Art-jazz-prog rock from Russia with love. Weird, wild stuff, but also very good.
Veteran Russian group Auktyon has returned after four quiet years with their latest album, yet another blend of disparate influences ranging from their home country's folk stylings to American jazz, traditional Middle Eastern music and Caribbean music all filtered through a decidedly un-traditional sensibility. Call it 'fusion', call it 'art rock', call it whatever you want. I'll just call it 'damn good'.
The band's sound is and always has been difficult to pin down in every sense of the phrase. From the opener "Ogon" starting off with a potluck of odd sounds conjured up by the instrumentalists that eventually segues into an off-kilter 5/4 beat, things tend to be rather slippery in terms of rhythm and specific points of reference. This feeling doesn't let up for most of the album, with just a few spots throughout where the listener can pick up on ideas that call to mind more mainstream musical ideas.
The instrumentation throughout the album is used in extremely effective ways. Despite the fact that there are nine members of the group, there is no real point where any single one of them seems to overshadow the rest. There are no solos to speak of except during the earlier part of "Letuchaya", instead there are only passages where the group plays little phrases and motifs off of each other. This temperance of orchestration is a very important part of managing a cohesive musical unit, and Auktyon does it well. It's the typical 'the whole being greater than the sum of its parts' thing that all great bands exercise. The instrumentation is also a big part of what makes Auktyon sound unlike most other groups. They combine instruments typically associated with antiquated forms of music, such as trumpet and violin with instruments from slightly older types of music like the saxophone and the upright bass, and lastly adding instruments from much more modern styles like keyboards and electric guitar. It's almost like the lineup of a ska band, but the compositions here take that lineup in much more interesting directions by exploring and combining a number genres. Look to the trio of short songs in the middle of the album for evidence of this. In a whirlwind of styles, the dark funk of "Meteli" leads into the soft, beautiful meditation of "Shishki" before landing in the stomping gypsy-dance of "Polden", all over the course of about seven minutes.
Another great element of groups looking to push the musical envelope is how well they can pull off things that are actually quite a bit more sophisticated while making them sound easy, and oftentimes doing so without the listener even notice the potentially awkward musical passages that use these techniques. For instance, the modulations that appear in the latter half of "Letuchaya" and the use of structure in "Khozanyi". It starts off sounding like a Radiohead outtake before falling apart without warning and transforming into a verse-chorus pattern. The difference here is that when the verses come around, the song almost completely falls apart before being rebuilt in time for the chorus. So that's the kind of conventional song structure you get from Auktyon. Elsewhere, the band deftly maneuvers complex time signatures with ease, such as the 7/8 of "Mimo". In "Priroda" they even manage to pull off an astounding hat trick -- not only is the song in the unusual time signature of 5/4, but the instruments are largely fighting each other in a complicated polyrhythmic structure. The astounding part is that this is, by far, the most danceable track on the album.
Like any great art rock group, they prove that they are more than capable of writing in a more pop style if they so desire, and when they fold this into their overall aesthetic they end up with something tempered by simplistic yet powerful melodicism squaring off with the more bizarre incursions. This approach results in the two best songs on the album, "Letuchaya" and "Karandoshi I Palochki". The former starts off like a typical jazz piece not unlike something that might be heard on a swing record. A few minutes in there is a shift to a minor key and carries on in the new tonality for a while before briefly reprising "Ogon" from earlier in the album (albeit in a rhythmically shifted form) before finally shifting back to the original theme. Even better is the latter song, which starts as an uplifting, quasi-anthem complete with heavy, distorted power chords before setting off into far darker territory. It sounds like a Greek hero traveling to Hell and back, right down to the howling and speaking-in-tongues, before slowly crawling back out, battered but triumphant. Powerful stuff.
The band has a certain skill for creating tension through its use of dynamics and harmony, showcased well in "Homba", where most of the instruments barely rise above a whisper throughout. A propulsive, repetitive bass line fuels the song as seemingly traditional chord progressions go into somewhat unfamiliar, uncomfortable places. The tension is palatable, and the band manages to avoid the traditional convention of releasing all of that tension by suddenly shifting to a louder volume. It's a nerve-wracking fake-out for listeners so used to the cliche loud-soft-loud song forms employed by so many rock groups in the post-Nirvana musical landscape. Not so surprising, though, considering the fact that these guys have been around in one form or another since the late 1970s.
A similar effect is employed on the titular album-closer. This song sounds like a man's resigned race to the grave, with the soft but hectic percussion urging him on, and the call-and-response between the vocalist and the instruments acting as some sort of deathbed communion with otherworldly forces. The placing of this song, most probably the darkest-sounding of the whole work, as the last on the album makes it quite clear that this is indeed coming from a Russian group; anyone who has read Russian literature knows that the entire culture is infused with the dourness that comes from influences both political and environmental. Maybe the best term for it would 'bummer rock'. This is in no way meant to be a denigrating term. Just the opposite, in fact, as this is music that is very powerful in its ability to cast a gloom over one's heart and mind. But, as in the case of the more relatively upbeat tracks, it also has the ability to lift one's spirits, and this is a testament to the quality of a group. That they can so deftly traverse the emotional spectrum speaks volumes of their abilities in terms of both composition and execution. Put simply, this is a fantastic album and comes highly recommended.