I’ve been wanting to see Russian Circles, the progressive metal band from Chicago who rocked Aisle 5 last week, for quite some time. I discovered them in college and fell for their heavy, yet rhythmic and complex sound. They play through Atlanta occasionally, but I had always somehow managed to miss them while they were in town, so this time, I was sure to make the effort to catch their performance.
This was the first metal show I had ever seen at Aisle 5, and I wasn’t sure about how things would go over in a room that is normally full of hippies in their early twenties vibing out to funk or heady bass music. This night, however, the room was transformed to a cramped crowd of metalheads in their thirties, many with full beards and long hair. The seemingly trivial fact that almost every person was larger than the average Aisle 5 patron made the place seem much more crowded, and I also would guess that these concert-goers demanded a bit more personal space than one is usually afforded in that venue. However, it wasn’t claustrophobic, and everyone was very aware of their surroundings, so I was easily able to tuck myself against the wall near the stage.
The opener, Helms Alee, was a three-piece band that combined the sounds of male and female vocals to an effect that I was sure sounded better on a studio recording. In that space, they weren’t able to generate or project enough vocal force to carry the room, so vocally it felt a bit passive. Musically, it wasn’t bad, but metal is one of those genres that is either excellent or just boring in my opinion. If you’re really good at your instrument, you’re great, but otherwise a room can often just feel grungy and angry, and unfortunately that was my experience of their set. Judging from the tepid atmosphere in the room, most of the other audience members were similarly unimpressed, although I did hear some fans at the front praising the band, so it was good to know that at least a few people really enjoyed themselves.
When Russian Circles took the stage, however, the audience came alive and began cheering and pressing forward for a better view of the stage. Phones went up in the air and began recording for future YouTube glory and or bar-stool bragging rights, and the show was properly underway. I am often impressed with three-piece bands, as they are sometimes able to generate far more sound than I expect, and Russian Circles was no exception. They played a full collection of some of my favorites as well as compositions I had never heard before.
The band didn’t speak to the audience during their entire set, which was actually refreshing. It was great to just watch musicians fully absorbed into their craft for an hour, without needing to hype themselves or the crowd up beyond what the power of music could do alone. They did do an encore, which I’m never a fan of, but overall they were very conservative and didn’t try to act like rock stars or show off at all. I spoke to one of them after the show, and their humble demeanor remained as he expressed gratitude for my attendance, and clearly was just interested in making sure everyone had a good time to good music.
Photos by Sam Lawrence for Bullet Music