Monday, August 27, 2012

Russian Movies Week, Day 1: Иди и смотри (1985)

English Title: Come And See,
Studio: Belarusfilm, Mosfilm,
Director: Elem Klimov,
Screenplay: Ales' Adamovich, Elem Klimov,
Genre: War, Thriller, Arthouse,
Starring: Alexey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Lyubomiras Lautsyavichus

Soviet and Russian WWII movies are like one big franchise in itself. They span since the time when the actual war was taking place, up until now, occupying any genre imaginable - action, melodrama, mystery, horror, propaganda, comedy, etc. All those movies are beloved classics for both 'that' and current generations, as they portray heroism, willpower, patriotism (actually, in Russia and Ukraine, WWII is often called The Great Patriotic War or simply The War) of the Soviet people that helped them in defeating the Nazi scourge once and for all.

But among and aside those movies, there was one terminally controversial masterpiece that depicted The War in a scary, twisted, unglamorous way. For the time it was so shocking that they even had to station the ambulance cars near movie theaters, because not all the viewers were able to bear such a terrifying film. And even to this day it is still scary, painful, and is referenced countless times in all kinds of 'Top N war movies of all time' lists, say, on IMDB. I am talking about Elem Klimov's 1985 classic, 'Come And See'.

The story takes place in Belarus, 1943. Our main character, 'Flyora' (Florian) is a young boy who's hellbent on joining the Partisan (guerrilla) troops to kill as many Nazis as possible. He's taken away from the village to the nearest guerrilla camp stationed in the woods. There he meets Kosach, the squad leader, and Glasha, a young girl somehow hanging out with the Partisans. The first half of the movie doesn't even seem to be a war film in the common sense, as it's closer to arthouse, with almost surreal imagery and noisy soundtrack. But after Flyora and Glasha travel to a remote island to join a group of peasants that escaped from Nazis, the movie takes a turn to a more traditional war drama, as Flyora and three of the peasants go out to seek some food, steal a cow from a random collaborationist, but after being caught in a firefight, only Flyora survives and, unable to disembowel the dead animal (by the way, both live animal and ammunition were used in filming the firefight scene), he leaves only to find himself in a small village, most likely the tragically infamous Khatyn. This is where the movie's most well-known part starts off.

The Nazi Sonderkommand arrives onsite and starts mentally and physically abusing all the inhabitants. They laugh, drink beer, beat up and spit on the peasants, finally locking them in a church and burning it down. Flyora manages to escape the bonfire only to witness the consequences - a paralyzed old woman, a girl gang-raped in the truck, burning village, dying screams... One of my favorite moments is when a Nazi chick sits in a van, watching the village burning as she eats chicken like she's posing for a Vogue cover.

Later, after the Partisan ambush, we see her again, lying in a pile of corpses near the burning truck, bare-breasted, heavily breathing, with a string of blood rolling out of her mouth. And Flyora, he doesn't give a shit about her. You know Fraulein, war is not a glamorous thing, you know, people die there. Nazi bitch.

You see how emotional I get just when thinking about that movie. That's the whole point of it, to show the horrors of war and that it's a huge wrecking machine that kills people, no matter what's their attitude is. One thing I must address is the acting. Alexey Kravchenko is absolutely fantastic as Flyora, especially counting the dark and violent material that he had to work with. Some even said that he got nearly crazy during the filming, and the director even hired a hypnotist to help the young actor, but it all turned out okay in the end, as Kravchenko is still acting, starring in TV shows and remembering the filming of 'Come And See' with respect and admiration. Haley Joel Osment, eat your heart out.

The violence in this film is extremely graphic for a Soviet movie; some guy from the Disenteria forum even called it 'psychogore' due to strong depictions of both physically and mentally disgusting imagery. One of the most infamous scenes is a rape victim with a stupid whistle hanging out of her mouth:

...and the concentration camp stock footage:

Overall, this movie is definitely not the one to be watched with beer and chips. It's disturbing, depressing and violent, thousand times darker than any Soviet movie of the time, regardless of the subject matter. I can't really recommend it to anyone, so just a random fact: before watching this film, I openly acknowledged that I like the visual designs and style of Nazi uniforms. I know and agree that those were vile, horrible people enslaved by a vile, horrible ideology, but I still liked how they looked in their black and grey jackets with all the insignia attached. Now I hate them.

My Rating: 9 / 10

Monday, August 20, 2012

PSA: Tony Scott committed suicide

On Aug, 19, the legendary director and producer Tony Scott committed suicide by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. The reasons remain unknown as of now, especially since there was little to no motifs at all.

Tony Scott
1944 - 2012

The Hunger, Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Days Of Thunder, The Last Boyscout - you and your movies will be remembered forever.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 7: Круиз - Kruiz (1988)

Last day, last band, last album... For the last entry to the Russian Metal Week, let's do something original and special. Well, how about a Russian metal album... with English lyrics?

Круиз - Kruiz (Kruiz / Cruise - Kruiz)

Valeriy Gaina - vocals, guitar
Fedor Vasiliev - bass
Sergey Efimov - drums

1. Knight Of The Road
2. Brave New World
3. Heaviest In Town
4. The Avenger
5. In Flames
6. Dream 5000 Years Long
7. Iron Rock
8. Possessed
9. "В огонь" (In Flames)

Kruiz has a complicated biography. From the very beginning, they were a pop band, producing such hit singles as 'Spinning Top Toy' (Крутится волчок), and are often criticized for following the heavy metal trend of the late eighties, when some bands were approved by the government to play this 'forbidden' music (another example would be Ariya, which, too, was formed from the remains of two pop bands). Under Valeriy Gaina's direction, Kruiz first released a hard rock'ish 'Cruise-1' (Круиз-1) album, which was okay... I assume, since I never heard it. And then, in an attempt to conquer the Western market, this LP was recorded. Stylistically, 'Kruiz' is a mix of speed and power metal with some thrash influences and extensive guitar work.

'Knight Of The Road' starts off with a weird intro, but it quickly transitions to the fast and heavy opener. It's a more-than-decent song with a great bridge and chorus, solid as a rock and definitely one of the album's highlights, at least the most memorable one. So much so it actually kinda weakens all the rest to come. After the great first song, 'Brave New World' seems to be a bit boring. While this is a good thrashy tune, it's not catchy at all. Some of the rhythm work is great, but you still partially forget it after the third track kicks in. 'Heaviest In Town' is an attempt to join speed metal and rock-n-roll, and a successful one at that. While the song sounds a lot like a lightweight version of Anthrax, the chorus is a bit silly though, but probably this silliness is intentional. After three better-than-average numbers we are bluntly presented to the worst one. Somehow, 'The Avenger' is regarded to be one of the top songs here, but I never really got it. It's just a very long and boring guitar jerking showcase with Gaina's annoying accent (which surprisingly is not noticeable at all on the songs before this one!), uninspired guitar riffs and idiotically written vocal melodies. The song does gain thrash speed during the solo, though, but by that time I don't think that anyone would give a hell. 'In Flames' is a little better, as it's a straightforward speed metal track with fast riffs, memorable vocals and lack of any boredom. If only it would sound somewhat more original, it could be awesome, which makes me wonder - even the worst songs here have a touch of complex songwriting and Gaina's understandable attempts at not sounding like another lot of American speed metal bands, which makes 'In Flames' seem to be bad even while the song itself is good.

Finally, after two meh pieces, there goes 'Dream 5000 Years Long', which tries hard to redeem all the flaws before it, and it does! Gone is Gaina's accent, gone are banal riffs and rhythms, the album starts sounding fresh and interesting again. It's speed-thrash metal as I like it - aggressive, but intelligent. But between this and another aggressively intelligent track, the band again inserts a really demented one. 'Iron Rock' is as silly as the title sounds - it is supposed to sound like Motorhead's rock-n-roll, but instead it sounds like a parody, especially when Gaina tries to growl. Of course, I can understand a pressure of him doing the vocals and all the guitar parts all by himself, but at least he could've stuck to the vocal style of the previous tracks, instead of sounding like a Chris Barnes wannabe growling 'IRON... RROCK!!'. Yeah, especially when you're trying to brutally pronounce such a laughable word combination. Finally, this madhouse comes to an end, and another intelligent song comes in, 'Possessed'. Again, it doesn't have any of the flaws mentioned above for all the lacking numbers, so all in all, it stands in a row with 'Knight Of The Road' and 'Dream 5000 Years Long'. It has speed, it has power, it has mood. And thankfully it does not have silly vocals, funny lyrics and boring guitarwork. But technically the album closes with another version of 'In Flames', with Russian lyrics. Not much to say... except of this one has Russian lyrics.

Of all the albums I have reviewed during this week, 'Kruiz' is the one I listen to the rarest, especially in its entirety. It's nice that it helped the band to get some popularity overseas (which their compatriots, Black Coffee, failed to achieve at their time), so they were invited to tour with none other than Living Death, and recently Michael Weikath of Helloween have said that 'Kruiz' is one of his all-time favorite LPs. Good for him, but to me, this platter is not flawless. Okay, it's not God-awful either, it's just my thoughts that such a breakthrough album could be ironed over a little to avoid making it a bit worse that Master's and The Black Obelisk's offerings. If only Mr Weikath could check out those!

My Rating: 7 / 10 (a couple of boring songs and a lot of cons, but nonetheless a metal masterpiece)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 6: Август - Демон (1987)

This is the second LP from this week that I happen to own in vinyl form:

Август - Демон (Avgust / August - Demon)

Vladimir Trushin - vocals
Pavel Kolesnik - vocals
Gennady Shirshakov - guitar
Lev Lemberskiy - bass
Andrey Kruglov - drums
Oleg Gusev - keyboards

1. "Демон" (Demon)
2. "Как Болит Голова" (What A Headache)
3. "Осень" (Autumn)
4. "Ночь" (The Night)
5. "Судите Сами" (Judge For Yourselves)
6. "Опасность" (Danger)
7. "Колокол" (The Bell)
8. "Рояль И Море" (The Grand Piano And The Sea)

If you thought Ariya was unoriginal, take a look here. The liner notes at the back of the LP case proudly say that keyboardist and songwriter Oleg Gusev and his brothers-in-arms play the 'Wagnerian rock', influenced by both the classical music and famous heavy metal bands, such as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Accept and Metallica. Aside from all the pathos, they're not lying - even the most animalistic rockers and ethereal ballads here have an epic feel to them, starting from 'Demon'. This is a nice mid-paced opener with the main riff borrowed from Metallica's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', but the instrumental work and interesting vocal melodies make it worthwhile. The lyrics are pretty good too, it's a bit interesting how they compare nuclear explosion to a titular demon visiting the main character's home. The purpose of the first song on any album is to get things started, to put the listener in a right mood, and that 'Demon' does do flawlessly.

But the next piece is undoubtedly the album's main hit! 'What A Headache' is a heavy half-ballad with fun keyboard parts and really cool romantic lyrics ('What a headache from nonsensical words, from the painted lips and squint eyes. My nerves are shattering as the naked world has stalled, what a headache from my restrictions'). All in all, it's a very memorable song, most likely the best on the entire record! Contrary to its fun and dynamism, though, 'Autumn' is a dark and doomy ballad with haunting effects and dramatic vocals, partially influenced by the Soviet pop music. It doesn't mean that this song is bad, because variety is always a good thing - and thankfully, this album has a lot of it.

Just to prove it, 'The Night' is an Accept-style speedy rock-n-roll with nice heavy riffs and lyrics somehow reminding me of the 'Streets Of Fire' movie, along with one of the best choruses on the record (the other being 'What A Headache') and an amazing guitar and keyboard solos that go back to back. All in all, it should've been an awesome headbanging concert staple! 'Judge For Yourselves' is another change in mood, though not really for the best, as I consider it to be the weakest song on this LP. It's still an okay ballad, but a little boring one, which makes it a bit worse than pretty similar 'Autumn'. Here, I especially dig the keyboards and bass solo in the middle. To wake you up, the next song, 'Danger' is probably the heaviest number on the record with its Motley Crue'ish main riff and blazing speed. In terms of composition it's obviously pretty similar to 'The Night', though this time the lyrics again touch the anti-war subject ('The Earth belongs to nobody!'). Thankfully, it's not followed-up by another ballad, instead it's 'The Bell', a song equally awesome as 'What A Headache' and definitely the most epic on the album. I'm a sucker for such primitive but pathetic riffs and monumental choruses, and sure this one has a lot of them. The vocals also get a substantial upgrade, which is just appropriate for such dark lyrics (which are not unlike something from The Black Obelisk's '86-88', actually). Overall, this song simply redeems all the flaws before it, showing that the band is capable not only of melancholic ballads and rock-n-rolls, but also something more serious in tone. The album closer, 'The Grand Piano And The Sea', offers something similar, but the other way around - it's a charming melancholic instrumental with nice ethereal ambient effects, not to mention that here's where the promised classical influences are heard the strongest.

Despite some lack of originality and reliance on ballads, this album is still anything but boring. The songs are memorable and varied - we have mid-paced epic number, fast rock-n-rolls, dramatic slow songs, memorable lyrics, classic guitar riffs and strong vocal delivery, not very typical for heavy metal at the time. The band leader's keyboard parts are fun to listen to, and overall the musicianship is top notch. Let the nuclear Demon remain a dream forever!

My Rating: 7 / 10 (some ripoffs are obvious, but still a worthwhile disk)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 5: Коррозия металла - Орден Сатаны (1988)

Here is how it sounds in Russian: 'thrash tvoyu mat'!' (accent on 'yu' in 'tvoyu'). What does it mean? Fucking thrash!!! Of all the albums already reviewed here, this and, alright, maybe '86-88' too, is the heaviest one - back in the days, no one was faster, dirtier, more Satanic than good old Korroziya! Their music? See above for 'fucking thrash'. Their first live show? Most of the participants arrested. Their influences? Slayer, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Motorhead, Overkill. Even Master and late Obelisk were a lot more glamorous with their polished sound, thoughtful lyrics and acceptable image, but not these guys!

Коррозия металла - Орден Сатаны (Korroziya Metalla / Metal Corrosion - Order Of Satan)

Sergey Vysokosov - vocals, guitar
Roman Lebedev - guitar
Sergey Troitskiy - bass
Alexander Bondarenko - drums
Konstantin Smirnov - guest keyboards
Yuriy Orlov - guest keyboards

1. "СПИД" (AIDS)
2. "Героин" (Heroin)
3. "В шторме викинг и меч" (Through The Storm, A Viking And His Sword)
4. "Моторокер" (Motorocker)
5. "Чёрный террор" (Black Terror)
6. "Фантом" (Phantom)
7. "Аббадон" (Abaddon)
8. "Люцифер" (Lucifer)
9. "Седьмые ворота ада" (The Seventh Gates Of Hell)

What we're about to hear is a superb thrash LP, with surprisingly decent production values for the time, considering how underground and 'forbidden' the band was. The first song, 'AIDS', kicks off with blazing-ass-fast riff and brutal vocal delivery of Sergey 'The Hog' (Боров) Vysokosov. Of their influential bands listed above, I can't really compare him to any of the vocalists, maybe only to Chronos, but The Hog has a much lower voice. Also, this is seemingly the only song on this record where the lyrics make some kind of sense, telling that the AIDS plague is gonna drag everybody to Hell! From now on, it's all gonna be over-the-top Satanism and an assortment of violent imagery thrown together in a blender. The next song, 'Heroin', actually begins with a slow intro before switching into another speed metal number with chainsaw-sounding guitars and brief solos between the verses. This is why we love straightforward and brutal thrash metal, as it has the energy channeling endlessly through the listener's brain, forcing him to headbang to the beat up until the neckbreaking speed. 'Through The Storm, A Viking And His Sword' is a different story, as it's mid-paced, but heavy as hell nonetheless - a needed rest before another package of fast thrashers, the first of which is 'Motorocker'.

Anything said about other speedy songs here, can be applied to it as well - noisy guitars, evil vocals, monolithic rhythm section... and that's right, completely nonsensical over-the-top lyrics that would dominate Korroziya's next dozen of albums, becoming its own meme among the Russian metalheads. 'Black Terror' is no exception, but the riffing and ramming speed still make it worthwhile. And so, after five decent songs, we get a real hit! Much like The Black Obelisk's 'Midnight', the best song on this record is actually the slowest one - 'Phantom' delivers the best in Korroziya's style with its mid-paced verses and brutal choruses, and even The Hog attempts to sing for the most part, instead of just screaming (the latter is not a bad thing though, but for the fast songs only). 'Abaddon' is something similar, only the other way around, as we get fast verses and slow chorus. Yet another killer song from a classic album, making everything perfectly stitch together in a heavy metal slab it is. But the last two numbers stick out a little, as 'Lucifer' is presented in a live version - it doesn't actually matter, as the quality is okay, and everything is heard just right. The song itself is a choral mid-paced piece, while not as good as 'Phantom', it's still up to the quality standards of the rest. Finally, 'The Seventh Gates Of Hell' is a real surprise, as the band suddenly gives a Nine Inch Nails'ish industrial instrumental lasting no less than seven minutes. I love nine Inch Nails, I love industrial, but I think that Korroziya could cut it down a bit, because it unfortunately does dissonate with the laconic speed metal disk that we've just heard. But aside from this one track, the rest of the album still holds up today (if you're a fan of old-school thrash) and worth a listen anytime.

Korroziya would become a cult act through the end of the eighties and the first half of nineties. Sergey 'The Spider' (Паук) Troitskiy was also responsible for creation of the famous professional union and record label, the Hard Rock Corporation (Корпорация Тяжёлого Рока), which brought a lot of young and promising bands to life. They also had their fanzine, the 'Iron March', which was the Bible for all the Russian metalheads (before Metal Hammer, Kerrang etc. made their way to ex-USSR). It all went very well, but after The Hog left the band, The Spider decided that it would be amazing to convert to neo-Nacism, so their latest and current albums are pure and unfunny trash (without 'h'). But no matter what, 'Order Of Satan' is often seen as one of their strongest works, on par with the best American examples.

Whew, two thrash bands in a row. I guess we'll need to take a break here and pick something more melodic and obscure. And something I do own on vinyl. And I think, August will be just right (okay, okay, it's the last time I've used these far-fetched post-scriptum references, I promise!)

My Rating: 9 / 10 (Abaddon! The curse is rising!)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 4: Чёрный обелиск - 86-88 (1995)

It's time to go a bit heavier, don't you think? From Moscow, I present...

Чёрный обелиск - 86-88 (Chorniy Obelisk / The Black Obelisk - 86-88)

Anatoliy Krupnov - bass, vocals
Yuriy Alekseev - guitar
Dmitriy Borisenkov - guitar, backing vocals, keyboards
Vladimir Ermakov - drums

1. "Апокалипсис" (Apocalypse)
2. "Абадонна" (Abaddonna)
3. "Сплин" (Spleen)
4. "Женщина в черном" (Lady In Black)
5. "Фантастическая гравюра" (Fantastic Engraving)
6. "Троянский конь" (Trojan Horse)
7. "Полночь" (Midnight)
8. "Литании Сатане (концерт)" (Litany For Satan) (Bonus)
9. "Серый святой" (1991) (Saint In Grey) (Bonus)
10. "Аве Цезарь" (1991) (Ave Caesar) (Bonus)

The Black Obelisk was yet another Russian underground metal band, lead by singing bassist Anatoliy Krupnov, who sadly passed away in 1997, leaving a proud metal legacy behind. Though the band itself is still alive today, this time with guitarist Dmitriy Borisenkov at the helm. During their heyday they were famous for their live shows, including fake skeletons, colorful laser effects and fireworks. Their music was just perfectly fitting the image: slow, doomy Black Sabbat'ish songs, often and suddenly taking a turn to agonizing blazing thrash - all in all, while listening to '86-88', you can't help but think of early Type O Negative. Add some haunting dark lyrics written by Krupnov or taken from the works of Charles Baudelaire (sic!), and you'll get one of the most interesting heavy metal bands from behind the Iron Curtain.

This album was recorded and released in 1995, being a compilation of their early songs, originally released on the 'Apocalypse' (Апокалипсис) and 'The Flowers Of Evil' (Цветы зла) magnetoalbums, conceptually something similar to Testament's 'First Strike Still Deadly'.

Our opener here is 'Apocalypse', a dark mid-paced song, just perfectly representing what we're about to hear. It's slow and dark, with lots of special effects. While a decent song and all, it's not among the strongest of the album, but it sure perfectly acts as an opener, setting the tone and mood for things to come. 'Abaddonna' is another thing, it's The Black Obelisk at their finest. Much like Black Coffee's 'The Stellar Ocean', it starts off as a ballad, then speeds up until the 'Abattoir fast' tempo. Borisenkov is shredding his guitar, Krupnov is singing his lungs out, that's great! Of all the Russian metal vocalists, Krupnov would be number 1,5 or 2 to me (spoiler: V. Kipelov is #1) - I especially like the 'intelligent' notes in his voice, as he is not trying to be brutal for the sake of brutality. He's badass, but wise.

Though this is an incredible album, I think that 'Spleen' is the least best song here. It does have any interesting tech-thrashy moments, but for the most part it's pretty boring and not really memorable. What a shame, considering its lyrics and the fact that it's placed just between two awesome pieces. Speaking of those, 'Lady In Black' is entirely another cup of tea. This one can remind you of bands like Toxic or Realm, as it sounds just like something off 'Think This' or 'Suiciety' respectively. And if you remember how catchy those albums were, here we have the same thing, with tech-thrash inserts between Motorhead-style verses. It's a hit! 'Fantastic Engravement' is pretty similar in tone, only a bit faster, changing tempo near the middle of the song.

That's where you start to think what a talented songwriter Anatoliy Krupnov was. Sure, he did what they call 'invented the bicycle' with speed-thrash, but, my God! Before Annihilator! Shortly after Megadeth! Long before Type O Negative and Sacred Reich's 'The American Way' (as we remember, its concept was to attempt playing slow and doomy brand of thrash)! I have no idea why the Obelisk had never made it big to become a sensation outside the USSR. It's so rare when a band comes so close to early Megadeth without ripping them off. Just to prove it, 'Trojan Horse'. This is the fastest song here, though still mid-paced. Just listen to this guitar lead, those keyboards in the background... This is a nice heat-up before the album's epic closure. Just when the main feature ends, we get the most freaking awesome song on the entire record. Neither a ballad, nor a headbanging piece, 'Midnight' would make this album awesome even if all the other songs were total crap. That intro, those lyrics, this tempo! It's one of the greatest metal songs ever written by Russian musicians, period. I won't say anything more, just listen to it, my God what an incredible song.

After what you just thought to be the best song ever, there are some bonus tracks. 'A Saint In Grey' is a fun Motorhead-type tune, but given the production quality, we can even call it Venom-type. 'Ave Caesar' is another interesting song with strong rock-n-roll vibe and interesting recitative in the first verse - can we call it the first Russian rap metal song? Just kidding; after the 'rapping' part, this one becomes a fast thrasher anyway, reminiscent of early OverKill. The third bonus track is an older version of 'Midnight', recorded in 1991. Just as the 1995 version, this one kills! But due to a bit lower recording quality, this sounds even more dirty and menacing. Personally I prefer the 1991 version over the re-recording, just because of how raw it is, which is more appropriate for such a dark song. 'This is MID-NIGHT!'.

To close it all, there is a live version of 'Litany For Satan'. Not sure it's how Krupnov intended it to be, but it sounds a hell lot like something Carnivore would put out on their first album. Counting a lot of Type O Negative similarities before and the fact that Krupnov is a bassist-vocalist, it all is clear now - he was Russian Peter Steele! And just like Mr Steele, he is not with us anymore, which makes any piece of music he has ever recorded twice as valuable. Including this album, especially since it's the band's roots re-recorded and polished for all us to enjoy.

But by now you may be wondering - where is the traditional reference to the next day's band? It all makes me think now. Thrash metal? Memorable stage shows? Dark occult lyrics? Constant influences and references to Venom? Looks like I know whom to introduce now - a band that had it all exaggerated to the point of hilarity (but not on the album I'm going to talk about), even more underground and devoid of anything remotely intelligent; but if The Black Obelisk are like Megadeth, someone would have to be Slayer. Tomorrow is Korroziya Metalla!

My Rating: 9 / 10 (inventing a bicycle got them ahead of their time)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 3: Чёрный кофе - Переступи порог (1987)

Today we'll move away from Ariya and its ex-bandmates and get familiarized with something a little bit more original.

Чёрный кофе - Переступи порог (Chorniy Kofe / Black Coffee - Step Over The Threshold)

Dmitriy Varshavskiy - vocals, guitar
Sergey Kudishin - guitar
Igor Kupriyanov - bass, vocals
Sergey Cherniakov - drums

1. "Переступи порог" (Step Over The Threshold)
2. "Владимирская Русь" (Vladimir's Rus')
3. "Жизни рассвет" (The Dawn Of Life)
4. "Я ищу..." (I'm Looking For...)
5. "Мой дом" (My Home)
6. "Звёздный водоём" (The Ocean Of Stars)
7. "Пылает за окном звезда" (A Star Is Burning At My Window)
8. "Незнакомец" (Stranger)
9. "Чёрный кофе" (Black Coffee)
10. "Зимний портрет" (Winter Portrait)
11. "Листья" (Leaves)
12. "Звуки космоса" (Sounds Of Space)

Black Coffee and Ariya haven't yet settled down the question of who was the first Soviet metal band. At least, their music is different enough for me not to care about who is! While Ariya was mostly experimenting with NWOBHM and classic rock, Black Coffee, led by charismatic singing guitarist Dmitriy Varshavskiy, were a bit more 'progressive' and original in their music and lyrics, ending up being the first Russian white metal band. 'Step Over The Threshold' is their first album in a line of classic metal platters. It is not as fast and furious as Master, but if you're looking for something different, melodic and technical, Black Coffee is a decent choice. It can be best described as a cross between early Queensryche (riffing, drum tempos) and AC/DC (rock-n-roll melodies and high-pitched vocals). And on a side note, of all the albums of this week, I happen to own two on vinyl, and this is the first of them.

'Step Over The Threshold' is a fine example of the stylistic fusion going on, as this is a mid-paced number with lots of solos and, what will become prominent throughout the record - poetic lyrics. They are totally unlike Ariya, Master or the bands yet to come (probably, excluding The Black Obelisk, whom I'll cover tomorrow). The topics themselves are traditional, though - metalheads, bad love, science fiction, but also there's a song about black coffee! It may sound silly, but remember that Annihilator had 'Kraf Dinner', Vengeance Rising had 'Mulligan Stew', and don't get me even started on Tankard... but I digress. 'Step Over The Threshold' may seem a weird song with all its constant soloing and Varshavskiy's voice, but yet it's a good representation of the album's style. From now on, it is mostly constructed in a pattern: a headbanging song - a ballad - then another headbanging song - then another ballad. Just to prove it, 'Vladimir's Rus'' is a slow and doomy piece, with haunting riffs and hypnotic pacing. Overall, one of the best songs on the album, as well as one of the band's concert favorites. Then there's 'The Dawn Of Life', which contrary to the title, is a fast-paced and energizing piece. Again, as with all the non-ballads here, Varshavskiy's vocals sound really weird, but even weirder are the lyrics - 'The dawn of life will return, looking at my window in the morning with its tender silver light. My road is waiting for me'? Sounds pretty Dream Theater'ish to me! Anyways, if you don't dislike the vocals, this song is pretty original, like the whole album is for the most part.

Then there goes 'I'm Looking For...', probably my most favorite song on the record. It's another ballad with great lyrics and dramatic chorus. Again, the musicians show their excellent skills and synchronicity, as well as a number of nice solos here and there. 'I'm looking for the meaning of life restlessly, I want to know what my way is, and I will find the answer!' No really, even for 1987 this was very original for a metal band to have deep personal songs, at the time maybe only Metallica and yet-to-come Dream Theater dared to do so. After that, we're treated to 'My Home', a heavy rock-n-rolling piece where the Queensryche similarities become obvious. 'The Ocean Of Stars' starts off with acoustic intro, but by the end it's shifted to high gear, making it the fastest song here. Back in the day, Dmitriy Varshavskiy was considered to be one of the Russian guitar heroes, along with Sergey Mavrin and Valeriy Gaina, and such songs do show why.

The whole album itself is not about speed, heaviness or even rock-for-the-rock, it's all in technical musicianship, dramatic lyrics and melodic approach. But this is not purely a progressive metal album, counting how the songs are unusually sort for such genre. Anyways, after 'The Ocean Of Stars' is concluded, the rest of the disc is all headbanging numbers, such as 'Stranger'. another mix of early Queensryche, rock-and-roll and bluesy riffs. The same can be said about 'Black Coffee', but these songs are nothing but identical, as the latter is more fun and moving, and also may be the simplest song on the record, without too many background solos, right like it was on 'Stranger'. The lyrics are pretty cool, too, even referencing the fortunetelling qualities of this drink. All in all, it's a great closer song, as I like albums that end on fun(ny) notes. Yes, this is where the original vinyl version ends, but the CD reissue has its share of bonus tracks, the first of which is 'Winter Portrait'. Here is where AC/DC influences are stronger, as the guitarists do their best to outplay the Young brothers, and it's the closest point where Varshavskiy comes to sounding like Bon Scott. Then we have 'Leaves', a nice power ballad about... well, just a falling leaf. I was always wondering why only the true black metal bands sing about nature, but not the ones who go with more 'humane' genres. Actually, this whole album lyrically is unlike everything else, and I'd like to think that it was intentional. After all, everybody around was singing about war, Satan and war against Satan, so it's good to see something refreshing, especially as the poetry is so talented. And the last song here is 'Sounds Of Space', a fantastic (both in terms of lyrical theme and overall quality) piece, while not as fun as 'Black Coffee', but also a decent closer, this time for real.

So here we have, one of the most original albums of this week, and probably of the Russian metal genre itself. If you want to hear something a little different, more like 'thinker's metal', and you love early Queensryche, make yourself a cup of black coffee, pop 'Step Over The Threshold' into your CD or MP3 player and give it a listen. And if you know Russian or have the lyrics translated decently, you'll get double the enjoyment!

My Rating: 8 / 10 (great album, but for thinkers only)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 2: Мастер - s/t (1987)

Alright, so the Russian Metal Week goes on, and as promised, here we have the brilliant debut album from ex-Ariya members, who later became nearly as famous among the Soviet, and then Russian, metalheads:

Мастер - s/t (Master - s/t) (1987)

Mikhail Seryshev - vocals
Sergey Popov - guitar
Andrey Bolshakov - guitar
Alik Granovskiy - bass
Igor Molchanov - drums
Kirill Pokrovskiy - keyboards

1. "Мастер" (Master)
2. "Берегись" (Beware)
3. "Руки прочь" (Hands Off)
4. "Щит и меч" (The Shield And The Sword)
5. "Ещё раз ночь" (Again, The Night)
6. "Воля и разум" (Will And Consciousness)
7. "Встань, страх преодолей" (Rise And Overcome Your Fear)
8. "Храни меня" (Hold Me)
9. "Кто кого?" (Who Will Win?)

Like Metallica and Megadeth, out of the ashes of Ariya, emerged Master. When Granovskiy, Bolshakov, Molchanov and Pokrovskiy were let go around 1986, they decided not to put their banners down and recruited Seryshev and Popov to form a new band, specializing in a then-evolving musical genre that at the time was extremely rarely (if at all) sounding behind the Iron Curtain: thrash! And so they did, releasing a brilliant speed metal disc, sounding pretty much like early Metallica and Helloween. A couple of months ago I've managed to get this little gem on CD in a bargain bin of the shopping mall near my house, and by God, it still sounds as meaty as it ever was. While Ariya was experimenting with hard rock, NWOBHM and rock-n-roll'ish sounds, only very few underground bands have bordered Master's intensity and delivery. Nine killer songs, not all are speedy as hell, but still with lots of hooks and excellent riffs.

The album (here I'm talking about the recent CD reissue, not the original vinyl that has different tracklist!) kicks off with 'Master', a fast and furious slab of metal, not unlike Slayer '83, though not as heavy. Dramatic intro, fast rhythm and powerful vocals by Seryshev give a great impression of what's yet to come. The lyrics actually do reference the band's history ('We don't want to be someone else's reflection!'), but unlike Ariya or, say, Black Coffee (we'll talk about them tomorrow), Master mostly focuses on political issues like riots and mass hysteria of the decaying Soviet Union. But it's not like Sacred Reich's 'Ignorance', so the lyrical variety is still there: mid-paced 'Beware' talks about the Roman Empire - maybe it's also a reference to USSR, I won't exclude that - and 'Hands Off', another fast thrasher, is about an evil wizard hellbent on destroying the world. Also, the latter has an amazing guitar solo which follows with a nice part with electronic choir chanting. 'The Shield And The Sword' is an okay song, too, but afterwards we are treated to the best part of the whole album, as from now on it's a barrage of metal classics.

'Again, The Night' begins with an INCREDIBLE ambient keyboard solo by Pokrovskiy, to shift into a haunting ballad that combines rock, ambient and even some elements of the Soviet pop music - very refreshing! Also, Seryshev's vocals here send chills down my spine, as he's convincing the listener that he is able not only to scream his lungs out, but also express sincere sorrow and pain of the lyrics' main character. The next two songs are actually shared with Ariya, as they were written by Andrey Bolshakov while he was their guitarist (he actually wrote 8 out of 9 songs for the current subject matter - only 'Hands Off' was written by Granovskiy), and his ex-bandmates have permitted Master to record them and play live, or something like that. Anyways, both songs have also appeared on Ariya's 'Who Are You With?' (С кем ты?) album. They sound almost alike between the bands, not counting the obvious different instrumental recording and vocalists.

'Will and Consciousness' is a mid-paced rocking piece with anti-nuclear war lyrics, and 'Rise And Overcome Your Fear' is infamous for its leading riff being ripped off Judas Priest's 'Jawbreaker'. But it's only the riff - the harmonies, melodies and everything else are different, as are the lyrics - probably my most favorite on the whole album ('Who said that passion is dangerous and kindness is ridiculous? Who said that courage is not needed these days?'). Number 2 for the best lyrics on the record is the next thing, 'Hold Me'. It's another ballad, only heavier and a little bit more intense than 'Again, the Night'. Also, it's a little bit optimistic in tone, as the main character is praying to someone for keeping him away from evil - can this 'someone' be the God, or a loved one, it's all open for interpretation (interesting fact: after leaving Master many years later, Mikhail Seryshev would become a church choir singer). The last song is 'Who Will Win?', a quick, fast and thrashy piece with screaming anti-war lyrics. The title is surely referencing the Cold War going on at the time.

In conclusion, this is one of the finest speed-thrash discs ever recorded, and a decent start-up of a now-famous band. Energy, speed, youth and hunger - it's all here, neighboring the professionalism, excellent songwriting and not-really-obsolete lyrical content. Masters of (Russian) metal!

My Rating: 9/10 (near flawless)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Russian Metal Week, Day 1: Ария - Герой асфальта (1987)

Alright, folks, here we go. It couldn't have been more appropriate to start this mini-marathon of famous Russian and Soviet heavy metal albums, because of several reasons:
- Yesterday (Aug, 12) was the Birthday of my Mom, Savenko Tatiana Vasiliyevna, and as we all know, she was into hard rock and heavy metal for the most part of her life;
- A couple of days ago on, I've stumbled upon a joke: Ariya releasing a new album called 'The Pink Bayan'... not that anybody except of me or users will get it anyway...
- As my fiancee, Michelle, has moved to England until the end of August, I've became really inspired by this 'friendship of the nations' concept going on, so combined with two points above, and the fact that my blog is intended primarily for English-speaking audience, I've decided that it would be fun and interesting for them to learn about the genesis of the best music genre in the world (hint: Heavy Metal) as it was going on behind the Iron Curtain, same as where your truly was born and growing up.

So, in a nutshell, it will be seven days - seven bands - seven classic albums. And to extend this even further, next week will be 'The Russian Movies Week', and then - 'The Russian Videogames Week', so stay tuned!

And for now, let's start everything properly:

Ария - Герой асфальта (Ariya / Aria - Hero Of The Asphalt) (1987)

Valeriy Kipelov - vocals
Sergey Mavrin - guitar
Vladimir Holstinin - guitar
Vitaliy Dubinin - bass
Maxim Udalov - drums

1. "На службе силы зла" (Serving The Evil Forces)
2. "Герой асфальта" (Hero Of The Asphalt)
3. "Мёртвая зона" (Dead Zone)
4. "1100" (1100)
5. "Улица Роз" (The Street Of Roses)
6. "Баллада о древнерусском воине" (The Ballad Of An Ancient Russian Warrior)

Ariya was formed in 1985 from the fragments of Soviet pop bands Singing Hearts (Поющие сердца) and Roll The Song (Лейся, песня). The first lineup looked like this: Valeriy Kipelov (vocals), Vladimir Holstinin (guitar), Alexander 'Alik' Granovskiy (bass), Alexander Lvov (drums) and Kirill Pokrovskiy (keyboards). Later they were joined by Andrey Bolshakov (guitar). After two albums and some more lineup changes, the latter four members have left the band to form Master - we'll meet them again later! - so Kipelov and Holstinin were forced to recruit new guitar, bass and drum players. And so they did - respectively with Mavrin, Dubinin and Udalov, the band has recorded their third, and, in a popular opinion, best LP.

'Hero Of The Asphalt' was also their first album to be legally released on 'Melodiya', the legendary Soviet record label. First two albums, 'Megalomania' (Мания величия) and 'Who Are You With?' (С кем ты?) at the time only existed in a form of so-called magnetoalbums, or simply - legalized bootlegs. But now, everything was serious - official distribution, mature musical talent, dark and colorful cover art, crazy sales and some of the greatest heavy metal hymns ever.

The album starts off with Robertino Loretti's 'Santa Lucia' phonogram. According to Holstinin, it was put there to contrast with the upcoming song, and as the lyrics were about nuclear destruction, he thought that this is how a record player would sound like when a bomb goes off nearby shutting down all electricity with an EMP blast. Clever! Then there goes 'Serving The Evil Forces', the fastest and most furious song on the record. At times it even borders speed-power metal, complete with fantastic guitar lead and badass lyrics ('You are like everyone else, an enemy to your enemies, a friend to your friends, but only underground you become yourself. Your bunker is situated underground, you conduct your business there, you are serving the evil forces!') Actually, the album title was at first intended to be 'Serving The Evil Forces', but the label demanded censoring it to remove any occult references.

Next up is 'Hero Of The Asphalt', a bit slower galloping song reminding or something from Iron Maiden circa 1982-84. I'm well aware that Ariya has an unfortunate reputation of ripping off Iron Maiden and Judas Priest from time to time, but they didn't do this as often as the haters say. Actually, they have a couple of albums that don't even remotely call for deja vu, but on this LP, I agree that the influences are evident. Say, '1100' is obviously lyrically inspired by Maiden's ode to WWII fighter pilots, 'Aces High', but surely from the Soviet point of view. In between the title track and this is 'Dead Zone', a decent semi-ballad, but looks like it's the weakest point of the album, because unlike the other songs it's not really memorable. But after '1100' comes 'The Roses Street' - again, an undisputed Maiden influence (the lyrics and title are pretty similar to '22 Acacia Avenue'), but ironically, one of the bands greatest hits, even more famous than the four songs before it. It's ridiculously famous, but nevertheless, a solid and catchy piece. But personally I never got it why it's often called a ballad in some reviews, since it's actually mid-paced. Alright, and after two attempts on Obligatory Ballads, for the final song, we get an Obligatory Epic, in this case it's 'The Ballad Of An Ancient Russian Warrior'. It's lengthy and bombastic, featuring solid instrumental work and some of the greatest vocals ever put out by V. Kipelov. The lyrics this time revolve around The Battle of the Ice, a real historical event of a conflict between the Russian Republic Of Novgorod and the Theutonic knights, and the song compliments the tragedy and intensity of war pretty well.

Ah yeah, the lyrics. On the first two albums, they were written by Alexander Elin, but starting from this one, Margarita Pushkina has become the band's primary poet. Of course, this is reflected strikingly - instead of anti-war and pacifist messages, this time the songs rely on more varied and at times, darker tones, like occultism, war (without pacifist overtones), bikers, prostitution and so on. This will be continued on the band's few albums yet to come, as will be the style and groundwork laid here. 'Hero Of The Asphalt' is the true breakthrough album from the legendary band, and no matter what everybody says, it's an epic work, admired and respected as Ariya's finest hour, even by the musicians themselves.

My Rating: 8/10 (for a couple of bland songs)