Don't be fooled by this album's place at the head of the "Archive" list. True, it was recorded even earlier than any of Akvarium's first studio efforts—and therefore, by default, must come first on our list of archival recordings—but the disc will be of interest only to those who have already acquired, assimiliated, and in every way grokked all of those self-same studio efforts. The road to spiritual enlightenment starts properly with Blue Album, Acoustics and Electricity; Soon the Century Will End is of interest primarily as a historical Arty-Fact for those of us who already own all the other albums.
And "bootleg" (i.e. no proper studio or mixing board) it is, make no mistake: The sound quality runs the gamut from "so-so" to "lousy" to "miserable." For those of us who already know all the songs, this is actually part of its charm—providing a glimpse into the furtive, "wonderful dilettante"-ish world of Russian Rock in its underground infancy. Others, less familiar with the oeuvre, will want to start with the polished studio versions, before sorting through these comparatively raw diamonds-in-the-rough.
The liner notes state that the recordings preserved herein are from three recording sessions in the studio of the Great Puppet Theater (not to be confused with the Lesser Puppet Theater!) in Leningrad in 1980: August 5, Sept. 30, and Oct. 14. (The last track was recorded in 1984, presumably somewhere else.) Also included on the cd—which, very uncharacteristically, also includes nice liner notes with full lyrics—are two alternate takes—presumably recorded at the same time—of "My Friend the Musician" and "Contradance," bringing the total number of tracks on the disc to 17.
The songs represented bridge the gap between ur-Akvarium (a.k.a. "70's Akvarium") and the classic line-up that brought us the masterpieces of the 1980s. From the 70's we have an ice-pick sharp version of the classic "From The Other Side of the Looking Glass," and an inspired romp through "Route 21" with some kind of wacky muted horn, a cowbell (?) and Gakkel's throbbing cello. Less satisfying are vesions of "Dance" (which wasn't to receive its definitive treatment until many years later in the Library of Babylon compilation), and a very choppy version of "Bridge"—a song no one would mistake for being one of BG's four hundred-or-so best. (In fact, it's kind of sadly tuneless and turgid, and inspires the reflection that BG's "come a long way, baby" as a songsmith.)
The 80's songs represented eventually found their way on to Acoustics, Electricity and Ichthyology. "Contradance," "The Second Glass Miracle," "Hold on to Your Roots" and "Ivanov" don't shine with quite the divine light they possess on Acoustics—how could they?—but are otherwise, predictably, a delight. In contrast, "My Friend the Musician" and "It Would Be Easier for Me to Sing" are OK, but only hint at the true splendor those songs were to reach on Electricity and (especially) Aroks i Shtyor. For their part, the Ichthyology songs ("10 Beautiful Women," "The Keys to Her Door")—immortalized under similar circumstances—sound markedly similar to the cannonical versions. Further details about all of these songs can be found on the above-mentioned album pages.
Of more esoteric interest to the Advanced Seeker on the path to Piscine Enlightenment are "14," "Cinderella" and "Who the Hell Are You." "14" is an enigmatic little ditty that exists in only two cd versions: this one and the one on Library of Babylon. And guess what? Both versions are different enough to be of interest in their own right, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. Actually, I think it's probably this one: beginning with a simple little progression on the cello and adding, by degrees, snippets of guitar, clippety-clop percussion, and piano (in the high treble) it has a hypnotic allure that brings to mind Radio Africa's "Vana Khoya." The other two songs are to be found here, and only here, friend...thereby making Soon the Century Will End essential for the Grebenschikov completist. "Who the Hell Are You" is a nifty little extrapolation on a bluesy riff, which the guitar passes off to the cello. The music sounds unfinished, as if the musicians are still feeling their way through it, though you have to love the patently Jethro Tull flute freak-out that comes in just at the end. What makes the song of particular interest, however, are the lyrics, which address very straightforwardly the artistic dilemma BG found himself in around this time, and are therefore worth quoting in extenso:
And I've sung for 10 years and at last
Become known in my circle as a singer
But, god knows, I'm sick of being an underground singer,
And the gods come down to us breathing fine cognac
In order to consider it all, treat me with understanding And tell me who I am.
Who the hell are you, to tell me who I am?
I know the story almost by heart:
He'll hear us out and tell us the sad news
How it's "all that way":
And he'll think about how to help us out,
And I'll sing for him, though later tonight
He'll drink away any memory of us.
And at home my daughter is waiting
And I've sung for just such more than once
And I've heard it all before, word-for-word
But beating my head against a wall isn't worse than any other kill-time:
Why else was I given a head?
Grebenschikovian lyrics don't get much less elliptical than that...which may be why the song seems to have quickly vanished from Akvarium's repetoire, Boris, like other wisemen, preferring to speak in parables. The other song unique to Soon the Century Will End, "Cinderella," is a more typical early Grebenschikov opus, very much in his reincarnation-of-Vertinskii mode. It's pleasant enough to listen to, I suppose—easy on the ears, with some gently reverberent jazz guitar that comes in behind Boris' acoustic one—but the song doesn't really have a melody, let alone a "hook," and the lyrics are, unfortunately, entirely foregettable.
In sum, like most bootlegs, the musical value Soon the Century Will End is secondary to its historical interest: True Believers will want it—True Believers want everything—and those seeking a fuller understanding of the nuts and bolts of being an outlaw recording artist in the pre-Glasnost Soviet Union will also be rewarded. Others can, in all good conscience, give this one a pass.
reviewed by Dzhon