Metal music is having a moment right now. Whether it’s the “Stranger Things” effect that helped Metallica see a 400% boost in streaming figures since the series featured “Master of Puppets” in July, the incredible demand for Motley Crue and Def Leppard’s Stadium Tour pushing it to the No. 1 spot on Pollstar’s live list this summer, or more people needing a way to express some pent-up emotions from life in 2022, the genre is seeing heightened interest.
Mike Sullivan can attest to it. The guitarist of Chicago instrumental metal act Russian Circles has been listening to much of it himself lately.
“I’ve always been a fan of metal, but during the pandemic I lived in my own world and listened to what I wanted to. No one had to be exposed to it so I could listen to the same records on repeat,” he said on a call ahead of the trio (completed by drummer Dave Turncrantz and bassist Brian Cook) releasing its eighth studio album, “Gnosis,” on Aug. 19 via Sargent House.
“I was talking to a friend the other day about this. You might not want to be incredibly angry or sad in front of friends. But music provides a place to do that,” Sullivan added. “While it might be socially unacceptable around other people, you can be totally angry or sad with your music and be completely fine. It feels like a good therapeutic way of getting that s- - - out without overburdening anyone.”
Many early listeners of “Gnosis” have called it the band’s heaviest album to date — something Sullivan doesn’t contest — and much of it came from his own listening preferences as the band was putting the seven-track stunner together over the past three years, using a fresh writing technique that focused on individual members recording songs individually.
“I certainly agree it’s the heaviest one we’ve done. So much of it for me was just listening to more metal than I ever have in my life to be honest,” Sullivan shared. “Every day for almost a year I’d listen to the same Pantera record as I’d walk around; it was like a bath. It was helpful learning different routes to take songs and using the osmosis effect of letting as much metal seep in as possible.”
One spin of the album’s eight-minute grandiose title track — also the subject of the band’s first-ever music video in their 18-year career — or the earlier single “Betrayal,” and that inspiration is clear. The assaultive bass lines, pummeling drums and sweeping groove metal guitar riffs make a statement. One that Sullivan is remiss to fully explain other than sharing that the song is one of the most personal for him.
The title, a Greek word loosely translating to “knowledge of spiritual mysteries,” could be taken in so many different ways. The cinematically dystopian video that accompanies the song hones in on fast-moving footage of nature, history and the human experience. It’s surreal and dark and mysterious and brutal, the perfect description of Russian Circles’ own music. Without the use of lyrics, there’s no real jumping-off point, which further encourages listeners to transcendentally home in on the feeling of the song. Not unlike a symphony or layered orchestra.
Though Russian Circles’ sound has never been easy to define or even market in an industry that can sometimes have tunnel vision, the musicians remain faithful favorites on underground rodeos like European mecca Roadburn. And a 2013 track with gothic crooner Chelsea Wolfe also further raised their profile, with Sullivan saying the band has been tempted to work with more guest vocalists in the future.
A recent tour with scene giants System of a Down and Korn (that wrapped up in February) has also started attracting more fans to the fold.
“I think more so than we even realized,” said Sullivan, noting the band members didn’t give it a second thought when approached for the opportunity, especially since one of their favorites, Faith No More, was originally on the bill before singer Mike Patton had to step away to focus on his mental health and Korn stepped in.
Sullivan, who now lives in L.A., says Russian Circles will always be incredibly proud to be part of the Chicago music scene. They’ve also chosen to close out their upcoming fall tour at the Metro on Nov. 12, after being postponed from earlier this year to allow Sullivan to fully heal from a pinched nerve.
“Chicago is still headquarters for the band. That’s where our practice space is. We try to tour with Chicago bands as much as we can and stay tethered to that scene,” Sullivan said, pointing to local band REZN, who will join them on upcoming dates. “Especially after moving away, I miss the scene even more. We are very proud of the bands that have influenced us from Chicago and to be part of that community still. It’s a big deal to us.”
Russian Circles headlines Metro (3730 N. Clark) on Nov. 12. Tickets ($22 in advance) are available at metrochicago.com.