Saturday, January 2, 2010

Grand Halls 38

RUSSIA – “Russia” LP/CD ’80/’08 (Warner Bros. / Wounded Bird, US) – They say controversy can be a good thing. You know, gets you attention, puts you in the spotlight. They also say timing is everything. And there can be instances where the 2 conspire to produce a virtually impossible situation. Enter Seattle band RUSSIA. Frankly, the idea of an American hard rock band calling themselves RUSSIA and issuing an album fronted with a bright red Soviet star during the height of the Cold War was controversial genius. Well…to me, anyway. Seems some other folks were not entertained and even with it’s release on a major, the album sank like a stone. The real shame of it was, it was brilliant…and it did garner a cult following. And thusly begins our tour of an album that, as far as most of the general public was concerned, might as well have shipped chiefly to Siberia.

RUSSIA was composed, at least for a brief moment in musical history, not of millions of citizens but of just 5 guys: Thomas Richard Brighton – guitars & vocals, Richard Allyn White – keyboards & vocals, Larry Tuttle – bass & vocals, Jeff Swisstack – drums and Griff Stevens – lead vocals, woodwinds & railroad springs (!!!). And as they launch into “Fight Back (Time After Time),” the listener has no idea about the interesting journey they’re about to embark upon. It’s a super-catchy pop-rock opener kinda like mid-period Queen meets The Knack. But hey, those background vocals at around 1:30 actually sound Russian (!) so maybe there’s more than meets the ear here. “Who Do You Think You Are?” is not a Deep Purple send-up but another slab of prime late ‘70’s FM ear candy that could’ve been a major hit. And then we take a left turn and go down the rabbit hole….

You know something different is afoot when “Gotta Get Away” opens with a 49 second bass solo from Larry Tuttle. In then, comes the song proper and we hear a much heavier, funky guitar rhythm reminiscent of Crack The Sky’s “Skin Deep” or “Techni Generation.” A manic chorus leads into a searing guitar solo by Thomas Brighton, fueled by a sharp biting tone very similar to Crack’s Rick Witkowski. I’ve heard very few bands (possibly City Boy at times) that I could ever reference to CTS and it’s a signpost of originality that will appear frequently with RUSSIA. “Nothing To Say” features a crazy syncopated rhythm in the verses and Jeff Swisstack’s drumming is wild here. There’s a Rundgren-esque (and yes, John Palumbo as well) feel to the humor in the lyrics of Griff Stevens. “Nobody has to know what you do, where you go. It’s your business, so let your curtains down and let your castles burn.” Stevens is beginning to emerge as quite the wordsmith and vocalist. Side One draws to a close as “Laughing (In The Face Of Fire)” finds it’s acoustic intro bleeding into a verse of ethereal chords. It’s an interesting dichotomy in that it has the feel of a Priest riff played by a space-rock band. The chorus in this one is just awesome, the amazing melody nestled atop heavy power-pop riffs. The soaring guitar solo is augmented with deep, resonating backing vox. Damn, they sound Russian too! Wow!

Side Two of “Russia” begins with “If I Were You” and, if I were you, I’d describe the rhythm here as almost like a vaudeville show tune played by a hard rock band. Picture Sparks’ Mael brothers playing CTS’s “A Night On The Town (With Snow White)” and you might have it. The axe solo is piercing in a Brian May sorta way and the coda is charging heavy swing! RUSSIA is really getting motoring now (if they weren’t already) and after a short vox/keys intro they erupt into “Out Of My Mind.” The melodies and harmony vocals are stunning as Stevens belts out lines like “I think it’s a crime, the way you drive me out of my mind. But don’t get me wrong, it’s only a song I’m singing.” All that, and lead guitar work as good as anybody! Next is one of those cool little segues bands used to do back in the day. The 1:30-ish of “Poignant Clams,” replete with acoustic guitars, flute (I hope I’m right here, it’s a woodwind of some kind) and keys, exits as a marching drum beat comes in. “Piece Of Ice” (another CTS reference?) opens with a militaristic rhythm and an authoritative guitar riff to match, the melodic verse and heavy chorus establishing more scorching dynamics. “Nice, so nice. You thought you’d found a piece of paradise, alright. You turn around and find it’s just a piece of ice, alright.” It all comes to a fantastic conclusion with “Outer Space Seeds.” Sporting a cool piano/drum verse, the guitars crash in at just the right times. Background vocals of near Beach Boys lushness wash in and the 6-string fills are magic. Then, out of nowhere, a horn piece comes in, accompanied by a repeating Fripp-like guitar figure. At around 3:40, the overall effect is downright Beatle-esque, with the vocals, horns & keys playing off each other like an orchestra.

I would like to say that this ultra-unique masterpiece of rock & pop went on to take the world by storm. Sadly, as you already know, it didn’t. Because of all those factors like timing, who knew who and the band’s provocative name, not many were “Russian” to buy it (ouch!!!) and it disappeared like a CIA agent at the Kremlin. 28 years later, this CD release saw the light of day and one year after that, I’ve told you all you need to know. Go forth with wallets open, Comrade! Songs Of Soviet Sons

NOTE: The same 5 guys who populated RUSSIA regrouped in 1981 under a new, slightly-less eye-catching name, FORCE 10 (apparently Warner Bros. refused to allow the band to issue any more material under the RUSSIA moniker). The fascinating result will be discussed in another upcoming episode of Grand Halls.

NOTE II: I have just learned that in the near future, I will be able to bring you an exclusive Raysrealm conversation with RUSSIA / FORCE 10 man Griff Stevens. Does that rule or what?!

1 comment:

Sir Lord Doom said...

Saw the vinyl at a local record store today, will buy it later on...nobody will actually do, except of me, I suppose.