I have now dealt with a few CDs issued by Russian label MALS: they seem to be doing a good job of bringing contemporary Russian bands (or perhaps more precisely, bands from countries of the former USSR) to the attention of western music audiences. I've yet to hear a bad CD emanating from them and 7 Ocean's The Mysterious Race of Strange Entities is no exception. And that despite the fact that it is sung completely in what I assume is Russian. I don't normally focus too much on the lyrics, but not being able to understand a word when dealing with what s clearly a progressive rock concept album does limit the enjoyment. That The Mysterious Race of Strange Entities remains an enjoyable album despite the language handicap is a tribute to the music.
Belarus's 7 Ocean are the reincarnation of the disbanded band that recorded three albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s before the death of original drummer Igor Mihasev. They reformed as a trio in 2004 under the leadership of founder member Alexander Eletsky (keyboards, vocals), Alexander Sofiks and Sergei Starosotsky joining Eletsky in his endeavour. The Mysterious Race of Strange Entities
MALS themselves bill 7 Ocean as performing "symphonic progressive rock that, while being predominantly vocals-based (which is certainly not the same as "song-based"), is highly diverse – not too dissimilar to mid-'70s Van Der Graaf Generator in this respect". There are certainly elements of truth in that statement. However, comparisons with other bands' music are notoriously contentious of course, but I heard nothing that sounded like any period of Van der Graaf Generatorm and compositionally there are other bands that would fit the "comparison glove". What I did hear was music that reminded me of Greenslade, Camel, Procol Harum (in particular "Conclusions" brought to mind "The Worm & The Tree", the long piece which closed the Something Magic album) and, much more recently, UK's Willowglass (although that project is an intentional throwback to some of the earlier bands that I've already mentioned).
The predominant feature of 7 Ocean's soundscape are keyboard instruments, probably in this order: electric piano, acoustic piano, organs, synthesizers, harpsichord. The other conventional rock instruments of guitars, bass and drums all have a part to play but the driving force in the music is the keyboards. Often the style of playing is reminiscent of jazz, with the use of very staccato phrasing on the keys, but the rhythmic structure is only rarely suggestive of jazz, for instance on "People - Leaves".
The music is always pleasant but occasionally falls short of really "hitting the button", perhaps because of the need to concentrate on telling the story. In this respect the vocalist and the vocal scoring could be stronger. Very often the singing is close to sing-speak (and sections are just spoken, clearly reciting the story) but can be very effective when the vocal scoring is allowed to become melodic and legato, as on "People-Leaves" and "Controversy Between the Second and the Misanthrope". The latter is a particularly strong composition, opening with a pretty tune on harpsichord and melodic singing before switching to slightly jazzy piano/electric piano rhythms, then a couple more phases before going into an up tempo phase.
As you can see from the description above and the suggestion in the Track Listing that a couple of the tracks are split into several parts, the composition structures are complex and varied. "If Anybody Else Would Ask" has the rockiest guitar parts but ultimately this remains keyboards-driven music and I'm guessing that there's as much influence from Belarus's folk music as from European (including Russian) classical forms.
Overall then, a pleasant album: well played, the music often very beautiful but there are moments throughout the long album that pale. It might have been better designed as an instrumental album but the lads clearly wanted to tell a tale. Unfortunately, and despite the universal meaning of music, the tale didn't really carry across to me. Whilst it's clearly unreasonable to expect musicians from Belarus to write and sing English lyrics, there is a need when bridging across languages like this to give others the opportunity to share the full experience. I listen to quite a bit of opera for instance, including Russian opera, and modern stagings or recordings always include translations/synopses which allow those unable to follow the dialogue to reach a fuller understanding. Feel free to add an extra half-ranking star if you feel these lyrical considerations would not affect you.
1) The Visit (9:50)
I. The Arrival of The First (Misanthrope)
II. The Entities, part 1
III. The Meeting
IV. The Arrival of The Second
V. The Entities, part 2
2) The Beginning (7:29)
I. The Return
II. The Opening Address of The Second
III. The Opening Address of The First
3) I Heard the Sound (6:18)
4) About a Woman and Love (5:18)
5) On the Threshold (8:39)
6) Short Stories (4:25)
7) If Anybody Else Would Ask (3:15)
8) People - Leaves (8:41)
9) Controversy Between the Second and the Misanthrope (10:48)
10) Conclusions (14:46)