Russian Circles, KEN Mode, Inter Arma at Underground Arts, Philadelphia, 2/19/14
Last week, Chicago's Russian Circles touched down in Philadelphia as a part of their current tour with Ontario's KEN Mode and Richmond, Va.'s Inter Arma. As far as show bills go, it really doesn't get much better. All three acts released top-notch records in 2013, albums that garnered deserved praise from critics and fans alike. The other thing that all three bands had going in their favor on this night was that they've all been touring relentlessly for what feels like forever behind their sterling latest recordings. Simply put, this was three bands in a dark basement performing at the peak of their powers.
Inter Arma were first to take the stage. Last year's Sky Burial is an almost disorienting doom record as it plods from black depths to bleak psychedalia, and the live experience is no less scorching. Bear with me on this, but hypothetically if zombies, pirates, and vikings were to wage war on dry land in some sort of battle royale then Inter Arma would be the ones leading the charge for soldiers who drown at the depths of the blackened ocean floor. It took time for them to build, but their power only swelled as sounds continued to get louder and considerably heavier. The band's second guitarist seemingly appeared out of nowhere about halfway through their set. They play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, and seem poised to take over that space previously occupied by Mastodon as a band popular with the smokers but still heavy enough for the heads. Their set ended with the drummer thumping away. He even pulled out a large wooden branch and basked that against the kit to close out their performance.
Next up was KEN Mode. To describe their performance in a word, that word would be "spirited." They've obviously been touring a lot, and it's evident in their live set. They crank out heavy, blistering tracks one after another with virtually no breaks in between. Way more earnest, honest, and real than could possibly be expected based on listening to the album.
The genre descriptor "post-rock" is kind of a strange one, but for Russian Circles it's apt. Their music is "post" in the sense that it breaks down conventional expectations for a band comprised of guitar, bass, and drums. At times it seemed like there was a full on fleet of musicians on stage conjuring up these soaring landscapes. One of the most remarkable things about seeing Russian Circles perform live is that they don't say a word. In fact, they don't even look at one another. And yet, they know when to start each song and they know exactly when to stop. There's a level of trust on display that is nothing short of incredible. They're a well-oiled machine at this point, and a product of experience. It's seamless, and a marvel to watch unfold. They know exactly what they're doing, and know exactly when to do it. Not to put too a fine point on it, but this was an epic, seamless set from a band of true professionals. I still haven't quite recovered.