Strange and Compelling Russian Rock Sounds from Auktyon

by delarue

Here’s an album you won’t find much about in English: long-running Leningrad art-rockers Auktyon have a new one, their first studio effort in a dozen years, titled Yula (“top,” in English, i.e. the thing that spins). This is music for people who think that not only is Gogol Bordello NOT weird but not weird enough, who need something considerably more esoteric in order to reach exotica nirvana – or exotica overkill. The surreal irony (real irony, not sarcasm, which so many people have come to confuse with irony) of the Russian lyrics will be lost on most English-speaking listeners, but the music is smart, consistently surprising and utterly defies categorization. This band seems to be influenced as much by Russian folk and European jazz as rock, which may be a function of the instrumentation: sax, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and violin along with guitars, keys, bass and drums. Guitar polymath Marc Ribot elevates several of these tracks with his inimitable blend of noir menace and surrealistic noisy attack.

The opening track sets the tone, a brooding, minor-key acoustic guitar melody with smoky sax accents that builds to a big, anthemic electric crescendo reminiscent of famous pre-Glasnost Russian rockers Aquarium, or the band that influenced them the most, Jethro Tull. The second cut, Homba nicks the bassline from the old surf rock classic Diamond Head and adds Hava Nagila guitar allusions overhead; a bass clarinet loop anchors sketchy atmospherics overhead. Oh yeah, this stuff is very psychedelic.

Three short, roughly three-minute songs follow. Meteli (Snowstorms) is pulsing backbeat pop with swirly organ and whispery vocals. Shiski slowly comes together out of a rather random, free jazz-influenced intro with flute, pizzicato violin and acoustic guitars and quickly turns into a catchy pop song in disguise. Polden (Noon) is the brightest of the three, a minor-key gypsy rock song with some tasty clarinet and violin that the band runs through a phaser effect.

The weirdest track here is Priroda (Nature), a bizarre blend of Russian folk and Afrobeat, followed by the equally weird, new wave style Kozhanyi (Leather), which sounds like Wire trying their hand at late 70s fusion. You might think that’s yucky – it’s actually pretty amusing. The most potently memorable song here is Mimo (By), a darkly anthemic art-rock anthem in 7/8 time that goes out with a long psychedelic interlude, mingling layer upon layer of echoey guitar textures with off-kilter keys. There’s also a blippy Macedonian-flavored gypsy fusion groove with all kinds of deftly overlapping riffage from the entire horn section; Karandashi i Palochki (Crayons and Sticks), which blends Afrobeat with noisy stadium rock moves and then a warmly hypnotic, atmospheric interlude, and finally,  the wryly scurrying, apprehensively crescendoing title track. This is probably the darkest thing Auktyon has put out to date. Known for their unpredictable, high-energy, theatrical live shows, they’re playing the album release at le Poisson Rouge on June 20 and then on June 24 they’ll be at Joe’s Pub.