Album review: Стук бамбука в XI часов – “Легкое дело холод”
Important note: this article contains words in Russian. All the people’s names and lyrics are given in English. The band’s name is in its original language all throughout the article, and the track names are first mentioned in Russian and then referred to as translated into English.
The time was 2 PM. It was warm outside, yet snowing as if it was the last hurrah of winter, trying to leave with a bang in form of a mild snowstorm. As I closed my door, an almost alien, marching rhythm started resonating in my headphones in all its relentless, unwelcoming glory. I stepped outside, and so began my long, solitary walk, with the bleak sounds of Стук бамбука в XI часов as my only companion.
Стук бамбука в XI часов (even if a bit corny, best translated into English as 11 O’Clock Bamboo Knock) was a Russian collective that only existed a couple of years before dissolving, just like many other bands in then already disintegrating Soviet Union. Hailing from the provincial town of Izhevsk, Стук бамбука в XI часов created a singular sonic world, that is only comparable to Brian Eno’s “On Land”, but with occasional surrealistic vocals courtesy of Tatiana Yerokhina. “Легкое дело холод” (“Cold is an Easy Thing”) was their only album, released independently in 1991, just after the band ceased to exist.
Having no musical knowledge, the three friends who originally started Стук бамбука, Konstantin Bagayev, Vasiliy Agafonov and Dmitriy Noskov, relied heavily on found sound and prepared instruments like guitar, bass guitar and piano. Having no access to high-end instruments like samplers or drum machines, they used Soviet-made synthesizers (that, in all honesty, just couldn’t compare to, for lack of a better example, Roland Juno-106 or Yamaha DX-7 that were already out in the West) and ran the various self-recorded noises through a chain of several tape recorders. Texts for Yerokhina were written by pulling together often meaningless words with help of an English to Russian dictionary and featured strikingly abstract, animal-themed and sometimes downright chilling passages. For example: “Surrounded by the lips’ bloodlessness / I’m going to cut the patch / Under which the diamonds are kept / Of your suns, and your stars, and your moons” (“Лоскуток”/”The Little Patch”); “The weak tiger / With wounded blood / And the eyes of a numb boy / Reached the moon / Through a tender radio station / And foolishly complained / Of a bullet” (“Слабый тигр”/”The Weak Tiger”).
Though “Cold is an Easy Thing” is often cited by Russian reviewers as the album that started trip-hop before Massive Attack, claiming this would be a stretch, because trip-hop had its origins in golden age hip-hop, unlike Стук бамбука в XI часов, who, as already mentioned, was practically its own distinct style, influenced more by Brian Eno and Throbbing Gristle than Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. It goes without saying that “Cold is an Easy Thing” is as depressive as, say, Portishead’s “Dummy”, if not MORE depressive – but if one compares the sound of the two albums, he will find out that trip-hop in general was more organic than virtually lifeless soundscapes of the Russian band.
…As I reached the intersection between Tankopiya street and Marshal Zhukov avenue, the album was into its eighth track, “Какавелла” (um… “Cacavella”?). The snow still fell down on the ground, and had no intention of dying out. I have already experienced the insistent, anxious rhythms of the opening track “Хрупко двух” (“Brittle of the Two”), intriguing aquatic “La Cheval de Ma Vie” (the track, unlike the rest of Russian-language album, is in French, but if you didn’t study French in school, “The Horse of My Life”), the absolutely creepy study for droning cello, artificial heartbeats and breathing sounds with field recordings of crying babies “The Weak Tiger”, “Снег мёд” (alternatively “Снежный мёд”, both translate as “Snow Honey”) with its refrain “Death isn’t the worst sin”, “Белый черт ландыш” (“Lavender the White Devil”), the aforementioned “The Little Patch” and the instrumental “Береговая осень” (“Coastline Autumn”) featuring Andrey Gostev and Dmitry Lekomtsev on bass and guitar, respectively, that conveys a depressed man’s lonely stroll on the autumn beach. In a way, my walk was close to what the that track tried to describe with sounds, but I could care less then – my hands almost froze off by then. The album had two more tracks to go, but technically, they were a bonus – the original album had nine tracks, and the CD release that came out in 2000 (and that I had on my MP3 player) contains eight out of those nine tracks. Just where is “Покойный” (“Deceased”) I have no idea. That said, these two bonus tracks, “Стены и туманы”/”Walls and Fogs” and “Тяга”/”Traction” feel like they are two parts of the same track – “Walls and Fogs” featuring synth stabs somewhat reminiscent of dub techno, and “Traction” featuring sustained piano chords.
When I finally reached home, it was 3 PM – just an hour after I left. My player had already skipped through some tracks on shuffle, but I didn’t pay much attention to them because I was still enveloped in the bleak, lifeless blanket of Стук бамбука and “Cold is an Easy Thing”. The snow had stopped by then. As I turned the key in my door I was relieved to see that I did close it tightly, and relieved that I’m finally home. My cat ran up to me and meowed plaintively…
…and looking back, I feel thankful for that. However annoying may my cat be, I’m sure that it will never follow the footsteps of the kitten on the cover of the album. The poor fellow looks at the sky, as if it expects something to happen. Suits the theme set by the album perfectly, and the sad eyes of the creature make it for me. Just as whatever this kitten waited for didn’t ultimately happen, so didn’t anything happen for Стук бамбука в XI часов. Noskov left because he felt that combining his business and rehearsals would be at least unfair. Yerokhina left because she was pregnant with her first child. Bagayev and Agafonov finished “Brittle of the Two” and abandoned the project quietly. Still as obscure as it was from the very start, though experiencing a sort of rediscovery thanks to the Internet and Alexander Kushnir’s “100 Magnet Albums of Soviet Rock” released in 1999, Стук бамбука в XI часов deserve more than just attention, but sheer, utmost respect. Because you’ll never find another album made like this, or that sounds like this. A perfect mood piece, and one of the best Russian language albums of all time.
Highlights: “Snow Honey”, “Lavender the White Devil”, “Brittle of the Two”, “The Weak Tiger”, “Coastline Autumn”
P.S. There are also videos for “La Cheval de Ma Vie” and “Snow Honey” floating on YouTube – check them out, they might be even better than the songs themselves! (Proving that there was more to this than music, as Bagayev was a professional director of photography, and making Стук бамбука в XI часов more of an art project than just a “rock” band.)