and Brian Cook’s strumming hands reach levels of synchronicity usually not found in what can be a slightly messy genre. It’s a true classic of a song, one that deserves to be near the top of any self-respecting post-rock playlist.
When Station was released, it’s hard to know how much Russian Circles worried about its reception. On one hand, as a band that broke so many taboos (no singer, no discernable image, alternative songwriting to many similar acts) you can imagine they didn’t care at all what anyone thought. But on the other hand, there must have been some at Suicide Squeeze Records who worried about releasing something so avant-garde. Their fears were unwarranted. Station has grown to be Russian Circles best-known album, one that has influenced everyone from Chelsea Wolfe (with whom Russian Circles have completed a number of well-received tours) to the newer wave of blackgaze. It still remains a prime example of how, with a little well-placed tenderness, post metal deserves to be remembered as a cutting edge genre that kept metal from succumbing to stylistic tribalism and backward-thinking nostalgia. Remember, 2008 was a time when most rising acts were Hot Topic-leaning breakdown kids who had more in common with emo then metal. Not ideal.
Stick Station in your pipe and smoke it. It’ll still taste as fresh after ten long years.