New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: russian rock

Mad Meg’s Killer Debut Album Mashes Up Elegant Art-Rock and Creepy Phantasmagoria

Being in New York is a mixed blessing a lot of the time these days. Musically speaking, it means that you miss out on all kinds of good stuff if you aren’t hooked into one expatriate scene or another . For example, Mad Meg have a devoted following in the Russian community, although they aren’t as well known outside that demimonde – and they ought to be. They’re sort of a mashup of all sorts of good, moodily carnivalesque acts – Gogol Bordello, Nick Cave and Botanica, just for starters. They’ve got a new album, the sardonically titled Puberty Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – and an album release show this Thursday, Sept 29 at 9:45 PM at Drom. Cover is $10.

The band played a tantalizing preview for this show with an expansive, theatrical set at the end of last week at Alexandre Gertsman Contemporary Art, THE go-to gallery for A-list Russian artists these days. Despite the fact that the band was playing practically all acoustic, they held a packed house rapt for practically an hour on an impromptu stage. Frontman Ilya Popenko swooped and circled out into the crowd: tall and wiry, decked out in a black suit, the Cave resemblance is unmistakable. But he’s the rare, distinctive artist who’s as adept at music as he is with visuals. His twisted Photoshopped tableaux – substituting his face for a series of twisted characters coiled up in corners, schmoozing sardonically around a holiday table or engaging in all sorts of sordid behavior – are as funny as his series based on the cult favorite Soviet cartoon Gena the Crocodile.

The album is as witheringly cynical as it is catchy. Over a frantic, horn-fueled circus rock pulse, Popenko explains that the Circling the Drain Dance is a global phenomenon. “Play whatever music that makes you less annoyed, say hello to people that you still don’t avoid.” It’s the prequel to Botanica’s Castration Tango.

With its flashy piano intro, Engineer is a mashup of Botanica art-rock and Tom Waits saloon blues, with a little Hunky Dory-era Bowie thrown in. Livable Lovable Life sets Jason Laney’s trippy, echoey Wurlitzer electric piano and a sarcastic horn chart to a furtive swing, the missing link between Dark Side-era Floyd and Botanica. Moscow Song disguises a classic Pretenders bassline – and coyly references another 80s new wave hit – underneath menacing lounge lizard piano.

Polish Girl switches between an organ-driven noir waltz and some neat counterpoint between growly baritone sax and accordion, the tale of a gold-digging girl “majoring in volleyball and all sorts of interesting games.” Scary People tales a scampering detour toward disco: “Sitting in the forest, drinking their PBR’s,” Popenko intones, trading rasps with James Hall’s trombone: “I’m not ever going out, never going out there.” Words of wisdom for anybody contemplating a train ride to Bushwick.

The piano-and-resonator-guitar textures throughout the surrealistic Sky Grows Taller are s psychedelic as they are plaintive. Sunday Nights takes an even more surreal turn toward psychedelic soul: “I’m just a little beat, not an alcoholic,” Popenko snarls. The Very Last Train is the sneaky killer cut here with its swirly organ solo and mix of noir swing, disco and Romany punk. And Torn follows a hypnotically nocturnal Jesus & Mary Chain sway. Blast this at your next party and you’re guaranteed to get at least one “Who is this?” or “Which Gogol Bordello album is this?”

Olga Bell Brings Her Strange, Beguiling Russian Art-Rock to le Poisson Rouge

Krai is Russian for “border.” In Russia, there are seven krais, sort of the equivalent of counties in one of the US states. Those regions and their traditional music inspire the new album, simply titled Krai, by Moscow-born, Alaska-raised art-rocker Olga Bell. All but one of her songs here are completely through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses don’t repeat. The lyrics – in Russian – are a rapidfire mashup of ancient plainchant, folk tales and original, sometimes politically charged lyrics co-written by Bell and her mom, a former Soviet broadcaster. The music is rhythmically tricky art-rock, its indie classical flourishes interpolated amidst long, pensively vamping interludes driven by a kinetic rock rhythm section, with lingering, austere electric guitar, vibraphone, strings, woodwinds and Bell’s own intricately overdubbed six-part vocal harmonies. Bell’s often labyrinthine vocal arrangements employ a lot of close harmonies to enhance the otherworldliness, although she doesn’t use the microtones common to some Balkan and Russian music. Bell and her ensemble play the album release show for this one at 8 PM on April 28 at le Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.

The opening track’s ominous art-rock intro quickly morphs into a Slavic chorale, then it moves back to offcenter cinematics, the vibraphone’s incisiveness contrasting with the opaqueness around it. Bell winds it up with a big crescendo of vocals and then a whoop. Where the first track swoops upward as it gets going, the second swoops downward, with the vocals, a jaw harp, steady bass and a practically mocking high cello line over a quavery, sustained drone that sounds like ebow guitar. Track three, Perm Krai (each title has a corresponding region) has a trickily rhythmic, shuffling trip-hop groove, something akin to Sigur Ros taking a stab at mathrock. The fourth cut, Stavropol Krai has Bell doing a call-and-response with her own multitracks, then the band lights up a spare, sparse theme with jaunty accents from flute and guitar. It ends with what appears to be a sarcastic military march.

Krasnoyarsk Krai, with its icy vibraphone flourishes, dense layers of vocals and organ, is the album’s creepiest track. Zabaikalsky Krai begins as a simililarly eerie bell melody and then works its way through an ominous synth interlude and then hints at a darkly leaping mathrock theme – it’s the album’s most ethereal song. With its weirdly processed keys and vocals, Khabarovsk Krai is the quirkiest, a Slavic dance dressed up as Radiohead.

The final track, Kamchatka Krai sounds like a Russian version of the Creatures, towering walls of vocals punctuated by big bass chords, pounding drums, screechy synth and the occasional swipe from the guitar or electric piano. Who is the audience for this? Maybe fans of Dirty Projectors, with whom Bell has worked extensively. Otherwise, fans of the stranger side of art-rock (and Bjork, and postrock, and mathrock, and accessible indie classical ensembles like Ymusic) will find a lot to sink their ears into here. It’s a long, strange trip.

Strange and Compelling Russian Rock Sounds from Auktyon

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.