Dances on the Edge of Spring: The Akvarium Tribute (Part Two)

Cassiopeja (Minsk)

A couple of weeks ago, we introduced the new project from Lenta.ru and Kroogi.com, designed to celebrate the "4,000th[!] Anniversary of Aquarium." In other words, we're dealing here with the St. Petersburg ensemble - known in Russian as "Akvarium" - who first came together in 1972 and would, over time, earn the right to call themselves the best-known exponents of rock music in the world's largest country.

Fronted since their inception by the wise and witty figure of Boris Grebenshchikov, the group has managed to interweave various thematic and melodic emphases over the last four decades: aspects of social protest, the sounds of Slavic folklore, Asian philosophy, and psychedelia, to name but four trajectories.

Everybody says I shouldn't drink; I say that I will! ("Stakany")

Since our last article, a range of new tracks has appeared from a growing number of bands - not only from Russia, and not just from the ranks of promising newcomers. Several nations and many degrees of fame are represented by these snowballing lists. They're unified by a gratitude for four decades of complex, often challenging rock music - especially from the later years of the Soviet Union. And yet, whatever the original social context (or its severity), happiness and admiration are more evident. Bad times have become good memories.

We might, therefore, begin with a cover-version of the song "Stakany" (Glasses) from Minsk's Cassiopeja. These Belarusian songsters, fond of on-stage absurdity, have chosen a relatively recent track (2006) dedicated to the simple joys of drinking. When performed live by Aquarium, this number often involves mass sing-alongs.

Naik Borzov (Moscow)

The band members remark: "Each of us came to know Aquarium in their own way - that's because we all lived in different places and finished school at different times. Some of us had an Aquarium poster on the bedroom wall between 'Rambo 3' and Samantha Fox; others were screamed at by our parents for listening to 'the sound of a bleating goat.'" Over time, however, the social context and its musical orientation would change radically, and Aquarium would morph from Leningrad hipsters into nationally relevant and revered performers. In the current climate of mainstream mediocrity and rampant piracy, these tales of underground songwriting in Soviet apartments sound impressive indeed. With no hope of fame or fortune, young musicians risked everything; for that reason alone, the level of respect in these tribute tracks is universally high.

Grateful to this day for those first tuneful - yet risky! - steps in the 1980s towards democracy and collective dignity, Cassiopeja offer a touchingly simple greeting to Aquarium's frontman: "We wish you many smiles, Granddaddy Grebenshchikov!" One might argue that the current climate in Belarus gives Cassiopeja a special reason to laud Grebenshchikov's youthful bravery. Troublesome songs can continue causing problems in different places.

Some of the songs were real masterpieces...

Moscow-based Naik Borzov summarizes the fundamental, enduring DNA of Aquarium rather well, with one eye towards the past: "I've always liked the avant-garde aspect of the group's work, but - at the same time - they were always very accessible, too. Some of the songs were real masterpieces, and the first albums I came across were listened to in one sitting - with enormous pleasure. Grebenshchikov is a mighty songwriter, and Aquarium have already produced enough songs to raise more than one generation in this country."

More kind words for the grandfather - from some very grateful children.

Para Bellvm (Saint Petersburg)

Saint Petersburg's Para Bellvm speak further to the issue of a generational span. Frontman Leonid Novikov recalls: "I've been digging around in my memory and have finally remembered how I first came across Aquarium. I had some Beatles records that had been 'politely' republished by [state-run label] Melodiya... but there was never any Russian rock anywhere [on sale]. I was still a school-kid and really young, with no experience of 'party life.' I certainly had no proper concept of the universe - as a densely inhabited realm, parallel to our Soviet existence. The first gaps in the Soviet cultural blockade were just beginning to appear..."

The first gaps in the Soviet cultural blockade were just beginning to appear...

And then, all of a sudden, one of the boys at school began to boast that he had a rare, incredibly fashionable record from Leningrad by a group called Aquarium. Some of the outfit's lyrics even started to appear in the form of graffiti, scribbled on local brick and concrete walls. Performing many of these songs may have been tricky, but an aerosol can and a timely exit made it possible to leave provocative phrases in public locations. Record by record, slogan by slogan, lyrical texts became calls to action. Not necessarily to social action, but at least to the investigation of philosophical and spiritual alternatives.

The degree of intrigue around these byzantine, culturally dense texts grew - as did the levels of sedition that found expression in rock lyrics overall. Events in Leningrad began to inspire - and spawn - other local scenes of guitar-wielding poets, brimming over with romantic ideals. For that same reason, it's interesting to see how Para Bellvm express their gratitude to Grebenshchikov and his colleagues with the same kind of doe-eyed, spiritual vagaries that seemed magical in the late 1980s. "We send him and Aquarium earthly greetings - in fact we'd like to thank everybody who has played in the band over the years... Jah will grant us everything. That is guaranteed." 

Pony (Moscow)

If there were a point at which Aquarium moved into mainstream consciousness around Russia, it would arguably be with the soundtrack for the 1987 mystical thriller, "ASSA." It's this film that another band - Pony (Пони) - remembers especially well. And, as time has gone on, in the wake of that legendarily complex feature film, a certain elitism has also appeared with regard to the band's discography. As one might expect, there comes a point where a long-lived rock group is appreciated by "real" fans for its early recordings most of all. Those who come later to the catalog of an ensemble are dismissed as lightweights. Real fans start listening really early.

The songs written before the fall of the USSR therefore have the greatest significance for more "discerning" admirers, especially those people who once lived in Leningrad and even frequented the city's legendary Rock Club. 

It wasn't only 'non-Soviet' music; it was coming from another world altogether

The other significance of "ASSA" is that it took the visual spectacle of perestroika rock music to every corner of the empire. The band Arrock cherez Okean, currently based in Moscow, have their roots in the Siberian city of Tyumen; the movie traveled that far - and beyond, to the Pacific Coast and movie theaters north of the Chinese border. Member Igor' Plotnikov remembers the initial shock of Aquarium's physical appearance and stage manner so far from home in the mid-'80s. Cinema offered a genuinely amazing alternative to the norm.

"I was stunned by the kind of guitar solos and lyrics you'd never hear on primetime TV... It wasn't only 'non-Soviet' music; it was coming from another world altogether. It was rock music - the stuff that was usually banned. It stood against everything of that time. It opposed stagnant culture, the officious workings of the Party, state censorship, and the narrow views of the Soviet public. Aquarium's music was a real revolution in terms of its outlook, taste, ideas, and imagery. It really transformed reality."

Alternative collectives came into being: small provincial gatherings appeared based not on civic zeal, but instead on artistic and spiritual enthusiasm. In today's market-driven environment, those same two touchstones acquire a new significance. Neither ideology nor material wellbeing are terribly satisfying to an idealist with a big record collection.

Arrock cherez Okean (Moscow/Tyumen)

Given that these memories are already buried (relatively) deep in the past, it's arguably most satisfying to see the influence Aquarium continues to have upon a much younger generation, often living far from Moscow. For that reason, it's worth - in closing - to take a quick look at three ensembles from Chelyabinsk and Yekaterinburg. All have contributed cover-versions to this project. The former city, Chelyabinsk, is an industrial beacon on the Russian landscape, blighted today by a wealth of environmental problems. One can imagine the impact songs of magic, minstrels, and youthful rebellion would have among the smokestacks. Aquarium's texts from the outset spoke of an escapism or enlightenment that was positioned far beyond the narrow constraints of earthbound existence. A glance upwards could sometimes see beyond the smoke.

Songs of naturalness, charisma, and intellect

First among the Chelyabinsk performers here is the band Vstrecha Ryby. For some while now, this group has defined its style as follows: “We play a fairly sentimental kind of music, and deliberately avoid any guitars. The band has six members: each of their bright personalities is interwoven in patterns that make up the songs’ fabric. We’ve got superb hip-hop drumming going on, together with jazzy keyboards, and horns, too. Add to that a deep and pensive bass, minimalist violin, and the expressive vocals. Our singing can be both severe and bewitching; the lyrics aren’t exactly devoid of meaning, either! These are the basic elements of the band’s sound.”

Vstrecha Ryby are here represented by vocalist Ivan Kotikhin, who first came across Aquarium at the tender age of nine. He says that for a provincial boy, those magical sounds on scratched LPs often became muddled with the equally fantastic US cartoons that were starting to appear on Russian television. Songs of protest had become those of pure fantasy - and happily so. Imagination became a form of protest, pure and simple. For that reason, Kotikhin came to treasure Grebenshchikov's penmanship for its "naturalness, charisma, and intellect." Three things that were often missing.

Nikita Prokop'ev (Chelyabinsk)

Also from the same city is Nikita Prokop'ev, who does not recall hearing Aquarium before the late '90s, at which time, of course, the sociopolitical or "rebellious" facet of these songs had faded far into the background. In fact, he seems to remember this early encounter being with a pirated mp3 compilation, "Legends of Russian Rock." Media practice and the band's status within the canon had both changed considerably.

Eventually Prokop'ev would come to enjoy the famous "Russian Album" (1992), which is more of a Grebenshchikov solo effort, yet displays perhaps the greatest bonds of any Aquarium project to the rich traditions of both Russian christianity and folklore. Put differently, what we hear from the memories of a young musician from Chelyabinsk is the implicit conviction that the most radical, rewarding experiences offered by Aquarium or its members are those which look furthest into the past. The most exciting, perhaps subversive act of all is to remember: the more inclusive a thought, the more trouble it causes for an exclusive ideology. The conflation of faith and folklore in 1992 was a good start.

It takes no great effort to see how the love of Aquarium for Slavic legends - for endlessly remembered, retold narratives - overlaps with the cultural importance of remembering these songs today. Projects such as this tribute album help younger listeners to remember how widely significant these compositions were an entire generation ago - if not longer. Profiteering corporations today, after all, are just as "forgetful" as irate politicians; irrelevant people and products are jettisoned with dizzying speed. Tradition means nothing.

It's already clear from these notes concerning vinyl, cassette tape, and celluloid how far Aquarium's influence would eventually spread, on all possible formats. In fact, these tracks - and the albums from which they come - mean so much to so many people, it's probably fitting to end with some all-encompassing praise from Yekaterinburg's Sansara. One shouldn't forget that the musical and social achievements of the Leningrad Rock Club were also closely tied to developments in the Urals, too. Yekaterinburg has its own, proud heritage to display in this regard. 

Vstrecha Ryby (Chelyabinsk)

When speaking of how Sansara has benefited from the stories once spun on the banks of the Neva, Aleksandr Gagarin uses the term "kasha," which means porridge, but in Russian has the secondary meaning of "absolutely everything." It's no longer possible to limit Aquarium's importance to one town, medium, decade, or recording. There's a sense that Grebenshchikov's songs are part and parcel of something grander. Aware of the risk here for hyperbole, Gagarin starts with a deliberately minor and self-deprecating image.

He says that Grebenshchikov has not only come to symbolize a melange of countless influences and potentials; he has also been as vital to Russia's cultural life as "kasha" to a young, growing boy! Gagarin then extends that metaphor and speaks in terms of some uncomplicated, yet "vital fuel." Just as a poorly fed youngster would suffer on a minimal diet, so Russian rock music would be starved without the fundamental, yet crucial input of Aquarium.

We hope that Aquarium never stop their dance - on the edge of springtime...

The closing greeting from Sansara reads: "We hope that Aquarium never stop their dance - on the edge of springtime - for the benefit of all living things." Songs designed to prompt social change have been inherited by another, young generation, who've turned talk of civic promise into the imagery of springtime. That promise of (endless!) change and metamorphosis should continue, as long as it has a suitable soundtrack, penned on the cold and windswept streets of St. Petersburg.

As we noted the last time we looked across these tribute tracks, Grebenshchikov's interweaving of Orthodoxy, Buddhism, folklore, and other traditions has cast a very wide net, both historically and geographically. As this growing tribute album shows, his influences still operate on the same impressive scale - forty years on. For that reason it's probably suitable that Sansara chose the image below. For a recording informed by gratitude and humility, today's musicians adopt a lowly stance, foregrounding instead a wealth of other ideas, avenues, and alternatives.

Five people, countless books: a healthy balance.

Sansara (Yekaterinburg)

Audio

Sansara – Idu Na Ty
Pony – Iz Siiaiushchei Pustoty (From Radiant Emptiness)
Arrock cherez Okean – Kusok Zhizni (A Piece of Life)
Nikita Prokop'ev – Neiz"iasnimo (Inexplicable)
Para Bellvm – Pepel (Ash)
Vstrecha Ryby – Prekrasnyj Diletant (Beautiful Dilettante)
Naik Borzov – Sny O Chem-To Bol'shem (Dreams of Something Greater)
Cassiopeja – Stakany (Glasses)

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