Excerpts from the article "Russkie Rock" published in "Stranger", Seattle, WA, April 1998
I moved from Seattle to St. Petersburg, Russia, four years ago, looking for work and thrills. Among the many expectations I had was the discovery of new music. The city was, after all, the cultural capital of a strange new country, and it was three times larger than Seattle. Shortly upon my arrival, however, I realized that the kinds of subcultures that I had been exposed to here barely existed in that city, at least not publicly.
Only a handful of clubs offered music that didn't cater to the ferociously banal New Russians. Most of the concerts and shows I did see sounded very much like lame derivatives of Western punk, folk-rock or, in the case of the citys only jazz club, Dixieland.
In the course of wandering the city one day, I ran across two teenagers playing a flute/guitar duet in a pedestrian underpass. The music sounded lively and original, so I waited for them to finish their impromptu concert and introduced myself. After introductions over a bottle of wine in a playground playhouse, we headed off to an apartment to listen to records. They played records by a number of bands, among them Aquarium and Auktyon, both of who appear for the first time in Seattle next week. As two out of of a small handful of established bands in Russia which have survived for over 15 years, they represent two different stages in the development of Russian popular culture.
Auktyon, which drew its first musical inspirations from Western punk rock and new wave bands, first appeared in the early 1980s. By the beginning of this decade the band had effectively shed any resemblance to any other, domestic or foreign, and has produced several of the finest and most unique documents of independent rock music on the planet since.
Auktyon is a band whose recordings carried me through two of the most uncomfortable winters I had ever spent. In Odessa, in the winter of 1995, there were many evenings where I read, wrote, and cooked by candlelight, waiting for the electricity to come on in my building. A small battery-operated cassette player chirruped throughout those nights, keeping me company. Among the tried and true tapes I had brought from home Portishead, Coltrane, Nirvana, the Velvet Underground, Sagewere several new acquisitions. I began to listen to several Auktyon records repeatedly, and realized at some point that it had become my favorite band, period.
The most important and addictive element in Auktyons music is its lyricism. Simple, almost folk-like melodies are at the core of most of the songs on their 1994 release, Ptiza (The Bird), an album which was hailed as the year's best by Russian rock critics. As sung by Lenya Fyodorov, the leader of the band, its melodies are strong enough to soar above and through the dense layers of guitars, keyboards, reeds, and percussion laid under and woven around them. An amazingly wide range of instruments: soprano sax, organ, tuba, sitar, slide guitar, clapping, bass clarinet, xylophone, conga, bottles all sound perfectly placed, subtly adding several different dimensions and sounds to each song on the record.
Unlike many garbled attempts at fusing rock and roll with world music, Auktyon manages to make all of these instruments and sounds their own. It's all brilliantly arranged and orchestrated, subtle enough for the charm to remain after hundreds of listens. The music is occasionally quirky or unsettling, but moments like that usually serve as contrasts to subsequent passages which sweep through with relentless musical hooks.
The bands lyrics are highly poetic, relatively abstract, and full of vivid images. They sound like incantations, often enough, or folk poetry. Unlike Aquarium, Auktyon has never considered itself a spokesman in any political sense. In an interview I read long ago, Fyodorov revealed a secret, one which reminded me of techniques used by some of the finest Russian poets. For Auktyon, most often, lyrics start from sounds, which are in turn generated by the music written by the band. The band pays as much attention to the musicality of the words as their meaning, which must be one of the reasons their songs sound so right, especially to a foreign ear.
Auktyons earliest presentations were accompanied by striking visual art installations, costumes, makeup, and performance artists. The band has moved away from theatricality in the last decade, but it did keep one entertainer on board, a performer who also contributes some of its most brilliant lyrics. Oleg Garkusha, the band's mascot, spokesman, and the first member to be named by any Russian fan, occupies center stage. Rather than sing or play, he loses himself in frenzied physical showmanship, occasionally adding some background vocals or banter. He effectively draws attention away from the rest of the musicians, leaving them free to concentrate on their music. Pogoing, spinning, growling, beating on a tambourine, Garkusha reacts to the music which is being created around him, seemingly caught in the same musical whirlwind as the appreciative listener.
These two concerts provide rare opportunities for Seattleites to hear two of the most established and professional rock bands in the former Soviet Unionan anachronistic dinosaur of Russian rock, and some of the most vital, and original music that Russia has to offer.