If ever there was an award for genre of music least likely to illicit the response of ‘exciting’ one would imagine that ‘instrumental post-rock’ would be vying with choral harpsichord music, melodic thrash metal and whatever the hell Simply Red are for top honours. Which isn’t to say I’m not a fan. On the contrary, if I have a book to read, some washing up to do or a particularly dull spreadsheet to apply formulas to, then it is the instrumental boys (always boys) with neatly trimmed beards (always neatly trimmed) that I turn to first. Good background music, but when was the last time you saw delight in someone’s eyes at the uttering of the phrase ‘oooh, Pelican have got a new album out?’ Try as I might to get deeply into these shining, ethereal albums of twisting-turning rock pleasantness, I invariably end up doing something else, letting the music tick over nicely in my subconscious, before realising every now and again that a particularly impressive riff has had me staring into space for five minutes, nodding appreciatively while lost in my own thoughts.
Which is why Empros, the fourth album by typically hirsute Canadian instrumentalists Russian Circles comes as rather a pleasant surprise, in that for most of its duration you’ll be hard pressed to find your mind wandering further than the sound issuing forth from your speakers. A staggering reinvention of the genre it is not, but it is a particular highlight. What these Canucks bring to the post-rock party (post-party?) with this album is the sheer heft of its heavier moments, positively gargantuan in scale and weight.
Take opener 309 for instance. After a perfunctory 30 seconds of shiny shiny ethereal feedback, it wallops straight into a nice big fat riff, rolls with it for five minutes and then calms down, before a stabbing bass line announces its return, a dirty thick low end wrapped up in squealing feedback. I tried doing some excel spreadsheeting to it and ended up just playing air drums, which made me look a right idiot in my open plan office. Second track Mládek (I love the names instrumental bands give their songs, you do wonder what on earth made them arrive at this) starts off on more familiar post-rock territory. Nice little guitar picking riff that is perfectly pleasant and nice and builds up a bit, then drops out, then comes back in, perfectly inoffensive in its way. Nice. Bit unremarkable perhaps, but it’s ok. But then, what’s this? Oh, it’s a lovely fat riff wrapped in a deliciously thick bass line and thunderous drums, and away we go again.
Third track Schipol is frankly a little dull. Starting off with another rather drab wall of feedback that’s pretty enough but unremarkable and a little bit yawn-some it then meanders into a grandiose wall of sound that I imagine would sound fucking terrifying in a small club, but on record it comes across as a bit of a Sigur Ros cast off, if Sigur Ros played with a lot more distortion. But then just when you start to think they may have lost the initial head of steam they built up, along comes Atackla, which is absolutely stunning. Anyone with an eye on the history of the band will know they had a serious kick in their collectives when ex-Botch bassist Brian Cook joined, and here you can really feel the impact he has. It is a taut, snarling tattoo of a bassline that underpins the whole thing, and when it finally stomps into its final gargantuan riff you can’t help but go a little bit ‘ooooh’ inside, as the band crashes into a thunderous close.
Batu continues in much the same vein, a ponderous, thunderous beat and thick bass line herald another riff laden treasure. There’s a bit at the end of it that makes me want to grab cars and start hurling them around, and I can say for damn sure that Pelican never made me feel that way. Then there’s just time for the slightly curious album closer Praise Be Man, a fragile little folky moment, replete with hushed echo chamber vocals, which is quite lovely and unexpected.
The whole thing is over as soon as it begins. Unlike most six track albums most of the songs here hit the six or seven minute mark rather than the ten or twelve, and as a result the album never overstays its welcome, and manages to keep its more pedestrian moments brief. It stands up to repeat listens far more than some other recent albums in its field, and while it only briefly flirts with genuine brilliance, those moments are enough to make you sit up and take notice, or in my case nearly get myself fired.