The Grand Astoria: Stoner Rock from the World's Most Northerly City

The name of this band - The Grand Astoria - comes from a famous hotel in their hometown of St Petersburg, built in 1912 and then renovated in 1991. Those dates alone give us a snapshot of the building's cultural significance. As one of the city's most famous hotels, it was designed as a final expression of pre-Soviet grandeur, and would - decades later - benefit almost immediately from an huge injection of post-Soviet wealth. In between these two dates and events, one of the world's most powerful and restrictive regimes both rose and fell. Somehow the Astoria kept standing.

The four young musicians who've decided to draw upon this lasting symbolism for their own work are Kamil' Sharapodinov (vocals/guitar), Igor' Suvorov (guitar), Nikolai Kunavin (drums/"+ nerves"!), and Farid Azizov. They define the music on display here as a merger of punk, post-punk, stoner tunes, pure noise, elements of the blues, and a general debt to metal traditions.

A lot of reference points require a lot of tools.

Seeking wider influences in the world, the band then finds inspiration in objects such as "cacti, American cars, skateboards, Texas, tractors, farms, barns, a good joint, our fathers, Norwegian black metal, persimmon fruit, evil, gloom, and Clint Eastwood." That list begins with the kind of southern references we'd expect from a stoner outfit, perhaps, but within a few seconds we've spun off into the horrors of Scandinavian death metal and the happiness of family relations. This melange of the predictable and the paradoxical leads to what The Grand Astoria call, in one long Russian adjective, "gof**kyourselfweplaywhatwewant" rock.

Their fathers might not approve of such language.

Looking to position these varied sounds and sources in the context of domestic music, some Russian netzines have sketched out a handful of possible relations between The Grand Astoria, Neversmile (Sharapodinov's "base" outfit), and Western trajectories. These kind of "framing" efforts are especially useful since the band only came together in the spring of 2009, hence the occasional tag of "stoner experimental rock." We're dealing not only with some well-established aspects of a widely-recognized US heritage, but also with their complex transition to a very different cultural environment.

There are, after all, good reasons why cacti and other Texan lifeforms don't grow on Russian soil. They don't appear that healthy to start with.

Russian webzines have interpreted the adjective "stoner" via a couple of constant concepts: its indebtedness to elements of both metal and psychedelia. More specifically, "The Grand Astoria stand on a foundation of 'good old' melodic hard-rock, with facets of the blues, and some funk harmonies, too. It's all in the style of Canned Heat, Free, Humble Pie, Grand Funk Railroad, Mountain, and so on." There appears to be little squeamishness about throwing Iron Maiden, Samson, Judas Priest, and other British bands into the mix.

The Grand Astoria stand on a foundation of 'good old' melodic hard-rock, with facets of the blues, and some funk harmonies, too. It's all in the style of Canned HeatFreeHumble PieGrand Funk RailroadMountain, and so on.

As if that weren't complicated enough, a quick run around Russian web-based publications will also produce references to Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, and the Grateful Dead. These bands, forming something of a subset, are used to box the "psychedelic" leanings of TGA, together with Hawkwind, Ash Ra Tempel, and others. The lists are long and rambling.

The Grand Astoria are, fundamentally, an instrumental ensemble. Mild criticism of their vocals is encountered from time to time (since they appear rarely and - allegedly - struggle a tad with the English lyrics), but in general the evaluation at home has been positive. Phrases such as "top-notch, professionally played rock" are thrown around with abandon. The tracks on display in this post are generally summarized as representative of a "good album from a good band." These same audio files, should they produce a similarly upbeat impression, can be downloaded for free, thanks to the hard work and generosity of folks at RAIG, the Russian Association of Independent Genres.

So much for TGA in isolation. Do these musicians, however, represent anything resembling the start of a northern trend or stoner scene, for example? We have used that same adjective ourselves on several occasions before, in order to discuss bands like The Black Pipe's Bottom (Rostov-na-Donu), Newton's Garage (Kharkov), Cable Toy (St Petersburg), Bungalow Bums (Omsk), and others. Nonetheless, online scribes will tell us that "the Russian stoner-scene is very much in its earliest stages. In fact there doesn't really exist a scene at all..!" There remains, all the same, little cause for sadness, since TGA are already attracting even more attention from Western net-sources than those at home.

Eyebrows are raised in pleasant surprise.

Perhaps the most enthusiastic response of all has come from Australia's Planet Fuzz, who had the following to say about TGA in February: "This truckload of rock(s) known as The Grand Astoria has led me to surrender on all fronts. After listening frantically over and over to this album, I have decided that this has to be the best band ever from Eastern Europe. St Petersburg and Russia are truly on the move and this is, for sure, one of the best albums in 2009!"

This truckload of rock(s) known as The Grand Astoria has led me to surrender on all fronts. After listening frantically over and over to this album, I have decided that this has to be the best bandever from Eastern Europe. St Petersburg and Russia are truly on the move and this is, for sure, one of the best albums in 2009!

"On the self-titled debut album by the Russian rock gods, you get six different flavors of dynamite-smelling munchies, beautifully wrapped all together in a conspicuous surprise-box[?]. These fuzzadelic string-burners touch every inch of your pagan body and bring you the finest in both psychedelic stoner and cow-sh*t-smelling-southern-fried-armwrestling-metal-flavored-redneck rock with a touch of blues..."

"It's hard to pick a specific song as a favorite, because every single minute of the album is a joyful ride, and - as I have said before -  The Grand Astoria is a first class band who rides them high horses all the way up without any difficulties. 50% of the songs on the disc have vocals, the other half is a mind-blowing instrumental journey into the unknown."

So what is this "unknown"? What is the opulent, excessive experience that The Grand Astoria - as a location or venue - has represented for so many years? If we take this band's drug-related references not as anything literal, but as a general invocation of some prohibited plenitude, what's the magical element at play?

If the London Times are to believed, it's love and romance. The newspaper just published a list of the world's "sexiest cities," and included St Petersburg. The Grand Astoria Hotel is then listed as a prime venue for all things romantic. And, in the same spirit, the hotel itself has also hosted two exhibitions dedicated to both romance and weddings in the last few weeks alone.

If stoner rock is the quintessential soundtrack for dropping out from society - in order to experiment with more subjective, aimless types of activity - then The Grand Astoria, both as a band and business, seem to offer a pleasing game plan. The implicit worldview here, at least for the foreseeable future, would be: instead of slaving away at a dead-end office position, grab your boy- or girlfriend and vanish into the northern snows... to live happily ever after. No wonder this seems to be catching on with Western journalists.

Drop everything and run. There might be little to lose in a land where monthly wages run around $600...

Audio

The Grand Astoria – Enjoy The View (radio edit)
The Grand Astoria – Radio Friendly Fire (radio edit)
The Grand Astoria – The Inner Galactic Experience Of Emily Dickinson And Sylvia Plath (radio edit)
The Grand Astoria – Visit Sri Lanka
The Grand Astoria – Wikipedia Surfer (radio edit)

Related Artists