The Holy Madmen, Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda’s, and Buzzing Tuba of Russia’s Post-Rock Icons Auktyon


Russia’s Auktyon is a lost folklore ensemble darting behind an avant jazz collective, hidden inside a hugely popular rock band. It’s Animal Collective tangoing through the salon with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, nodding its Radiohead. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Here’s the real mystery: a gaggle of out-there bohemian musicians not only became stars at home, but managed to stay relevant in the minds and on the iPods of two post-Soviet generations. They rock a mean tuba. They have a dancer-declaimer who spouts sudden poetry, jerking and trembling like a holy madman.

But this is no under-the-radar cult group; it’s one of the biggest rock bands to burst from the Soviet collapse, with a defiant devil-may-care attitude and a keen sense for improvisation. This improv instinct led the band to Top, a wild, catchy spin through Auktyon’s magical paces. Recorded live at breakneck speed and with sheer joy, the album draws together the eerie folklore (“Shiski,” “Polden/Noon”), edgy urbanity (“Mimo,” “Yula/Top”), exuberant word play (“Homba”), and well-honed musicianship of a group uninterested in laurels or resting.

The band’s unflagging energy and ingenuity will be in full force February 11 2012 for a U.S. release party at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge and at Joe’s Pub on February 18. The band will be joined by long-time American collaborators, key whiz John Medeski and alt-guitarist Marc Ribot, for a special freewheeling show on February 16. Medeski and Ribot first leaped into Auktyon’s whirling songs several years ago, recording tracks for 2007’s Girls Sing, and playing shows together from Ukraine to downtown New York.

“We have never had the goal to do something special, or to get something particular across to people,” muses Auktyon dancer/poet Oleg Garkusha. “We do what we like, and we never do what we don’t want to do. We just play.”

Auktyon’s first album came together as tanks stormed the legislative heart of Moscow. Yet the album (1994’s Ptiza), arguably a major landmark of Russian rock, rippled with a thoughtful happiness and bittersweet energy that mysteriously defied the madness erupting outside the studio. Perhaps because of that defiance, the curious mix of punk, reggae, klezmer, and a specific but elusive flavor of Russian creativity won the hearts of urbane listeners, turning the band into chart-topping pop darlings.

Things changed in Russia. Life stabilized. Rock stars of the Soviet underground got eccentric religion or got rich and arrogant. Not Auktyon: their live shows continued to be curious explorations, sparkling blasts of pure enjoyment. Fans packed their concerts, tearing the doors off the club that hosted their first U.S. appearance. They parsed and sang their untranslatable, playful lyrics. Though never political on or off the stage, Auktyon became a symbol of all that was progressive and possible in a country still in the throes of economic hardship, political struggle, and cultural upheaval.

Top rushes into this strange evolution, presenting both the essential sound and spirit that made listeners fall in love, and its continued musical maturation. Though they meticulously crafted a follow-up to their hit, the band decided to do something different: They sat together in a big room and started toying with compositions brought in by the band members, most notably Leonid Fedorov, guitarist, singer, and singular songwriter.

Then, eyes locked and ears open, they let things spin off in a new, wonderful direction. “Since we didn’t have any set compositions, it’s hard to define what was improvisation on the album and what wasn’t,” reflects Auktyon’s Nikolai Rubanov, who plays sax and horns. “Improvisation becomes possible when there’s an initial structure. If you don’t have that, then the very notion of improvisation gets fuzzy. Ours was a process of collective creation.” The songs sound fresh but finished: “Meteli” bounces with upbeat pop sensibility that belies the band’s jamming approach, and “Homba” surges forward with a gleeful momentum.

As part of this collective composition, words swim up—fragments of long-lost ballads, funny turns of phrase that suggest melodies—like a friend’s voice in the fog, setting the tempo and evoking entire worlds.  “Take, for example, the song ‘Homba,’” Auktyon producer Sergei Vasiliev begins, discussing the lyrics to the fast-building song with echoes of both Jewish folk melodies and surf rock. “It has elements many other Russian authors have already played with: ‘woulda coulda shoulda…’ but then it flies off somewhere completely different, somewhere ideal in my opinion. The burden of meaning locked in the text doesn’t keep you on the ground. As you fly off, you get the maximum emotional impact.”

Alongside the texts, the band’s instruments fly in new directions, while Fedorov’s urgent guitar establishes an axis. Everything else—buzzing tuba mouthpieces, overblown flutes, creepy squeaks, and ethereal choruses—rotates around it. The spontaneity of the exploration is palpable, as is the band’s complete comfort crafting songs together, live.

Guest post via WMNW