On Memorial, post-metal instrumental trio Russian Circles stretch their renowned contrast of delicate, atmospheric sounds and gigantic, overdriven riffs to extremes. To listen to this album is to experience a peaceful walk through a quiet cemetery after dark that is interrupted by a ground-splitting earthquake. There are moments of beauty and calm, where minor chords float around on flickering clean guitars over soothing synth pads. Countering that is a thunderous wall of tight distortion and big drums.
Both the opener, “Memoriam,” and the last song, the title track, are exercises in the moody and the ethereal. “Memoriam” is a Swansesque short study of pious acoustic guitars, strings, keys, and noise. It’s a somber start to what will soon be an intense experience. “Memorial” is a reprise of “Memoriam,” but more fleshed out. Ethereal Wave singer Chelsea Wolfe lends her breathy vocals, and this time there are drums. It’s an appropriate comedown to what is sandwiched between these two mirroring tracks.
“Ethel” is a triumphant piece that rides the peaks and valleys. It starts out with Mike Sullivan’s delicate and clean guitar arpeggios accompanied by lead guitar atmospherics. That cleanliness steadily becomes louder and more distorted, riding Brian Cook’s supportive bass and a build-up of cymbals. Once Dave Turncrantz’s drums enter completely, a cadre of guitars travels across the scale, taking on a kinetic, joyful tone. A tight groove and some orchestrated feedback come in abruptly, followed by a huge return to the song’s theme. It all ends in a peaceful bit of distorted noise.
“1777,” only the third song into the album, is a masterpiece. The riffs are catchy, and the fast-paced stick work on the drums is nearly as melodic as the guitars. The explosive, climactic wall of minor chords evokes some kind of combination of charisma, mourning and unmitigated impatience. That track exemplifies the album. It is cinematic, creating a backdrop that rivals film composing legends like Howard Shore. Fitting given the title, there is a sense of loss that permeates throughout the album. But this is not solely a somber affair; this is about augmenting one’s sadness with a force of celebration.