Full title: The Black Rose is the Emblem of Sadness. The Red Rose is the Emblem of Love.
OK, let's start by harping upon how wrong Dji is in his original notes for this album (preserved at the bottom of this review). Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. What is glorious about Black Rose is not that it is "a soundtrack that feels more like a soundtrack than the Assa album," but precisely the opposite: Unlike most soundtracks, Black Rose is an innovative work of art whose (scant) relation to a film is only one aspect of its wonderfulness.
After all, what is a "soundtrack" in this benighted era? There are generally two kinds. Firstly, there's a collection of songs already well known from other contexts, stitched into the fabric of a film, like frills or flounces, for purely decorative reasons. (Think Trainspotting or High Fidelity, to name two of the better ones of recent years). These soundtracks function as a kind of directorial short-cut to quickly evoke a particular mood or feeling, but the connection of the music to the film is usually serendipitous at best.
Then there are the "original scores," whose merit, when they have any, is that they are so inextricably woven into the movie that it's impossible to imagine the one without the other. Hence, we can't sit down and listen to the soundtracks from Star Wars or Jaws and imagine anything other than interstellar hijinks or a Great White with the munchies. Their strength tends also to be their severe limitation.
Ergo it is Assa, with its recycling of old Akvarium standards in new contexts, that is very much a conventional soundtrack, while Black Rose is that rarest of rare birds: a soundtrack recorded by a single band that works both as an enhancement to the eponymous film, and as a stand-alone album for which no knowledge at all of the film is necessary. Think of Purple Rain or Magnolia...now think, if you can, of something much stranger, but more strikingly original.
But if one thing does preclude Black Rose from being considered one of the all-time great soundtracks, it is that most of the songs that are actually in the film (by no means all the songs on the soundtrack) are there to little effect and less sense. No musical genius can save the film—a slapstick/melodramatic meditation on perestroika, the legacy of Stalinism and adolecence, among other things—from incoherent irrelevance. With the exception of a few tracks—"Ship of Freaks," "March" and the super-Munchkinized version of "To Friends"—the connection of the music to what's happening on the screen is slight enough that you lose nothing at all by doing as Dji suggests and "making up your own movie." (So in this sense, he's right after all...) A great soundtrack doesn't need great movie to go with it, but it doesn't hurt if the movie is at least as entertaining as Assa, say, which Black Rose, alas, doesn't even approach.
No great matter. Taken simply on its own terms qua Akvarium album—the last ablum, in fact, recorded by the Original Akvarium, coming just before BG's trip to the West—Black Rose easily qualifies as as one of the 10 best Akvarium albums in my personal canon. Here are some of the reasons why:
Three of the Best God-damn Songs B.G Ever Wrote: To wit: "Captain Voronin," "Train on Fire" and "Silver of My Lord." "Captain Voronin" you can also find in a live version on (duh) Letters of Captain Voronin and "Silver of My Lord" was anthologized on Library of Babylon, but with the definitive versions of all three songs right here (and only here in the case of "Train on Fire") why even worry about the other albums? (Until you're at least a Pilgirm on the path to Bodhisattva-hood, that is). These three songs are all so mind-blowingly excellent, they demand to dealt with individually.
"Captain Voronin": BG's most successful excursion ever into the song-story mode of Dylan, circa Blood on the Tracks. Whether or not the song has anything to do with a certain V.I. Voronin, captain of of a polar exploratory vessel, or not—I'm guessing "not"—the song remains a profound meditaion on the restlessness of the human heart—ever questing for some kind of apotheosis—anchored by restrained acoustic guitars, bass, and Schurakov's peerless accordion.
"Train on Fire": What to say? Thanks to the unanticipated, unprecedented, unthinkable, unbelievable appearance of this (unabashedly political, unabashedly critical) song on Russian national television in 1988, this is one of the best-known of Akvarium's songs. It truly was the Shot Heard 'Round the Soviet Union and nothing would ever be remotely the same ever again. Let's forget, though, that this was a remarkably bold middle finger stuck right up the nether regions of the Party's Central Committee...let's just revel in the song's matchless hook, sublime orchestration, emminently sing-alongable lyrics, and note that it really doesn't get much better than this, anywhere, anyhow.
"Silver of My Lord": 24-carat. Just a guitar, a flute and a plaintive, heart-piecrcing vocal, elucidating in less than four minutes everything you ever needed to know about Faith and Hope. Revelation should always be so simple.
To the best of my recollection, however, none of these three songs actually appear anywhere in the film. Details, details...
Proto-Bardo: How can true Akvarium lovers say anything less than "Llar-a-hlar" to the glories inherent in "The Angel and Its Goats" and "Loi Bykhanakh"? Nonsense never sounded so sublime. The former is a Laurie Anderson-ish heavy-breathing, pastoral lark where crickets compete with bass and strings for our atttention. The latter is simply one of the most soulful pieces of gibberish ever committed to vinyl: a string-fed, guitar-limned, mandolin-torn prayer to a Word Incarnate. If you don't find yourself praying right along you're damned for all eternity to Tone-deafness, a quiet corner in the ninth circle of Hell.
Instrumental Genius: The highlight for me, here, is "Ship of Freaks" a jaunty, toe-tapping music-hall send-up—the perfect accompanyment to a Little Rascals short set in the Kremlin, and the one scene in the movie that geniunely amuses. (OK, so technically there are a few lines of vocals thrown into the mix as well. Sue me.) Piano, violin, (absolute genius) accordion, whistling, guitar, clackers, whackers and noise-makers of every description take us on 7.13 minute fantasia of melodic abandon. Loosen your tie, put on a funny hat, and let it all hang out.
But there's more...so much more. How about the six-pints-of-Guiness-to-the-wind delerium of fiddle and cello that is "Irish Folk Hero Fer Diad..."? What's with the wistful nursery-school xylophone and double flute melacholia of "Pioneer Nastia"? Hapsichords and exquisite elven chorales lead us through "The National Hero..." unto the inchoate yearning of "Fishermen Discuss the Sunset," which is laced with lovely, lonely accordions and mesmerizing xylophonic percussion. And let us not forget the droning, space-jazzy "Secret of the KPSS..." which hints at the strange fruit of the Anna Karenina Quartet. All memorable, all keepers...no mean trick with no lyrics to superglue the tunes to our cerebral cortexes.
Other Stuff: That's right. Above and beyond what I've already mentioned there are more than a half dozen other tracks jostling for your attention. "The Eagle, the Calf and the Lion" is a song with a wistful Vertinskii sound (though it's a BG orginal) and riddling lyrics (why won't the wildlife leave poor BG alone to drink his tea in peace?) "Sardanapal" hints at the mythopoetic gestures and lush orchestration of Hyperborea, while "Commisar" is a near-great, perfectly mixed song with a violin and xylophone, birds and bells, hovering in counterpoint to BG's plaintive guitar and vocal.
If the album has anything we could do without it would probably be "March," the mock-heroic Gusnitskii piece recycled from Triangle (though done up much more elaborately here), and the helium-fueled version of "To Friends" (originally found on Acoustics, of course). But if there weren't a low-point or two for contrast we wouldn't be as blown away by the baker's dozen of high points, would we?
In sum, don't even think about trying to make do without this album. Open your heart and purse strings and buy roses for someone you love...first and foremost yourself.
NB: Irritatingly enough, several non-Akvarium tracks from the original double-album vinyl release were left off the cd version, which has 18 tracks instead of the original 22. Enquiring minds who want to know why will have to look elsewhere for answers—clocking in at only 59.40 in its shortened version, there should have been plenty of room for them on the Black Rose disc.
Original review, 1997, by Dji
A soundtrack that feels more like a soundtrack than the Assa album (not a qualitative statement, just an observation). Quiet and brooding (Dzhon says haunting) though it has plenty of energy and variety. Great (or extra annoying, depending on your perspective) version of "To Friends" featuring the Akvarium Munchkin chorus. (See Films)
Later: it grows on you. The coolest thing about it, among many cool factors, is that it feels like a soundtrack & since I haven't seen the movie I just make up my own movie every time I listen. And I'm the star. And nobody stabs me in the heart.
Dzhrew writes: "This is your source for Boris instrumentals with wacky titles. I think Akvarium must have heard Camper Van Beethoven's Telephone Free Landslide Victory and thought to themselves, "We can come up with zanier titles than that."
Songs that weren't written entirely by BG: 2 and 16 were co-written with Romanov; 5 is Sasha Titov's creation; 8 is all Romanov; 13 is co-written with Schurakov; and 14 is co-written with Schurakov and Romanov.
Our relations with film-making in the person of Sergei Alexandrovich Solovyov came about thusly: He said, "I'm making a new film." We said, "What do you need for it?" He said, "Here's a studio at Mosfilm for you. Compose something and it'll become obvious there."
Thus we wrote songs. Some of them we took just for ourselves, some went into the actual film, and the remainder came out on the album Black Rose.
Actually, everything started with the music for Assa. A record was even released...but from my point of view, the actual music to Assa isn't to be found on it—I have in mind the monstrous stringed improvisation that adds such a great sound to the scene of the sad life and death of Emperor Pavel—although we always liked the localized-electric version of "The Plain."
On Rose we were already familiar with the set-up of Mosfilm and therefore were able to allow ourselves a great deal more (for instance, the treatise about the dingbat softly woven into "Ship of Freaks"). Therefore, from my point of view Rose, at least in part, could be labeled a true Akvarium album. "Commisar" alone defines a whole period of our lives (in any case, philosophically speaking. Soon it'd be the time of Radio Silence.)
Besides everything else, during the recording of Rose, we first came up with the idea of the "Russian-Abyssinian Orchestra," still in a childish, indistinct form, more like monkey-shines, but already strong enough to make half an album. The riddle of "Loi Bykanakh" will remain a riddle—where did this come from? But it did come, and rightly so. The real Russian-Abyssinian Orchestra would work according to the very same scheme. It should be added that the second voice on "Loi" is Andrei Gorokhov from "Ado."
The music to Home Under the Strarry Sky was much less spontaneous, though it was specifically this which brought about the appearence of the Anna Karenina Quartet. It was then that we recorded "God Save the Polar Explorers" and "Don't Stand in the Way of Sublime Feelings." Thus one could consider the contribution of cinema to Akvarium's destiny to be wholly positive.
Translated from Songs by Dzhon.