Well… maybe it's not that good, but it was one of the first Akvarium albums I ever heard, so I'm partial. (Same thing happened to Dzhon with Navigator, Dzhubchick with Library of Babylon, and Dzhrew with Radio Silence.) See? We warned you in our introduction that your early exposures will mark you for life. Consult your gurus. Act upon their words. Bring them gifts in obsequious gratitude.
Note that Boris goes pretty far out into his "Whoever I say is Akvarium is Akvarium" thing on this one…reportedly, he'd like to haul the Chieftans into a studio and call them Akvarium. And more power to him.
In the first place, let the record show that Dji has long been French-kissing the Blarney Stone. Not only was Navigator not one of the first six Akvarium albums I bought or heard, for a period (a period when I was known as the Вечный Гость, sleeping on Dzhrew's couch) Navigator was the album defined primarily by its tantalizing unavailability, Vladivostok's esteemed "CD Land" having run out of stock. This was is those distant days when CD-burners weren't quite so universal, and "pirated" generally meant a cheesy kiosk tape. In Vladivostok, if CD Land or the out-of-the-way kiosk we called "Пиратский рай" didn't have it, then it simply wasn't to be had.
No, the first Akvarium I owned, on a selfsame cheesy kiosk tape, was Snow Lion. This is perhaps not surprising since it was the current album the year I began tentatively exploring the possibilities of Russkii Rok. Indeed, for a long time it was the only Akvarium album I owned, which fact alone says a lot about Snow Lion: I enjoyed it; I listened to it often; I bought a copy on disc and sent it to a friend in the States with an admiring gloss of some of the songs; but I wasn't inspired to go forth and seek more like it.
The problem, if it is a problem, is that Snow Lion is just too darn accessible—arguably the most accessible album in the entire oeuvre. Which is to say, among Akvarium albums it's the most like a typical exemplar of American-style album-oriented rock: melodic, tightly produced, hooks where you expect to hear hooks, fills where you expect to hear fills. It's easy on the ears. Not that it actually sounds anything like radio-friendly American AOR...no, my point is that this is the Akvarium album you could pop on a cd player in just about any company without anyone taking very vocal exception.
Ah, Grasshopper, and there's the koan: it is precisely its exceptionality that the true Bodhisattva values most about Akvarium—its ability to conflate categories and confound expectations. Akvarium's genius is not in imitation, but in recombinant synthesis and exploration. The more time one spends among the jagged peaks and dazzling alpine meadows of Akvarium at its most far-out and far-fetched, the less one is inclined to esteem the gently rolling grassy hills of Snow Lion.
I speak of "grassy hills" pointedly, as the "pseudo Irish-folk" aspect Dji alludes to is a second and perhaps less esoteric problem with the album. Four tracks ("Silver Rose," "Cyclone's Center," "Incident at Nastasino" and "The Great Railway Symphony") play the Irish Trad card pretty heavily. To the average Russian ear this probably sounds intriguingly exotic, but to this Westerner's ear it's rather overdone and over-familiar. Besides, if I find myself in the mood for a touch of the Irish, the Pogues or Planxty or Altan suits very nicely, thank you very much…
This is slightly unfair. Whenever I come back to the album after not having heard it for some weeks or months, I'm surprised by how good it is, and how, unlike most of the studio albums of the 90s—even my beloved Navigator—there's not a single glaringly weak track on it. Still the amount you value Snow Lion is likely to be inversely proportional to the number of Akvarium albums you already own: it's a good place to start, but marginal to the study of Advanced Ichthyology.
For this Bodhisattva the A-list songs are "Dubrovskii" and "Jet Fighter." "Dubrovskii" is a lovely, sinister сказка of a song driven at first by a simple, strummy guitar accompaniment, with strings and winds gradually layered on in increasingly complex counterpoint, and high-pitched Irish pipes that come in at the very end. It's a beautiful song, but all the instrumentation clutters it up a little too much…I'd like to hear a nice clean acoustic version of it sometime. "Jet Fighter" is quite a different kind of song: It begins with low-pitched drones and Space Odyssey-style mwwooooous before BG comes in over a lovely mandolin. Then—bam!—noisy, soaring electronic guitars and drums kick in, building, building, building and shooting straight up into the upper stratosphere. Love it…and it's found here and only here, folks.
I also quite like "Old Russian Blues"…though the live Season of the Snake version is superior. The Snow Lion version is a little too tidy, too neat in its itchy, driving, choo-choo train rhythms and Nashville-style guitar pickin' and grinnin', and restrained harmonica and sax solos. It's a song that begs for the break-all-the-rules wig-out treatment of early Akvarium, and it doesn't get it here. Its wickedly dark-hearted syncopated lyrics deserve special mention, however:
And above drugged-out Moscow forests climb skyward
And Turks make a mock-up of Holy Rus in half an hour flat,
And at the keepers of the shrine a finger dances on a trigger,
And on the icon a dollar sign appears where there should be a face,
And Hare Krishnas walk in formation along Tverskaya and the Arbat
And I'm afraid that I'm neck-deep in those Old Russian Blues…
More of an oddity is "Maksim the Forester," which sounds to me like what BG was trying and failing to do on Radio Silence. It's an up-tempo, toe-tapping rave-up replete with slap-happy keyboards, chugging guitars, doo-wop devushki singing in the background, and some of the all-time "Wilburiest" BG vocals. It also has the curious distinction of being one of the only Akvarium songs that Russians can, and actually will, dance to.
As for the rest…"Silver Rose" is a pretty little instrumental melange of guitar, pipes, accordion and flute, with some Bardo-style vocal nonsense floating in the background. "Cyclone's Center" is kind of an electric Russo-Irish sea-shanty with long instrumental interludes. "Incident at Nastasino" is similarly tooty-flutey but with bongos, an electric guitar and a sitar thrown in for good measure. "Black Brahman" is an offbeat, innocuous little waltz for strings and what sound like castanets…not bad, but probably my least favorite track. "The Great Railway Symphony" is an Irish-style elegy with a violin here, a pipe there, a harp here, a flute there...creamy-dreamy, and, like many dreams, a little indistinct. Ultimately, any serious aspirant can't well do without Snow Lion…heck, for "Jet Fighter" alone. And for the rest it's not a bad place to begin…especially if you don't know who Seva Gakkel' is but can tell the difference between Guiness, Baltika 6, Murphy's and Yarpivo Temnoe in a blind taste-test.
What is a Snow Lion anyway?
The fit of songwriting that had yielded Navigator didn't entirely use up all the material (the very same village had carried “Jet Fighter” to me in its skirts, while a stroll in the unearthly heat and silence of the Valley of the Kings brought forth “Old Russian Blues”). At first it seemed like the thing to do was to make a goofy lo-fi follow-up to Navigator, and, naturally, call it “Alligator.” But the demo demonstrated that the matter was much more serious than that and that it was time to rent Livingston Studio once again. But here, on the plane from St. Petersburg to Moscow a nice bearded poet came up to me and presented me with a copy of his little book of his poems. Normally I have a strong allergic reaction to almost any poetry, but this little book opened of its own accord and my eyes were struck by two lines. In about a week I understood that there was no getting away from them. I phoned the number noted in the book and confessed that the lines hit the mark, and, it seems, would become a song. It was a totally ridiculous situation, but it seemed as if he understood me and he gave me his permission. The poet was called Andrei Chernov and the lines were “The machinist himself doesn't know/That he's carrying you to me.” In short, we once again found ourselves in London. And the Mellotron (the very same that plays at the very beginning of “The Great Railway Symphony”) was still waiting for us in the studio from Navigator days.
Attentively listening to what had taken place, Jerry said “I think I know how this ought to sound” and somewhere found an old sound-board that had been covered with dust since late '68. A family of Indians came bearing sitars and tanpurs, likewise a woman with a Celtic harp, giggling with a characteristic witchy laugh, as well as an older bearded guy with Uilean pipes (a kind of ancient Irish bagpipes). The latter listened to the recording and asked if it was necessary to play something that'd been composed specially here, or just what he was hearing. I said “The music of the gods.” “I know,” he said, then played and left. The fast train in “Old Russian Blues” was synthesized by the violinist Bob Loveday of Penguin Café Orchestra, one of Akvarium's very favorite groups. The Middle 8 in “Silver Rose” was written by Kate (with a kind of mantra as my own contribution) and Sergei S. wrote the bridge on “Black Brahman.” (By the way, the full title of “Silver Rose” is “The Silver Rose Undresses the World”). Thus, little by little, all of this stopped being “Alligator,” but, for the time being, still lacked a name.
And here, waking up in the middle of the night on the way from Vyatka to Moscow, the “Snow Lion” appeared—at the same time the name, the cover art and the order of the songs; he came and everything fell into place.
Translated from Songs by Dzhon