I must admit that I had to laugh when I read Chad Radford’s prediction in the Creative Loafing that Young Widows would “most likely steal the show.” And here’s the thing: I fully believe that the Louisville-based noise-rock trio are the shit. Their sophomore release, Old Wounds, is an emphatic, blistering triumph that blends raw, distorted bass and buzzsaw guitars to create cavernous rock songs that are somehow both unapologetically aggressive and hypnotically atmospheric. It’s not an easy trick to pull off, and Young Widows do it deftly, all the while channeling the furious energy and cathartic spirit of such obvious touchstones as the Jesus Lizard, Melvins, and Shellac.
As a live act, they’ve developed a reputation as something of mini juggernaut, and from the moment the lights went down at the Earl and those custom Emperor cabinets lit up, it was clear that reputation is by no means exaggerated or undeserved. These guys know how to bring the fury, blasting though their set with savage, livewire intensity. Bassist Nick Thieneman was the band’s catalyst, setting the tone with his tireless thrashing about and driving the music forward with a steady flow of ringing, muscular basslines. His partner in crime, drummer Jeremy McMonigle, acted as the rhythm conduit, his big, booming beats and minimalist aesthetic providing an almost steady, calming presence to the music that belies its thundering, scattershot nature. With the foundation firmly laid, vocalist and guitarist Evan Patterson was free to stab the songs with Albini-esque textural strokes or ride in ferocious lockstep with Thineman. It’s not exactly a unique formula, but it’s one that the band worked to great effect, churning out visceral versions of such grinders as “Took a Turn,” “21st Century Invention,” and “Lucky and Hardheaded.”
Coming back to the point of my laughing, I’d probably be remiss in not mentioning that in terms of sheer numbers, Young Widows did draw a greater portion of the crowd that showed up. And they did rock faces. Hard. But anyone who’s seen or heard Russian Circles perform live knows that—short of some obscenely Herculean effort—it’s damn near impossible to steal a show from these dudes. They’re simply too fucking sick. I wish I could provide you with a more philosophical answer, but the reality of it is that the instrumental trio display a level of technical skill that is jaw-dropping. Match that with a focused emotional intensity that carries through their live show and you have the makings of a dynamic musical force that—love it or leave it—you cannot dismiss or ignore.
And why would you want to? I mean, they have a guitarist that not only looks like Metalocalypse guitar-shredder, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, but that can actually play like him, too. Their drummer operates like some freak force of nature, dominating his set with willful abandon and flawless precision. Their bass player, Brian Cook, is our era’s Frederick Erskine, having started his career with mathcore legends Botch before manning the bottom end for not only RC, but also for Seattle post-hardcore outfit (and Latest Disgrace fave) These Arms Are Snakes, as well as handling guitar and vocal duties for fuzzed-out folksters, Roy.
As a live unit, Russian Circles function with an instinctual cohesiveness, charging through even the most complex passages with natural ease. With so many abrupt changes and varying time signatures, chemistry and anticipation are key and the trio that showed up at the Earl were tight and decisive, yet nuanced. They seemed especially intent on establishing a certain mood, obscuring themselves in the relative darkness of the stage, bathed only in the dim light of a single spotlight located just behind the bass drum. This washed their performance in a soft atmospheric glow, which, depending on the song, ranged from quietly mesmerizing to eerily ominous.
With the ambiance set, the trio proceeded to let fly their distinctive prog-metal to an eager audience looking to be blown away. And Russian Circles obliged them. With few exceptions, their set was all about patience and pacing, steadily building tension into anxious tension before transitioning smoothly into a jazzy interlude or cutting you off at the knees with hammering blasts of distortion. This imbued songs like “Malko” and “Youngblood” with a cinematic sense of place and movement, sweeping the audience along a dynamic journey rather than dragging them though a panicked race. That is not to say that the group didn’t erupt into fits of frenzy when the moment suited them. Anyone who’s seen the YouTube clip of “Death Rides a Horse” knows that they are capable of galloping along lightning fast, and Thursday night’s version was no exception, screaming by at a torrid, almost exhaustive pace. But, for the most part, Russian Circles aim for their music to be more cerebral than visceral and closing their set with a spectral take on “Carpe” seemed to drive that point home beautifully, indeed, artfully. It was a fitting end to a terrific performance, one that revealed an immensely talented band operating at the peak of their powers. So, yes, Young Widows were great. Majestic, even. But steal the show from Russian Circles? One can only laugh.