Russian Circles is one of the most reliable workhorse bands in all of indie metal. They’re 99.9% instrumental, they eschew gimmickry of any sort, and, despite being a three-piece, they consistently create absolute tidal waves of reverb- and delay-drenched sound. This is a “there are no bad albums” sort of situation if there ever was one, but pointless hierarchies are the meat and potatoes of music appreciation, so let’s go ahead and rank all eight of their studio albums anyway.
8. Enter (2006)
This is a solid debut, and the band shows off their aptitude for the good old loud-quiet-loud formula right out of the gate, as well as drummer Dave Turncrantz’ ability to incorporate understated syncopation into unexpected moments in almost every song. This album sounds like exactly what it is: an entirely enjoyable proof-of-concept for what the band will go on to do. It’s just that they’ll go on to do it even better.
Play It Again: “Death Rides a Horse” and “Macabre” – Colin DeKuiper didn’t last long in Russian Circles, but his bass playing on these two tracks is especially cool and interesting
Skip It: “You Already Did” – No no, that’s the title of the track, I’m not accusing you of already skipping something. Anyway, it’s fine, but it sort of feels like copy/paste post-metal
7. Memorial (2013)
This record went in two directions at once: The soft parts got softer and the heavy parts got heavier. That’s a great concept in theory, and there are some absolute ragers on here, not to mention a few moments where you might be tempted to dig your lava lamp out of the attic. The album’s structure was allegedly inspired by Pink Floyd’s “Animals,” right down to the bookending tracks “Memoriam” and “Memorial.” For any band aspiring to play eclectic instrumental metal, this might be a masterpiece. Russian Circles’ discography is so close to flawless that we’ve somehow put it at #7.
Play it Again: “Deficit” – This one kicks off with some brutal dissonance that feels especially potent coming off of the dreamy opening track; the juxtaposition works perfectly.
Skip It: “Cheyenne” – It’s not even bad, but we have to pick something.
6. Blood Year (2019)
The production on this record shows just how hot Russian Circles was at this point. Not only was Kurt Fucking Ballou handling the engineering, but much of the tracking was done at Steve Goddamn Albini’s Electrical Audio studio. And unsurprisingly, as with just about everything Ballou touches, the sound is just absolutely impeccable, especially the drums. That man just knows exactly how to mic a kit, and it helps that the drumwork on this record is just dynamite. Exhibit A: track #2, “Arluck.” Ballou puts the drums just a notch higher in the mix than you might expect, and the outcome is magical. The band also does more with transitions between songs than in the past, creating a seamlessness that is fairly common in the genre, but that reaches its apex here. The segue from the gentle “Ghost on High” to the crushing “Sinaia” is so perfectly-executed that it might as well be a single track. The end of the record starts to feel a little more generic – the chuggy riffs in “Quartered” are a little uninspired – but again, “generic” Russian Circles is better than a whole lot of other stuff you could be listening to.
Play It Again: “Arluck” and “Sinaia” – Check out the live Audiotree version of the latter on YouTube too for a nice glimpse of how the band’s sound translates to live performance.
Skip It: We asked, and our editor said we can’t stop choosing skippable songs until the second half of the list, so yeah, go ahead and skip “Quartered” – It’s the last track, so just pull off the needle after “Sinaia” and pretend it’s the closer.
5. Geneva (2009)
Adding a strings section to a metal record is always a dicey proposition. You risk sounding too soft or too pretentious or too much like you’re trying to hang with bands whose genre tags include words like “symphonic.” But unsurprisingly, Russian Circles nails it, adding cello by Allison Chesley and violin by Susan Voelz. Their contributions don’t change the fundamental shape of the band’s sound; they just add depth and nuance, which is pretty much exactly what you should expect from these sorts of collaborations. Bassist Brian Cook showcases his ability to shift on a dime from reliable rhythm section journeyman to standout virtuoso. This album feels like a bleak but oddly pretty winter afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s, and we cannot more highly recommend having it in your ears while you take a long walk in the woods.
Play It Again: “Hexed All” – Damn is this thing beautiful, a perfect example of a softer side of metal that still hits really hard
Skip It: “When the Mountain Comes to Muhammed” – Like “Hexed All,” this is another relatively chill track, just not as good or affecting.
4. Station (2008)
Now that we’ve hit the top half of the list, we could easily and happily put the remaining records in almost any order and be happy with it. First off, this album is NOT a recording of all those dudes on the cover singing a metal version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” so be careful about gifting this to your veteran grandfather. We learned that one the hard way. No, “Station” is an outstanding introduction to Russian Circles’ unique sound, which is to say – though this is generally the kiss of death in underground and heavy music – it’s pretty accessible. It also includes “Harper Lewis,” perhaps Russian Circles’ signature song, an immaculately-constructed piece of post-metal that features guitarist Mike Sullivan’s understated virtuosity at finger-tapping and knowing exactly how and when to use his loop pedals. Speaking of, it’s kinda odd that we’ve gotten this far in the list without even mentioning Sullivan, who, as guitarist, has a sort of de facto leadership role in the band. But his ability to do exactly what each song needs, which often means stepping back and letting Cook and Turncrantz run the show, is a big part of what makes this band great.
Play It Again: “Harper Lewis” and the title track
Skip It: “Xavii” – It’s actually pretty good, but it’s also a really similar vibe as “Hexed All” (see #5), just not quite as good.
Honorable Mention: Live at Dunk! Fest (2017)
It’s easy to think of Russian Circles primarily as a studio band because, well, they make kick-ass records. But also because their sound is dense and layered and they only have three full-time members, so they obviously have to rely pretty substantially on multitracking. But they are still crushingly heavy live, thanks largely to how well Sullivan knows his way around a pedalboard. This live set from Belgium captures that brilliantly.
Play It Again: The whole shebang. Their live sets are so thoughtfully constructed and effectively pulled off that they should be listened to straight through, without so much as a bathroom break.
3. Guidance (2016)
There was a critical consensus when this album came out that the songs felt a little more feral than fussed-over, and that rough-around-the-edges quality will be pretty apparent by the time the album is halfway over. The chuggy bass works perfectly on tracks like “Vorel,” coming across more as an organic outgrowth of the songwriting than like a post-metal take on “Kill ‘Em All,” which is sometimes more the case on their earliest work. There are also some really intense mid-song tempo shifts that briefly make us think of technical death metal, a genre that we can imagine these guys listen to, but would never ever describe them as. We wouldn’t argue with anyone who made this their #1 or #2 pick.
Play It Again: “Asa” and “Vorel,” which essentially form a two-movement suite and are entirely inseparable from one another. Also “Overboard,” which again shows the band’s ability to slow things down without sacrificing intensity.
Skip It: There’s nothing skippable at this point in the ranking.
2. Gnosis (2022)
Holy HELL, did they ever go hard on this one. This was Russian Circles’ pandemic album, and it shows in every single note. It’s the sound of a creative mind in isolation scratching ferociously at the walls. We have to imagine that, at some point, they were tempted to title it “Quarantine” because that’s the best possible description of its aesthetic. The YouTuber critics at Thralls of Metal put it best with two perfect encapsulations of “Gnosis’” whole deal: “The riffs in half of these songs are out to hurt you” and (paraphrased): “I never thought I’d stank-face to Russian Circles.” We couldn’t put it better. The one outlier, “O Braonáin,” a dreamy 105-second lullaby, sounds like something you could play at an Irish funeral, but shouldn’t, because when the first notes of “Betrayal” hit without warning, the deceased’s family would be very upset with you. This record is awesome, and a legitimate contender for #1.
Play It Again: “Betrayal” and “Vlastimil” – and yeah, prepare to stank-face
Skip It: What are you, high?
1. Empros (2011)
This was probably Russian Circles’ heaviest work before “Gnosis” dropped over a decade later, and it is just about perfect. The songwriting is top-notch. The see-sawing dynamics – loud and soft, abrasive and sonorous, grandiose and modest – are cohesive and organically intertwined. And album opener “309” is an unassailable masterpiece, a twisty and complex 9-minute scorcher that brings together thrash, doom, ambient, and an overarching apocalyptic sensibility that carries throughout the whole record.
Play It Again: Whenever you can.
Skip It: Why? Why would you do that?