My friend the critic told me the other day
That my vocabulary is tapped out...
- Boris, "Alternative"
This is the third in the "History of Akvarium..." series of albums. Although recorded/released in 1991, this record contains songs that were first performed as early as 1982 (according to the small sample of bootlegs I have at my disposal and radiocarbon dating). See, in the CCCP's olden days, studio time and space was a bit tricky to come by. So the "official" unofficial releases of Akvarium often neglected a lot of songs that they played live. They just didn't bother to commit them to tape, or they felt these songs didn't fit the feel of the released albums, or whatever. We gurus call these songs "b-sides," but who knows if they ever showed up as b-side recordings on any of the tapes that circulated as original releases.
Archive is a clean, pretty, acoustic album. There are your basic strings, flutes, jangly acoustic guitars, fretted and fretless basses, simple drums. It occasionally approaches the exotic—a harp on one song, and an orchestra on another. The music, often lonely and hopeful, fits nicely with the lyrics. I'd love to be able to whip out some wry, rock-critic kind of word here that tells you exactly what to expect musically, but I can't. Sorry. Like most Boris stuff, this is a bit chaotic and hard to pin down stylistically. It's even worse (in the sense of trying to pin it down) because it's a collection:
"Between Worlds" is spare harp music; "Worker Bee" is an eerie blues (strings providing the bee noises); "Grey Stones on Green Grass" has a tin whistle that gives it an Irish feel; "God Save the Polar Workers" is fingerpicked acoustic guitar; "Alternative" is a bouncy shuffle with cowboy-movie-saloon piano; "Don't Stand in the Way of High Feelings" is tinged with Latin rhythms. And so on. All I can really say is that nothing on this album is heavy, flanged, fed-back, or any of that kind of stuff.
Thematically, Archive is just about as tough to pin down. Admittedly, as a non-native-speaker, there is much to get in the way of me feeling the grand connections that turn a "collection" into an "album." But as a former liberal artist of the most Slavic kind, I have managed to come up with a possible theme for the record (actually two themes that I'll present as one): hopelessness and failure. [After finishing writing this review, however, I see that I barely develop this at all. So I guess it's irrelevant at this stage in the game.]
The first track (one of the oldest by my reckoning), "Diploma," is about misplaced love for a woman who will never "get it." It's pretty harsh in places, my favorite image being "She takes you out on a leash/And you follow her around like a puppy." Ouch. "She's not going to read your diploma/And you don't take her seriously." It ends a tad hopefully, I guess. After having sunk to the lowest of lows, the poor guy watches her sail away and blows to fill her sails. But that's only after he's sunk to the bottom. And it may be because he's so pathetic that he thinks if he just does this one last kind thing for her (helping her sail away), she'll come back. Дурак.
"Premonitions of Civil War" is pretty straightforward, with devastating imagery that conveys the terror of inevitable conflict. "The Unicorn Hunt" follows immediately, with the narrator awakened at 6 a.m. by a gunshot. He sings of witnessing a unicorn hunt, which he watches calmly, as he knows it to be an exercise in futility:
No one can harness them
No one can pacify them with bullets
Their hooves leave no tracks
They look to a moving star.
He admits to having done his share of not-so-nice things, but reserves the right not to participate in the hunt. The song throws me for a bit of a loop at the end, with some of my favorite words of any Boris song (disclaimer: I'm a St. Petersburg-ophile). I just wish I really understood what the hell he's talking about:
Tonight my city lies transparent,
Still unconnected by the bridges;
And in the charred snow, still impossible to see,
Twinkle the shimmers of a moving star.
I know this is deep, I just don't know how deep.
Two of the nuttier songs on the album are "God Save the Polar Workers" and "Alternative." (I wont even mention the zany existentialism of "Fifteen Naked Babes.") The song about the polar workers (by this he means the poor schlubs who have to sit in shacks on the shore of the Arctic Ocean and guard against attack—the US must have similar dudes in Alaska) was once explained to me by Semyon as a kind of parody. The Soviets were fond of singing the praises of heroic working types, with serious tributes to crane operators and the like. Boris wrote this song for a forgotten group of hard-working nutcases. It's beautiful and ironic and basically a masterpiece in every sense of the word. It ends with a plea to God, "And when you bless them for love and honor/Double their ration of alcohol and leave them as they are."
"Alternative," with its loopy saloon piano is an equally ironic masterpiece. I think of it as a sort of footnote to "Ivanov" (off Acoustics), about the Ivanovs of this world when they have to go to work and/or deal with people. Basically, they need to keep a buzz going in order to deal.
I really love my fellow people
But my synchronization with them is precisely zero
I'm happy in life, like an idiot
Everyone goes off to work, and I just stand here
You are busy with fighting amongst yourselves
And I've got a little buzz going.
Been there, done that.
"Don't Stand in the Path of High Feelings" has much in common with the Bob Dylan school of lyrics ("Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, they were the best of friends...," "As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Payne...," etc). It begins thus,
Juliet turned out to be a pirate
Romeo was a sea snake
Their feelings were pure
...Romeo read her Shakespeare
The sailors cried openly
The captain tried to get in the way
And a wave washed him overboard.
It's about the futility of standing in the way of emotion, with sober advice not to spit in the wind or to get in the way. Good words.
The album ends on a sad, hopeful note, with "When the Pain Passes." The gist of this one is that someday the shadow will lift from this earth, and it'll be time to regroup. The last words on the album are, "I just want to know/Will we be who we are when the pain passes?" Good question. Still waiting for an answer both here, and in Russia.
So yeah. This is a record that clearly deserves further study. I fear I've only begun to scratch the surface of its lyrical brilliance. Boris's friend "the critic" was wrong to say his vocabulary is tapped out. I recommend Archive to anyone who doesn't need electric mayhem to enjoy an album. It gets a little melodramatic in places (the unicorn song's orchestra is a bit overboard, I'm afraid), but musically, it's lovely, and the lyrics have much to offer. It probably couldn't form the basis of a Ph.D dissertation (for that, try Navigator or The Russian Album), but there's a lot in there, regardless.
If you have been hooked by the Initiate Level, dabbled in Novice Level, and are ready for the nuts-and-bolts of the Pilgrim Level, this is a fine choice. It could indeed end up being your favorite album.
At a festival in Montreal the group Crosby Stills & Nash, which had been friendly with us for a long time, got into the Russian spirit of things and ceremoniously presented Akvarium with a portable 8-track recording studio. It was set up at DK Svyazi where it served as the basis for many experiments and sleepless nights. Time passed centrifugally; magic and personal problems hung in the air so thickly that you could've cut them with a knife (this is what we call “a transitional period”). But, all the same, the present from our spiritual brothers didn't rust away unused.
Akvarium mutated. Our old friend Oleg Sakmarov, a musician by education and a pschonaut/rock star by disposition (the future Ded Vasily, Terminator 4, Beast of Kazan and Terror of the Multiverse) became an official member of the group, and for some period we performed with two flutes. After the American tour of the “Radio Silence Band” Tit (Sasha Titov) left to “swim free” and Feinstein briefly returned as the group's bassist, but soon gave over the post to Sergei Berezovoy. Our old soundman Slava Yegorov, a woodsman and expert in acoustic spaces, immigrated to Canada, and his spot was taken by the future “Indian,” Oleg Goncharov.
Everything changed practically every week: at these speeds all our attempts to record an album were doomed to failure. Nevertheless, a few songs were able to slice through the chaos. (It was these particular songs that people knew as our “unreleased album,” “Feudalism.”)
Stas Namin, who'd been a fan of Akvarium for a long time, started his firm, SNC Records, and proposed to release a CD. Like in the 1980s, one thing clearly ended and some other new thing began—a parallel with Acoustics suggested itself of its own accord. Namin gathered our studio experiments (unpublished, but concert favorites) and one or two songs that'd been recorded especially for the release. The “History of Akvarium” had its third tome, and we had our first CD, and the Eighties were over.
Translated from Songs by Dzhon