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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Mumiy Troll

Comrade Ambassador

Review by Scott Montgomery

Having spent over ten years developing a strong independent music scene in their native Russia, and extending their fan-base across Eastern and Central Europe, Mumiy Troll continue their Westward expansion with their North American debut release of Comrade Ambassador.  Once dubbed “one of the most socially dangerous bands in the world” by Communist party leaders in their home country, Mumiy Troll hail from Vladivodstock in the far eastern reaches of Russia.  They have the distinction of being the first band whose video was shown on MTV Russia in 1998, and are often considered one of Russia’s premier rock groups.  For any die-hard fans of this band, this is essentially a compilation, as 13 of the 14 cuts are culled from their last two albums – AMBA (2007) and VIII (2008).  The 14th and final track is an intriguing extra – “California Dreamin’” sung in Russian.  Since few will be familiar with their earlier output, this is a significant “debut” release for a band that is arguably the most influential band to emerge from post-perestroika Russia.

Spacious arrangements, unencumbered by excessive layers, allow the songs to come through, in all their straight-forward, atmospheric pop-rock sensibility, which the band calls “rockapops.” Though largely based around the vocals, electric guitar, bass and drums alignment of the band, judicious keyboard arrangements add texture and depth without dominating.  Much of the band’s instrumental sound is forged by the rich, clean atmospherically-reverbed guitar of Yuri Tsaler and the straight-ahead drum groove provided by Oleg Pingin, in concert with the equally anchored electric bass of Eugene Zvidionny.  One is reminded of the infectiously groove-laden atmospheric pop-rock laid down by The Cure in the 1980s, as well as the more recent, but not wholly dissimilar sound of The Bravery, and perhaps even The Killers and The Gutter Twins.  By far the strongest voice in the group’s mix is that of Ilya Lagutenko, who not only delivers the vocal duties, but also produced the album and wrote the lion’s share of the material (though a few songs are co-written by Yuri Tsaler).  With a forceful, slightly nasal and somewhat breathy vocal delivery, Lagutenko’s voice dominates the sound of Mumiy Troll without disturbing the overall balance of the material, which is appropriately song-based.  Lagutenko’s vocal tonality and delivery, sounding a bit like a Russian lovechild of two Roberts – Smith and Zimmerman - may not possess the polish of the latest American Idol tripe, but it carries the tune forcefully with a bold directness and conviction that transcends the incomprehensible (for me) Russian language.

The packaging initially led me to believe that the songs were sung in English – something that would be new for Mumiy Troll.  While this might have been a good move for the band in terms of garnering a broader fan base, those of us who prefer it when bands sing in their native tongue need not despair.  Despite the song titles all being listed in English on the back cover, and the lyrics printed in English in the booklet, the songs are most definitely sung in Russian.  Though I do not speak a word of Russian, I appreciate the obvious natural energy of Lagutenko’s delivery in his mother tongue.  It augments the edginess and urgency of the compositions, avoiding the all-too-often grating vocalizations of singers who desperately try to sing in English in order to reach a broader audience.  I applaud Mumiy Troll for remaining true to their linguistic roots, though it will doubtless cost them admirers among the U.S audiences which are notoriously unreceptive of non-English rock and pop.  These songs, ranging from three to six minutes in length, are not trying to define any new style, nor cross any hitherto unexplored genre boundaries.  Rather, this is fairly straight-forward, well-produced and played, mostly mid-tempo pop-rock songs – sung in Russian.   If you are looking for another English-singing U2 or Coldplay clone, then this will doubtless challenge you beyond your capacity to cope.  However, if you are open to hearing some of Europe’s finest contemporary rock on its own linguistic terms, then this might just be for you.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Note: while the cd gives the English translation of the song title first, I choose to give the Russian title first, as the songs are written and sung in Russian.
Mamy Docherei (Mothers and Daughters)

This opens the album with a nice, snaky groove fashioned with a sparse but catchy guitar line over a relaxed 4/4 beat, and faint atmospheric keyboard washes.  As Lagutenko’s voice enters, intoning (in Russian, of course) “Go in peace in the world, making peace as you do!” we follow a ponderous musing on what seems to be an optimistic vision of feminine fortitude needed in this world.  Simple, catchy, and rather unassuming, this song is not flashy but has a way of insinuating itself into your head – a place it is most welcome.

Hey, Tovarishch! (Hey, Tovarishch!)
“Hey, Tovarishch!” begins with a few seconds of quiet guitar loops and sound effects before the guitar and bass turn to an insistent pulsing vamp that largely defines the song, before the vocals come in with their obtuse, existential admonition to a friend.  Building with predictably-crafted pop dynamics, the drum rolls in and kicks-up the song into a straight-forward, but nicely varied mid-tempo song.  Saxophone, sparsely played by Oleg Tsaler in a free, atmospherically caterwauling manner adds additional texture.
Prospali (We Overslept)
This number sets its tone with a repeated piano pattern to which the band respond with a more edgy, punctuated bass riff with sustained fuzz-guitar adding counterpoint.  To my ears, the programmed clapping is a bit distracting, but gets quickly overshadowed as the more potently delivered vocals enter the mix.  While it is one of the most sonically diverse of the songs on the album, it is the bass that really carries this song with its driving insistence.  A break in the Russian vocals has Lagutenko intoning “My girl..shut up!” in a rather harsh, nasal English that does nothing to help the song. Fortunately, the piece immediately takes a brief, melodic, Beatlesque turn before transmogrifying itself back to the driving bass and whirling keyboard movement that  resolves back into the opening keyboard pattern.  For a three-minute pop-rock song, there is an impressive amount of dynamic variation.
Muzykant (Musician)
Here they begin oddly with a repeating vocal-sample fragment that is sonically manipulated into sounding something like a singing frog, establishing the rhythm and tonality for the song. The drums join in and a cynical song about the musician’s life takes over, with additional outbursts from our friendly amphibian vocalizer punctuating the more overtly human singing.  One cannot help but feel that this is part of the song’s oddly postmodern, self-depleting intent – to comment upon the reception of most pop music as though it were indecipherable ovine bleating of a mechanical frog.  Its dynamic production only accentuates the amusing feeling that this is essentially a snide, self-aware jibe at the state of the music business – the self-mocking pop song.
Yadernye Stantsii (Nuclear Stations)
Immediately asserting its more earnest intent, this begins with a one-two snare hit that leads off a straight-forward 4/4 cadence punctuated with fly-by echoes of reverbed guitar.  A rather forceful rocker, with a comfortable sense of space in both arrangement and mix, this one feels somewhat like U2 at their most earnest.  As on most of the album, the drums are crisply recorded – so much so as to occasionally sound like part of the accompanying programming.  This gives the music a decidedly European dance-feel at times – a sound that at times seems a bid at odds with the more serious intent of many of the cuts.  But, perhaps that is part of the brilliance of Mumiy Troll – one can dance to it while simultaneously envision changing the world.
Yadovitaya Zvezda (Venomous Star)
This kicks off with a guitar figure that is reminiscent of “Night Train” and moves right into another straight-ahead rocker.  But, what’s this…a choir joining in for an atmospheric harmony wash about 45 seconds into the song? Yes, it’s the appropriately-named Kuban Cossack Choir adding a little texture to an otherwise good, but not overwhelmingly distinctive tune.
V Jetom Svete (In Our World)
“V Jetom Svete” opens with another catchy, simple guitar pattern richly ringing out in reverberated glory over a bubbly synth pattern supported by a simple drum piece that occasionally emphasizes the backbeat.  The sparse, existentially desolate musical landscape effectively carries the lyrics’ brooding, dark vision of a hopeless world.  Here Mumiy Troll demonstrate their mastery of the slightly lugubrious, atmospheric pop-rock with simple but infectious hooks and an earnest consistency of medium tempo.  A gradual instrumental meltdown toward the end of the song leads to an effective emphasis on a melancholic cello hauntingly wafting over the continuous drum pattern.  Then we are taken to a reprise vocal section before they produce an abrupt termination.
Pyanaya Struna (Drunken String)
This has a suitably dirge-like feel, as the vocals spit out libatious sneerings over a plodding backbeat that shuffles along like a drink-addled Cossack.  This is no sloppily drunken rumination, but the sober stomp of a seasoned vodka quaffer – heavy, metered, but with a bit of loose slippage.  Just over two minutes in, one of the only real guitar breaks on the album clomps in with a twanging swagger that seems to embody the drunken string of the title.  Continuing as the number drawls toward a close, the guitar takes it down until it passes out in the gutter.
Koroleva Rocka (Queen Of Rock)
This opens appropriately with rapid, aggressive power-chord riffage, as the drums, bass and voice quickly come crashing in and the song stays full-throttle for much of its three-minute duration.  This is one of the most fast-paced, hard-rocking numbers on the album.  A brief feedback/grunge guitar break just over a minute in, and a relative drop of intensity (with the otherwise dominant guitar laying low) just past the two-minute mark, are the only breaks in its otherwise relentless charge of this queen of rock.
Metel (Snowstorm)
This piece arrives with a flurry of staccato riffs and then settles into a steady groove that is driven by a solid, descending bass figure and accompanying fast-picked, descending guitar pattern.  This straight-forward, buoyant drive maintains through the song’s duration, interrupted only by the occasional, brief dramatic pause that sets up the resolution provided by a comfortably unsurprising return to the beat.  Variety is achieved through the guitar’s alternation between echoed, staccato chords and short melodic figures constructed around the same chord progression.  Oddly constricted vocalizations from the Russian-Korean Choir of Uni & A appear periodically to add a call-and-response quality to the lyrical delivery on the chorus.  At the two minute mark, the drums fall into a very martial snare roll whose ominous quality is briefly expunged by the return to the principal pattern only to reappear as the cut propels itself toward its somewhat abrupt conclusion.  Slightly reverberated echo on the vocals add a slightly surreal tone to the equally obtuse lyrics, as the tune winds toward its culmination in the descendant instrumental figure.
Svideteli (Witness)
Also beginning with a strongly-stated header that naturally slides into a descending chordal pattern over a driving bass descension, dynamics are infused, via the guitar shifting from powerfully strummed chords to arpeggiated articulation of the chords.  Without a strong melodic hook, the song primarily gains its identity through a dramatic fluctuation between these two sonic directions.  Ending in an instrumental restatement of the descending chordal pattern, it concludes on a vibe that vaguely feels like it owes something to Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.”  That said, here the resemblance ends, as Mumiy Troll are certainly more terrestrially inclined than the cosmonautical Mr. Barrett.
Popsi, Rock’N’Roll (Sleep Rock’N’Roll)
This surprises with its slower-paced cadence, moving gently over an acoustic guitar rhythm.  The much more reflective feel works effectively with the tendency toward open, atmospheric sonic production that marks the entire album.  This is one of the most satisfying songs on show here, particularly with the arrival of the unassuming, melodic electric guitar solo around the three-minute mark that eases the cut through its remaining minute-plus.  It made me wish that Yuri Tsaler’s melodic talents had been more fully utilized on the record.  As though following the lyrics’ advice, the song drifts off pleasantly, providing some of my favorite minutes on the set.  I could not help but think that this would have been a very effective closing number.
Gori Jeto Vse (Burn It All)
Gori Jeto Vse” brings the album to a close with a slow and unassuming beginning, first with a sparse, atmospheric melody on the electric guitar.  As though establishing a bleak winterscape, the accompaniment maintains a low profile, while Lagutenko intones personal reflections “in a grey, cold country” – a country that seems to be both his native Vladivostock and the frost-bitten realm of his own brooding.  As the longest song on the album, clocking in at just over six minutes, there is plenty of time for the composition to develop at a slower pace appropriate to its lugubrious nature.  While the drums add a more definitive beat a minute in, wafting echo effects on the vocals insure that the overall sense of space and melancholy remain. Before long, a sparse, lovely melodic figure is played on heavily reverbed electric guitar, again Mr. Tsaler adding simple, but lovely texture to the tune.  This carries along in a relatively slow, reflective cadence into oblivion around 4:39 whereupon several seconds of environmental noise (electronic crickets?) is jarringly broken by a little ditty of programming and treated voices that sounds remarkably like one of those awful radio spot jingles that accost one on European radio.  Despite being thoroughly annoying, it is also strangely amusing as it comes across as a very self-aware joke – the sonic equivalent of the post-modern humor of the cover design.  In doing so, it brings us back to where we started when looking at the cover – to a clever, nuanced pastiche of commerce and Russianness.
Bonus Track - California Dreaming
From this oddly challenging conclusion, we are again smacked with more fodder for thought.  The bakers’-dozen of original songs offered by Mumiy Troll is further augmented with splendid little bonus treat – “California Dreaming” - a Russian language version of the Mama and the Papa’s paen to the Golden State.  From “California Girls” to “Back in the USSR” to a Russian version of “California Dreaming,” we travel the trajectory of Rock and Roll, as it comes back to its source translated into a distant local/vocal idiom.  There is an exquisite, if somewhat surreal, quality to this.  Again, this feels oddly like it is simultaneously intended as a straight-ahead rock single and a curiously thoughtful play upon the whole history of rock and rock consumerism. All in all, these comrades make superb cultural ambassadors…
 
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