АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Навигатор (Navigator) (1995)

Review by: Nina A

Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Am I always glad to spend some more time in the philosophical company of the only Russian musician we have heard of on this blog – namely the great otherworldly bearded bardic guru Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov. He certainly wasn’t always bearded though and while I have no idea what the progress of his facial hair was by 1995, which is when Navigator got released, what I do know is that after the fall of the Berlin wall, Mr. Grebenshchikov had also already tried to use this new opportunity to export his creative efforts to the West. Here, Wikipedia tells us that he didn’t quite make it and this could be partly attributed to the fact that Russian song tradition emphasizes lyrical complexity over hook and drive, which in the West earned him comparisons to Dylan and not much chart success, and I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that his music was considered for one of the two primordial categories (has hooks: “ooh, Beatle-esque pop!!” vs. has an emphasis on lyrical content: “ooh, Dylan!!!”), as you do, in musical critique, with anything that is new.
Saddened with this new development, Mr. Grebenshchikov decided to go full-on Russian apparently and released the so-called Russian Album, a beautiful acoustic folk-rock affair that relies even more on Russian songwriting tradition, and later, in 1995 came Navigator, which continued in this unmistakably Russian bardic vein with some French chanson flavour and bluesy touches (fourth track “Не коси”’s blues guitar contributed by Mick Taylor stands out here) for good measure. The album was recorded in London, so it also featured contributions by Dave Pegg on the double bass and Dave Mattacks on drums. And since it made use of a bunch of additional instruments: strings, flute, recorder, harpsicord, accordion, mandolin, Tibetan drums, I was curious to look to a previous eclectic Aquarium effort, and nothing spells eclecticism quite like a Russian album named Radio Africa with some Chinese characters plastered on top of a photo taken at the Gulf of Finland, for comparison. While on 1988’s Radio Africa the creative use of the additional instruments to drive the beat or make the texture of the music more complex can rock your socks off with delight, here on Navigator these instruments serve more of a background atmosphere role because it is the bardic narration that takes the front and centre. This is especially so on the title track “Навигатор”, which can really be used as a textbook example of a touching bardic ballad. Well, if you are touched by this type of thing, anyway.
And for all the talk of Dylan, I think that namedropping Mark Knopfler would also not be too out of reach here because didn’t Mr. Knopfler also have a reputation for being a young man who writes good music for old people? (at around 40 at the time of Navigator’s release, Mr. Grebenshchikov was not even eligible for a midlife crisis yet). But more importantly, I feel that both Mr. Knopfler and Mr. Grebenshchikov have been able to pull of songs that are pretty much driven by a lyrical narration and have a comforting melancholy sound with remarkable ease. However, while the majority of Mark Knopfler’s narrations are concerned with ordinary life drama, with most of Boris Grebenshchikov’s composition aspire to levels of Byronic spleen and irony paired with incredible erudition, a combination that has over the years become somewhat of a staple for the model tortured soviet artist (and while soviet times are safely behind us, such artistic types still hang around, inexplicably, mostly in the sphere of fine arts and film education, proudly passing this refined tradition onto their students). Still, Boris Grebenshchikov was made to pull this archetype off and make it very likeable: let’s not forget his friendly melancholy voice of ancient wisdom, talent for lyrical detail and the aforementioned erudition that allows him to slip in the occasional religious or mythological detail for full impact. It is really comforting in a sense when he tackles this aesthetic in his music, and whatever the wry commentary in a particular song might be, you’d accept it with the “I know what you’re talking about” reserved for your closest friends with which you’ve suffered the blows of fate together for God knows how long… yeah, the 90s weren’t the most cheerful of eras in Eastern Europe.
Anyway, Navigator is a fine record put together with loving care and intelligence, featuring no less than two accordion-driven waltzy numbers, two bluesy tracks, a rousing folk epic (track 3 – “Кладбище”) and a whole lot of gentle intimate singing in the finest Russian bardic tradition. The reaction it got out of me was “aww, how cute and so very admirably authentic” but it might get some even more cathartic reactions from other listeners and truly cement Boris Borisovich Grebenshchikov’s status of everyone’s favourite great otherworldly bearded bardic guru.

АКВАРИУМ (AQUARIUM) – Сестра Хаос (Sister Chaos) (2002)

Review by: Jonathan Hopkins
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Before I get to the review, let me tell you that finding any information on this album or this band is borderline impossible. Aquarium has exactly one album entry on RYM, and isn’t this one. Sister Chaos wasn’t on Spotify in my country, nor was it anywhere easily available online. I was very lucky that exactly one person had it up on Soulseek, and that the mp3s were good quality.

Broadly speaking, Sister Chaos could probably be described as art-pop, but it’s fairly difficult to nail down. I have no knowledge of Aquarium outside of this, but here, at least, their greatest asset is their unpredictability. None of the songs really sound like each other, and the surprising moments scattered throughout the songs tend to be the best parts of the album, such as the suggestive slide riff that pops up occasionally in the funky “500” (I used to play bass for the Funky 500) or the lovely piano break that appears out of nowhere in “Fording.”

Aquarium have quite a lot of influences on display, and strangely, its diversity might be a weakness. Most of these songs are good, but none of them have much of an identity of their own. They have a few defining quirks, but in many ways, “Brother Nicotine” is a Beck song, “Fate’s Foot” is something off Harmonium’s first album, “500” largely feels like The Stone Roses (albeit with very different instrumentation), etc. That’s not to say that it’s bad. The pastiches are good. I just have a difficult time grasping exactly who Aquarium are as a band, other than that they like their trip-hop rhythms and psychedelic tinges here and there.

The album seems very even to me, but if I had to pick a couple of highlights, I’d go with the slightly jazzy, slide driven “Psalm 151,” “Fording,” which combines its groovy verses with a, unexpected catchy upbeat pop chorus, and the bright piano pop of “Cardiogram.” The only thing that doesn’t really hold up for me is “Rastamen from Hicksville,” which is an amazing title wasted on a rather bland stab at reggae. While I basically enjoy Sister Chaos, nothing stands out to me much, and nothing ever strikes me as great or brilliant. It’s a pretty good album, certainly invested with a lot of craft and talent, and worth a few listens, but I’ll probably never feel like pulling it out again.

AQUARIUM (АКВАРИУМ) – Radio Africa (Радио Африка) (1983)

Review by: Franco Micale
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Disclaimer: All of the lyrics and song titles on this album are in Russian, so for the sake of convenience, I will refer to their English translations. Also, since I am not able to understand what’s being sung, I am aware that there is most likely a lot of critical details that I’m missing out on. Sorry.

Aquarium are an underground Russian group that I had never known about before taking part in this reviewing game. In 1983 they released this album called Radio Africa, and it was a huge deal because they had to bribe the owner to record in a mobile studio and they were super controversial and did stuff and things and they werasijeflamsef I honestly am too tired to think creatively about my introduction, so let’s just get this review started.

To cut to the chase, the biggest flaw of this album is the flat, under-cooked, and half-hearted production that runs through each song. I understand that the group didn’t have the opportunity to record in a luxurious studio, and I can tell that the band really tries to do as much as they could with their limitations, but either way a good amount of the songs actually sound like outtakes you might hear as bonus tracks as opposed to actual finished products. In other words, the production on this album sucks out much of the lot of the sonic depth, texture, or atmosphere these pieces potentially could have had, and although I’ve been able to ignore this on repeated listens, I still can’t help but feel that a better mix would have been a vast improvement to the album.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about the music! The good news is that on subsequent listens, almost all of these songs have grown on me. Basically, Aquarium fearlessly dive into as many musical styles as possible, so you get a melting pot of pop, rock, lounge, funk, new wave, ambient, reggae, world, etc. all segued together by shortwave radio broadcasts. In many ways, this album draws parallels to “The White Album”, though I think a better comparison would be “The Who Sell Out”, due to the radio concept behind both albums, or perhaps even “London Calling”, due to the political overtones in the music and lyrics, and also because neither album sounds anything like Wire.

Although, as a whole, the album plays together very well, there doesn’t seem to be much of a consistent musical theme that I can describe in greater detail, so I’ll just talk about a few tracks that I thought were pretty awesome. First, the albums boots off on a really jolly note with “Music of the Silver Spokes”, a fairly straightforward pop tune with a rhythm and melody that just sounds…swell! I can just imagine some happy-go-lucky person whistling this tune while strolling around on a stress-less, sunny day. And man, I don’t understand those lyrics, but they sure sound cool.

Up next, comes my second favorite track on here, “Captain Africa”. Of all the genres that are represented on this album, prog seems to be significantly lacking (along with punk), but this tune is the closest resemblance to that style. What we have here is a funk-jazz-rock-pop fusion number that is fueled by a funky, yet laid-back rhythm, which is mixed in with some delicious saxophone playing and a groovy chorus that will be forever stuck in your head by the second or third time you’ve heard this song.

However, the award for “Favorite Song on The Album” goes to to “Vana Khoya”. A gorgeous, exotic tune that takes you on a journey to a beach along the coast of a small, cast out island, this is the only case on the album where I feel the lo-fi production actually enhances the quality of the music, giving the piece a very serene and breezy atmosphere. I love the beautiful flute that flows in, out, and around the music, the airy guitars that conjures up images in my head of waves crashing against a sandy shore, and the tranquil melody that I can imagine being chanted by some ethnic group of tribal men along a fireside as the sun sets down. Simply put, this is an extremely aesthetic song that I highly recommend you listen to.
Anyways, there is a lot more I could talk about, such as the pretty ambient track entitled “Radio Shaolin” that sounds like Asian Animal Collective, or the fact that “Rock N’ Roll Is Dead” and “The Art Of Being Humble” are both fabulous songs with gripping melodies and intelligent lyrics, or how “To Your Star” is an experimental track that aimlessly goes nowhere, or how “The Time Of The Moon” is so very incredible but has a sad mix that sounds like it was recorded in a basement on a twenty year old cassette tape, however I’m just not in the mood to write anymore. So deal with it B) 

Overall, I find this album difficult to grade, because I would say content wise, this album deserves like an A or A-, but the production lowers it to a B. That’s kinda too bad, because this album shines brightly of potential, and it’s these guys without a doubt were highly talented artists. Maybe it will get better on further listens…Either way, though, I still highly recommend giving this album a chance, especially since I’m sure many of you probably won’t care much about how it’s mixed.

Best track: Vana Khoya

Worst Track: To Your Star