RIGA - If Dostoyevsky were alive today, the chances are very likely that he would be a member of Splean, minus the beard, of course. There is something reassuringly Russian about this highly talented St. Petersburg band. It does grim extremely well, and on the strength of its latest album, "The Reverse Chronicle of Events," I would rate Splean as one of the few Russian bands with the talent to impress on an international stage
I lay down one evening to give the album a good listening to, not really expecting much from it, and was genuinely shocked by how good it was. I'm still listening to it, several days later.
The first thing that impresses about "The Reverse Chronicle of Events" is its sheer inventiveness. No two of its 15 songs are alike, and while you can discern all manner of musical influences at work on the album, it has a distinctly original sound to it overall.
"Shato Margo" starts off rather unexceptionally like several other songs, but then suddenly launches into an infectious guitar riff that is an absolute joy. A lot of the songs do that. They start off one way, and then suddenly go off on a brilliant tangent. You almost wonder why the group just didn't make the tangent the song instead.
"We Were Sitting and Smoking" is an irresistibly charming slice of Slavic ska. Vocalist Aleksandr Vasilyev manages to do that most unusual of things for a Russian singer. He neither shouts nor croons in a sickeningly sentimental voice, but actually just sings in a sort of low-key, melodic, pay-attention-to-the words sort of voice.
There's barely a weak song on the album. On "Maze," Vasilyev's distorted voice rasps out against an insistent bassline and a background whirr of electronic noises. "People on a Palm" sets a bombastic string section against another electronic backdrop, although it's a little cheesy-sounding, a sort of overly atmospheric song that Fyodor would have called "Rhyme and Punishment," if he were in with the group. There are also some nice brief musical interludes between the songs. You can't help wondering if the group wasn't a bit inspired by Bent, which did that very thing to wonderful effect on its first album.
The brief but beautiful "Voice Behind the Seen" even samples a sort of shrill, speeded up opera singer. Before Bent, I would struggle to think of a single group that sampled opera.
Without doubt though, my favorite song on the album is "Geography Lesson." It's simple, unpretentious and extremely warm. The group even gives a shout out to Latvia, Riga (in that order) among many other places, which doesn't happen too often. A subtle reggae rhythm underpins the whole song, and a beautifully elaborate bit of vocal work really sets the song apart.
Splean has been going since 1994, and it's amazing to think that it has released some 14 albums in all that time. This is certainly an impressive addition to its backlog.