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Вермишель Orchestra: Анабасис

Vermicelli Orchestra: Anabasis

White Horse Music, Ltd. 1997


Review

by Dzhon

How you respond to this opus may depend, in part, on whether you count yourself a Gakkel-head or not. Most of the American Bodhisattvas became enamored of Gakkel' by virtue of his role in The Long Road Home, where his skepticism for the proceedings was a welcome tonic, deftly deflating BG's (sometimes loopy) pretensions at every turn.

But this Bodhisattva, for one, has soured on Gakkel' since the release of his bile-spewing autobiography in which he takes pot shots at not only BG, but all his other erstwhile bandmates as well. Seva has some just cause for resentment against BG, but given the dispeptic tone that prevails throughout the book one comes away wondering mostly how BG ever managed to put up with him as long as he did, not why he eventually decided to move on.

However, given Gakkel's dismissiveness of all of BG's post-Akvarium output—"I can't listen to this music" is his snide response to Russian Album—I, for one, became all the more curious to know what his idea of contemporary "listenable" music might therefore be. And, believe you me, if you happen to think Russian Album is beneath notice, then you better have some pretty stunning musical theses of your own to postulate as an alternative...Hence, my interest in Vermicelli Orchestra, the only place I know of that Gakkel' lent his cello-playing prowess after the demise of the original Akvarium.

I'd be remiss, however, if I failed to note that Gakkel's role is actually quite peripheral. The real driving force behind VO is master-accoridonist Sergei Schurakov—himself a former Akvarium member from the early 90's—who is credited for all the music, and as the first among equals for the arrangements and the production. Of course, it is probably Schurakov, after BG himself, who is more responsible than any other for Russian Album's peerless sound...which makes Gakkel's comments seem all the more like a personal vendetta. But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, right?

The true irony, though, is that—so far from the musical and lyrical sublimities of Russian Album—Vermicelli Orchestra's Anabasis, is about as forgettable as forgettable can be: Even after a dozen and more spins, there's not a tune, not a chord, not a note of it that reliably sticks in my head. It's not that the music is bad, precisely, just that it's totally insubstantial...a seven course meal of Marshmallow Fluff, Cool Whip and aerosol cheese. Or, inevitably, it brings to mind the vermicelli served in your avergae Russian stoloyava: an overboiled, tasteless, buttery, tangled lump of semi-digestable starch.

Well, OK, this makes it sound far more stomach-churning than it really is...but it does have a musico-nutritional value of close to nil. As Getrude Stein said of the town of my birth, "There's no there, there." It's the musical equivalent of Mondrian: bright, colorful, but—if you stop to think about it for half a minute—utterly insipid.

But what (you may be asking) exactly is it? Mostly it's way, way too much tutti-frutti flute twittering away amid the daffodils, with occasional appearances by a wolfish accordion, an intrepid oboe and a nervously tinkling mandolin; a guitar, a violin, a bass and various kinds of percussion also join the fray at points, but not nearly enough, and not to consistent effect. Seva's famous "greencello," where it appears at all, is generally relegated to somewhere in the distant background.

The interesting thing is that Anabasis has some structural affinities with Bardo; like on that paragon, the tracks are not so much "songs," per se, as narrative soundscapes that seek to instill a certain musical mood or aesthetic, and they are given titles that are suggestive without actually making any particular sense. But where Bardo is never less than eye-opening, Anabasis is rarely more than yawn-inducing. Whatever their undeniable talents as musicians, Schurakov and Gakkel' seem Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time as band-leaders in their own right.

Of the album's seven instrumental flights-of-fancy, only three—"Hola-Holo," "Horna," and "Shonti"—really do anything at all for me. Still, I suppose it's worth saying at least a word or two about all the individual tracks.

Galliarde: The wittle wambykins awre fwowicking in the wavy wong gwass (and I think I want to fwo up). Then we cut to a Seine-side scene for a couple of quick cigs with some visiting Albanian sailors in drag before returning to the meadow for more gavottes among the goats. Merde! I think I stepped in something.

Hola-Holo: A Smolenskii Muzhik in King Arthur's Court. Starting all groovy and grinding and cello-driven, the next thing you know it's the "What ho varlet?" and "Whither goest thou milady?" of Akvarium's "The Death of King Arthur" (whose appeal, to anyone, I could never begin to fathom) ending, in effect, when the Irish Queen Mab picks up her skirts and decides to invade. Still, I like the extended oboe solo and the Renaissance Faire mandolin-y bit toward the end.

Lanchier: Got myself a flute and nowhere to go and all day to get there. The clouds float by. Got myself an accordion and a flute and nowhere to go and all day to get there. The clouds float by. I feel like a cloud in trousers...and that's a pretty useless, ridiculous feeling.

Rune: Godzilla vs. Bambi rendered into music. Except this time—alas and alack!—Bambi kicks butt and then goes on to fornicate with Thumper.

Kyani: At only 59 seconds, this one's not so much a track as a hiccup. Worse, it's a cock-tease, since those 59 seconds are an intriguing build up that—poof!—vanishes into thin air just as you begin to get excited.

Horna: Pretty much indistinguishable from the sound of Irish neo-Trad supergroup Altan, therefore I'm kinda partial to it. Plus, finally the blessed flute is give something to do, damn it, that doesn't sound like cheezy New Age navel-gazing. I even like the Sheremetovo-2 sound effects at the end that transition into the next track.

Shonti: Helped along in places by driving, gamelan-style percussion and Spanish guitar, this is another winner, though once again the main flute-line is more of a distraction than anything else. It's also, curiously enough, the only track on the album that really lets Schurakov show his stuff on the accordion.

So, not so bad after all, perhaps. Still, a Bodhisattva might reasonably have expected more from the talented players involved than an intermittantly engaging mediocrity—far too tame for fans of experimental music, but too quirky to have any mass-appeal. I've heard good things about Vermicelli Orchestra's live performances, but whatever their appeal it doesn't come through on this effort, and life is too short to give much shrift to so-so cds. Better luck next time, guys.


{Liner notes for the album, written by Aleksandr ("Alex") Kan. Amusingly enough for the bilingual, the album also has liner notes in Russian by the same author, reproducing much of the English text, but with significant shifts of emphasis and more detail about VO's place in the history of Russian Rock.}

ANABASIS is the first album by Vemicelli Orchestra. the band plays beautiful, strange, instrumental music contrived by Sergey Schurakov.

Since 1987, Schurakov's solos on mandolin and accordion have been prominent in the music of Aquarium and especially BG Band—Aquarium leader Boris Grebenschikov's project of the early 1990's. Arrangements of some of the best songs of the period were built almost exclusively on Schurakov's tense accordion.

Schurakov played a lot with the late Sergey Kuryokhin. Appreciative of Schurakov's formidable musicianship, not so frequent among rockers, Kuryokhin generously featured the accordionist's solos in his "Popular Mechanics".

Eventually, encouraged by a few friends—not least by Seva Gakkel, once cellist with Aquarium, but later organiser of the seminal TaMtaM Club in St. Petersburg—Schurakov started Vermicelli Orchestra. Since TaMtaM's demise, Gakkel with his mysterious greencello has become not only a fully-fledged memeber of Vemicelli but also the Orchestra's driving force, manager and spokesman.

Vermicelli's music fits nowhere. The classicism of salon music is mixed with the looseness of a street band; airy Celtic melodies throb with a pulsating rock rhythm; the improvised solos and transparency of the arrangements are easily matched with the tightest compositional structure. it's neither jazz, nor rock, nor classical, nor ethnic. It's just music that takes you in.

The same with the titles. You can try to look for hidden meanings, but you can just as well say them aloud and listen to the music of the mysterious words.

Listen to the Vemicelli Orchestra...Take the music in...