I must confess I wasn't desperately waiting for this new album. No endless nights of downloading sneak previews of upcoming singles and all that good pet-band obsessing stuff... I am happy with my Akvarium collection. I got my trusty Acoustics, Russian Album, Navigator and much more... I throw down Songs of Vertinsky to put me to sleep and The Library of Babylon to wake me up. I listen to Songs of Ramses IV on the subway and From the Other Side of Looking Glass at work. I even have fish (most likely salmon teriyaki) for lunch. What else could I possibly want? I am happy. So do I really need another album by Boris & Co?
All of that aside—I did finally decided to find out. A couple clicks of my ever-greasy mouse and I was bathing in the delicious, streaming sounds of Sister Chaos courtesy of RBCMP3. Here's my humble journey. Please come along if you dare:
500 Begins with luscious strings and bizarre samples, makes you jump with excitement—“Oh my, this is going to be interesting!” All of the sudden I realize that I simply love that ghetto synth bass line ringing somewhere between the New York 1983 break-dance scene and Back Street Boys badness. Nice production... Electro-funk never sounded so tasty. I swear some of the production sounds a lot like Moloko, an obscure trip-hop outfit from England, especially the voice treatments. I wonder what the producer's background is. That is it. I love this. It makes me sway in a whole different way. Some odd samples here to keep me rockin', oh yeah... Wait is there a video for this? They should wear monkey suits and do a silly dance... Oh, I should mention the lyrics are rather serious here, Boris being a protest singer and all... Single of the month! Simply scrumptious!
Fording At first I slightly hated this one... it has this annoying guitar pattern that reminds me of the 80's in a very, very bad way. Then the chorus comes in and it becomes quite clear why this song is here. It has this great ‘sing-along' reggae quality not unlike “Sister” from the late 80's. The best moment of "Fording" is the ending with its subtle electronics and sampled ethnic chant almost worthy of Enigma, dare I say. Some good strings here... Cheesy steel drums and digital piano sound out of place, but hey, the chorus saves this one for me.
Fate's Foot Probably the best track on the album. It features a great harmonium-sounding keyboard somewhere between "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Songs of Ramses IV.
This is a nice and mellow tune you learn to love Boris & Co for... Nothing like this is found on Psi, so this is definitely a step forward. Instant classic? Perhaps... The lyrics are simply superb in my opinion. They hint back to everything Boris ever sang before, but in a very good, forgiving way... Lovely strings arrangements make you think: “Could it ever get better?” Well, indeed it does—after about four and a half minutes of the tune you're treated to some lovely Asian sounding mantra, obviously sampled again... Brilliant!
Rastamen from Hicksville The opening reminded me of May 1st demonstrations in mid-80's USSR, but wait, it's supposed to be a Rastafarian wild call... Oh, please... This is a reggae song that sounds very cartoon-like to me. With lyrics that reside somewhere between silly and ironical, this most definitely is not one of my favorites.
Vocals utilize some weird treatments. Is that the Chipmunks gone cyber?
This song could be sold only in Russia, in my opinion. I bet Russian teenage girls probably scream and shout any time they hear this lovely composition, while most hopefully tearing their clothes off (I have a dream), but I'm sorry...This isn't my cup of tea. It sounded rather moving in concert, but I have to say I was disappointed with studio version.
Brother Nicotine Beginning of this one suspiciously sounds like “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel. Makes me wonder where Boris was digging lately... This is a good song, slightly more pop than anything on Psi and definitely more upbeat...Cool distorted guitar sound that appears closer to the end of the song is actually a violin that sounds like a screwed-up sample almost worthy of Garbage. You have to listen to it very closely to realize that this is not a guitar. Must've been a great moment at the studio; I hope they videotaped.
The lyrics play around with some interesting Russian language constructions, which makes it even more fun. Good one.
Too Much Love Here comes the “Bo Diddley beat” that has been borrowed since Taboo years, over and over again. Oh no... This is the blandest song here, I'm afraid. Boring with capital Boo.
Fine, the backward guitar in the middle is good 'n' tasty. I'll probably wash dishes to it. But wait a second; at the end they decide to throw in some strings... And all the sudden it sounds great... I guess this is one of those “listen to it 5000 times before enjoying” songs.
I personally wanted more strings and less love! Give it up!
Psalm 151 Psi revisited. With its trademark slide guitars and a creepy “I like all that new trip-hop thingy” vibe. It works well. I really like that auto wah-wah effect on guitar because I happen to use the same treatment all the time (no self-promotion intended) The cleverly thrown in the mix banjo that appears in the second verse, saves the day handsomely.
I simply loved the way this song slowly drifted into tripped out Country & Western territory as it progressed. Good production goes a long way, baby.
Cardiogram Much rumored premiere single? I didn't like this song that much. It has some good lyrics but lacks any memorable melodic hook for my taste. You know something is definitely wrong then all you can recall is piano and slide guitar, which were brilliant as usual, yes, I do admit. Does everyone love it? Am I an outcast? What a relief! Movin' on...
Northern Color Have things suddenly gone New Age? Enya, Yanni and Boris sharing a special moment? No it's just some weird treated violin, I think. That moody sound highlights this gentle opus of a song that features a collected gallery of Grebenshikov's cliche lyrics, this time positioned around a new girl in town—Veronica. This is a truly beautiful and sad lullabye, but was it really necessary to use the “beyond the looking glass” metaphor again? It's been 30 years, Boris, and even though you probably haven't changed your steady diet of pelmeni and red wine, some things do begin to sound old, as much as I hate to admit it. Vaguely under-produced, yet still an enticing closure.
Conclusions: Overall this is a good album that is definitely better than Psi. I think lots of ideas that were originally meant for Psi were finally realized on Sister... I only wish they did more experimental electronic stuff as in the first song, "500." This album actually makes me wonder what the next creation might sound like. Brian Eno confessed once to throwing away every manual he ever got for his vast collection of synthesizers. This allowed him to use those machines in a bizarre unpredictable ways. I only hope Akvarium does the same...
For another perspective, we can report that on March 25, 2002, the following discussion unfolded, via the miracle of electronic mail, between two other esteemed bodhisattvas who shall remain (forever?) nameless:
Bodhisattva A: I think this is the most workmanlike & non-emotive Akvarium album ever. It may be my least favorite "mainstream" album. But I've only been digesting it for a few hours.
Bodhisattva B: ...and I blame Rubekin. He brought digital technology—and thus, perfectly square quantized beats—to the band that has always thrived on slight imperfections of rhythm (and endearingly half-assed arrangements). It's especially noticeable on "Psalm 151," which should swing but doesn't— mostly due to its inhumanly tempered beat.
Bodhisattva A: So the problem can be summed up as "Rubekin: keyboards, PROGRAMMING, voice." Weirdly, I don't miss Ded on this one. Or do I? I don't worship "500" as you do, though when I read the translation of the lyrics I appreciate why you would. I love "Fate's Foot" for the backup singers near the end, the Magical Mystery Tour "boomp-boomp-boomp-boomp" thrown in at random moments, the violin/drumbeat bit in the middle which sounds like (but isn't) backward masking, and the absence of quantized drumbeats. I didn't like "Rastamrn" in concert, but I kind of like it on the CD. It's so wrong it's almost right.
Bodhisattva B: Overall, it seems like every clever musical decision (like having a processed violin handle lead-guitar duties) is outweighed by a monumentally dumb one (synthesized steel drums, for one thing). If i had to describe the album in one word, the word would be "inorganic" (note that on "500," it's actually a strength). But it's surprising that old hippie Boris needs to be explained the difference between a steel drum and a yamaha button programmed to "steel drum."
Bodhisattva A: He like-a da gadgets. What part of this album prompted him to promise that it would contain stuff nobody's heard before [in Russia?]? I remember a quote to that effect, maybe in a Pustie Mesta email. If anything, the pre-programmed beats move him closer to Russian pop's heights...but not close enough to actually fly as Russkii pop.
Do you know how it's being received in the Rodina?
Bodhisattva B: Russia is so saturated with Boris stuff that the critical reaction seemed to be along the lines of “Oh, another Akvarium album. Fans, rejoice. The rest of us, don't bother. Hey, look—a duduk.”
Maik & Dzhon, for their parts, are also willing to go on the record:
Maik: The new album reminds me of Psi...not just in mood, but in the sense we were talking about when it first came out...How you need about 1,000 listens before it really begins to "kick in." Maybe not: I'm nowhere near 1,000 listens yet (although I might be pushing 100), and I'm really beginning to love it.
Dzhon: Not bad...but "lacking the spark of the godhead," as Dji once said about something else. With the exception of "Rastamen" I like the songs, but only "500" seems to me to be breaking new ground for BG, either lyrically or musically.
"Cardiogram" and "Too Much Love," in particular, seem to me to be strictly paint-by-numbers, generic Grebenschikov opera. "Northern Color," "Fording" and "Psalm 151" are better, but the only song (besides "500") that really pumps my 'nads is "Brother Nicotine." "Rastamen," on the other hand, is a gut-punch...excruciating...the worst thing BG has come up with since Radio Silence...and worse than that—a scarifying foray into the stinking, murky depths of Russian попса. The song gets my vote for "The Worst Akvarium Song Ever." Booo, booo, Boris.ru!