Chaos, Kayaking and a Quartered Camaraderie, A Russian Circles Gig Review (10.2.2024): By M H Thomson & Mark J.


Chaos, Kayaking and a Quartered Camaraderie, A Russian Circles Gig Review (10.2.2024): By M H Thomson & Mark J.

Recently I and my esteemed colleague Mark J. had the pleasure of attending Max Watts in Melbourne to bear witness to Russian Circles latest venture and what a fucking gig. A gig comprised solely of instrumental acts is not something one gets the opportunity to see every day and I must admit I was a tad sceptical going in but I’ll tell you what, I didn’t miss the vocals one bit. The four distinct and interesting prog rock/prog metal groups that gathered on stage that day made for a monster of a lineup. Here are our (mine and Marek’s) thoughts on the night's proceedings:

Bear the Mammoth:

We got there early doors and the stage backline looked like something from the 1970s i.e. it was basically just an equipment dump; a litany of amplifiers two deep, Bear the Mammoths gear in front with Russian Circles gear setup behind. They kicked off proceedings with a relatively ambient piece with lots of spacey guitar sustain effects redolent of a King Crimson The Construkction of Light era jam session albeit quite a bit heavier.

Their second track added a bit more of a modern prog twist to it which sounded more like their interpretation of Cosmosquad than King Crimson. They continued to mix it up throughout the rest of the set by (whilst still maintaining their own sound) adding elements of what my father would generically refer to as Frippertronics, lots of long lingering ambient effects, most notably chorus and sustain; this was balanced nicely by more technical Porcupine Tree era Gavin Harrison-esque flourishes provided by the group's drummer. Marek also mentioned at one point that some parts of their songs reminded him of early U2.

The lighting design for Bear the Mammoth’s set made for a cool and apt atmosphere. A great blend of backlighting and a subtle amount of smoke creating a nice haze on stage, mixed with the long striations coming off the elongated LED beams in the ceiling gelled well with the band's energy. Speaking of said energy, it was clear throughout their performance that these guys were having fun, moments of joy amongst the concentration written across their faces, the drummer and guitarist at one point blowing kisses to one another, some fantastic camaraderie. A phenomenal start to the evening.

Mushroom Giant:

Mushroom Giant was a much heavier endeavour to behold than the previous act. They really leaned into the noisier aspects of what would usually be ambient effects. A rather motley grab bag of influences, I could hear elements of Opeth, Firebreather, Primus, Mr Bungle, Mastodon and Mike Oldfield amongst others; all culminating in what I’d imagine the Melvins would sound like if they were a progressive rock act. The rhythm section was the real engine of the group, with abundant loud rumbly bass guitar and sweeping Brann Dailor-style drum fills; a driving groove that underpinned the whole set. The bass guitar even being used as the main treble instrument in one song, a welcome rarity.

Their stage show here was an entertaining feat to endure, the frenetic lighting and the bassist’s pork pie hat (the closest they’ve got to stage clothes) are both fun aspects of it but paled in comparison to the group's truly psychedelic backing video. 

Laden with irreverence the video had it all, bits of broken landscape like something from Nine Inch Nails Fragility Tour, owls flying through a kaleidoscopic fractal fire, and distorted visions from the headcam of a man maniacally kayaking down a river. Jolly tales of the crazy ride they had on said kayaking trip we were regaled with by the band at the merch stand after the show. All told an incredible backing video that both enhanced and beautifully complimented the band's performance.

Tangled Thoughts of Leaving:

These motherfuckers were a clamorous racket of progressive industrial prowess. I bloody loved it. Their set had everything from stuff you’d swear blind was off Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to what sounded like Fantomas trying to cover Funeral For A Friend by Elton John. A Cacophonous wall of guitar effects, bass chords, screaming sizzling cymbals, random hand percussion, shakers, and maracas, they failed to include the kitchen sink but what did make an appearance was the guitarist shaking and stroking what looked to be an oversized branch of tarragon across the microphone to get a nice soft whoosh effect; the very definition of organised chaos.

The guitar was more of an effects controller than anything else during this set, generating everything from bird tweets to howler alarms to malfunctioning foundry equipment. This left the bass and keys to do most of the little lead work you could discern amongst the maelstrom.

The crazed loony (I mean that in a good way) behind the keys looked like Krist Novoselic doing a Ray Manzarek impression but it mostly sounded like Dwayne Goettel. Their last song, in particular, stood out to me, it took me straight back to memories of my high school days trawling through grainy footage on YouTube of 15-minute Skinny Puppy improv sessions or Brappage as they coined it; this tune was just that but equally metal as fuck, what a belter. For the first time that night, I took absolutely no notice of what the lighting was doing because all I could focus on, at any given moment, was trying to work out which instrument was making what sound. Superb.

Russian Circles:

As Myles stated; it was a strange one for our team as we have never been to a gig with nada vocals before, but fuck me dead-what an incredible night.
The lovely and gradual layering of each support band added to the glorious slaughter that Russian Circles would perform. This is a band I have loved with each release; to me, they are the demi-gods of what post-metal should always be confronting, challenging and devastatingly heavy. As bad luck would have it I had missed previous performances of this band on our shores before. The tense mood was set up well with less of the trippy lighting from the previous acts and focusing on confronting strobes, flashing lights etc. Myles did remark also that the lighting was spot on for the atmospheric focus, but it made it hard for him to make out the guitarist's fretwork. We finally had a drummer who was forward facing also and the bassist appears to have stolen Jeff Pinkus’ bass and the drummer Joey LaCaze’s cymbals i.e. they were massive, like the overall sound.

Ghost on High was the intro via tape from 2019's opus Blood Year and what a calming yet alarming way to ease into the onslaught we would soon be witness to. This is quite in-your-face music that Myles would remark by the end of the evening was cool prog doom sludge with a big emphasis on the groovy. The first track was one of my faves the title track from 2008's robust album Station is quite Nordic in its feverish battle of scintillating melody versus thunderous caveman-like all-out metal battle. For a three-piece this band do sound massive, even more so live. This track and the next reminded us of local legends, Bongcleaner.

Gnosis was the band's 2022 album and probably my personal fave of all their releases, mostly because of the set's searing track, Conduit which is damn catching and has brutal tremolo picking rampage and atomic-level drumming/basswork. Already this night was incredible, but hearing this track fired me up twenty levels more.
But Afrika took me way up into the high praise clouds as shown on the remarkable album version has immense and stunning drum finesse mixed with moody and ethereal bass brilliance. Not to say the inviting shoegaze-driven riffs weren't amazing, this is just a haunting and very cadence-based track that throbs with its emotive tone more so when played live. The lighting was superb- really immersed in the song-love when this happens- definitely an absolute visual highlight of the evening.

Quartered is a wild way to end the first half of this staggering set with its murky, gritty and nasty doomy sludge objectives. The measured dark tone is counterbalanced by some gorgeous semi-melodic black metal-styled tremolo work. I was ecstatic to hear Betrayal kick off the second part of the set with its savage and barbarous tension, this was one of the many majestic moments the band had the crowd firmly in their divine clutches. The ending part of this sensational track is quite psychotic as it lures you into a temporary place of calm before crushing your head in a vice. Damn, what a band in every way.

Another classic from the Gnosis album was the title track and we were both well pleased to hear this current album so well represented on this tour. This radiant track is layered so perfectly with sizeable delay usage combined with caressing palm mute expertise. This was a track that shows how in sync the band is with each other ridiculously so. Myles said - the guitarists tapping work in one of the latter tracks of their set reminds me a lot of fellow Chicagoan Rob Scallon’s work. Gnosis is a poignant song that goes so many places, all preparing you for the jackhammering classic riff in the final rhapsodic section of this classic.

Talking of impressive tracks, Deficit dropping in the set, reminds you this three-piece army can be abrasive whilst melodic without dipping into indie blackgaze nonsense. We are talking straight-up gloomy black metal worship mixed with wild crescendos and also ambient soundscapes aka Explosions in the Sky greatness. This band simply assassinated their audience with their exceptional skill level. Their live timing is amazing, the guitarist's ability to perfectly time the looper pedal clicks and the drummer's consistency was off its head, they clearly don’t use a click track because the bpm monitor in the sound booth was wandering around quite a bit, but they always managed to stay in the ballpark tempo of whatever track they were playing, very tight and precise whilst appearing unhinged. The conclusion to their set would certainly be one to remember for the ages. Utterly perfect choices for the finale, starting with another classic off the wondrous Station album the visceral Youngblood. Again this one strikes a wild balance between an almost playful melody that is purposeful and in major flux as the track builds and flows, but in this live setting sets up a fuse for the resplendent gem that is Mladek, one of the band's finest tracks that is simply off the chain deep and resonatating.

Russian Circles justifiably receive many glorious salutations in the wide space that is post-rock/metal etc. However, on the performance front, there seems to be even more room to let the schizo mix of dark vs light, melody vs distortion win you over if you were silly enough not to be wowed by their marvellous catalogue so far. Of course, the crowd soaked up every moment because this gig was an absolute masterpiece from start to end.

The support acts were astonishing in their own ways, with different flavours of post-prog-avant-garde instrumental grandeur. We met all the support bands throughout the night, and wow what lovely, down-to-earth humans who were so pleased and full of gratitude to hear the words of well-warranted praise on their performance.

Special mention to Mike and his team at The Bird's Robe Collective, this was one of the best events we have attended because you very clearly take the time and attention to curate amazing events like this. Too often particularly in heavy music is a mish-mash of support bands that don't flow or are samey same. This gig flowed and certainly introduced many, including us to incredible acts, we stupidly hadn't even seen before for that we thank and adore you. Please support any gig this crew put out!!

We also suggest and demand that you support every band on this bill, not just the legends in Russian Circles because each band has incredible releases that we will be reviewing as they are all brilliant and some interviews also. (Don't miss our recent interview with Mushroom Giant also!)
There was a rumour going around on the night all the support bands are planning to do a gig in the future called RussianCircleJerk in praise of how glorious this gig was. Let's hope so!.

Get antisocial here and buy their wares now!:

and of course:

(All Photos by Mark J-and given the kaleidoscopic nature of the music, I deeply leaned into the more esoteric-left field nature post-photo production; this was more relevant for the sheer brilliance of the night)