Crafting an instrumental album can be a tricky, high-risk enterprise. Without the structural and melodic guide of the human voice, no-vocalist bands better make damn sure their music is strong enough by itself to hold the modern listener’s waning attention span. Needless to say, this is no easy task.
Success, though, brings handsome rewards. The fortunate band is lauded with throwaway labels like “poignant,” “sprawling” and “inspirational,” and it might even land a job scoring excellent films about high-school football fanaticism.
Unfortunately, Russian Circles’s most recent effort, Geneva, is neither inspirational nor poignant (whatever that means), and it’s only occasionally sprawling. The band — which is frequently and fairly likened to a harder and heavier version of Explosions in the Sky — struggles to keep the songs consistently compelling enough to warrant the vocal-less approach.
For an album filled with such doom-invoking song titles as “Fathom,” “Melee” and “Hexed All,” Geneva boasts surprisingly little drama. Opener “Fathom” begins with standard metal discord and tom-heavy drumming. It builds up nicely with a fair amount of suspense, but resolves in nothing more than a generic hardcore breakdown. The flaccid ending is certainly a disappointment, and for this to happen so early on the album doesn’t exactly encourage continued listener patience. And as it turns out, patience is precisely the key to enjoying Geneva.
The hopeful “Hexed All” is the closest Russian Circles comes to instrumental brethren Explosions in the Sky, with its understated guitar lines, spacey drumming and moaning strings. But again, whatever momentum the song initially builds is destroyed when, after four minutes, the tracks goes absolutely nowhere. The band seems to confuse layering with movement, opting to throw another superfluous variation into the mix instead of taking the track to the next level.
“Malko” would be a bright spot on the album if it weren’t so shapeless. The song unfolds over a starry, impressive guitar riff until it’s brutally cut off by a dense mush of distortion and spasmodic drumming. This vigorous coda is hardly earned, and the song loses steam despite its surface-level intensity. It all results in an odd, discomforting feeling of a band not knowing when to quit.
It’s largely the nebulous song form and pacing that doom Geneva, but the album isn’t completely meritless. The drumming prowess is a constant, helping to grease the tracks a bit and keep them from completely losing momentum. Closer “Philos” is an awe-inspiring, multi-movement song proving that, when Russian Circles wants to, it can in fact turn in a truly riveting instrumental. It’s just a shame the band can’t do it consistently.
Clearly, Russian Circles is a band that’s shamelessly epic (see, for instance, track six, titled “When the Mountain Comes to Muhammad”). This typically isn’t a problem — instrumental bands invariably fall into this classification. But on Geneva, the trio winds up on the “shameless” side much more than the “epic” side. And sometimes, a little shame can do some good.