There are moments of sublime melodic composition on Cross, so beautiful they just melt away on the mind and almost, on their own, are worth the price of the album. The phrasing in "Autumn", the wind instruments' melody on "Portrait of a Man" and the beautiful romantic writing on "Eagle" (with the guitar phrasing away from the sung verses being reminiscent of Gary Moore's "Parisian Walkways") are all priceless moments, highlights of an album that unfortunately doesn't quite live up to them.
Despite this being their first review on Sea of Tranquility, Cross is Russian band Little Tragedies's 9th album. In that case, they're quite a mature band. When I set about to review an album, particularly if it's from a band whose music I've not heard before, I go out of my way to ensure that I don't read any promotional literature or other reviews. I don't want to be tainted! Only having heard the music a couple of times will I allow myself the luxury of comparing my thoughts with other material. The point here is that, when I found out that Little Tragedies were quite mature as an album-producing outfit, I was disappointed because of a perception that this will diminish their desire to change. You see, I do think that they do need to change in order to fulfil the promise of Cross.
But before we go on to consider the need for change, let's dwell awhile on the band and the album itself.
Little Tragedies hail from Kursk in the Russian Federation and consist of Gennady Ilyin (composer, keyboards, vocals), Yuri Skripkin (drums), Oleg Babynin (bass guitar), Alexander Malakhovsky (guitar) and Aleksey Bildin (saxophone, clarinet). Their influences, and here I'm picking those whose effects you will most prominently hear on Cross, range from classic rock bands such as ELP and Camel to classical music and, for the lyrics, the works of the Russian poet Gumilev. The musicianship is first-class: particular highlights going to some dazzling displays on the keyboards during "Cross" and the epic track "The Voice of Silence" and also to some beautiful work on the clarinet and other wind instruments.
When it's good, Cross is really good. The beautiful melodic moments I've already mentioned in the opening paragraph but there are some fine rock moments elsewhere. "Cross" opens with a bang! in a whirl of keyboards and guitars and sustains its pace throughout. "The Voice of Silence" does not disappoint as the epic track, lacking neither in construction nor in a rocky edge - a fine, truly progressive-rock piece in the best traditions of the genre. "Old Abbey"'s harpsichord sounds bring a mediaeval flavour to the proceedings and "Tanets", the only totally instrumental number, is a (Russian inspired?) folk-rock jig. 'sgood!
So, I hear you ask, what's the problem, why am I not giving this an unreserved thumbs-up? The problem is in the vocal writing and in the vocal delivery. Whether it's because Gumilev is such an inspiration or whether it's because Gennady Ilyin can't improve on this performance I'm not sure, but the vocal delivery is predominantly declamatory, close to sing-speak style. There are few sustained vocal notes. This isn't a problem because the singing is all in Russian (I have heard a number of operas sung in Russian and there was no problem with the vocal scoring in those), it's a problem simply because the vocal style isn't well matched to the music. (Retaining the operatic comparison, the vocal scoring sounds as if it's done similar to that of many "modern", post-1930ish operas - ugh!). In those songs where the vocal is delivered softly, such as on "Eagle", then its overall effect isn't detrimental to the music but when the delivery is stronger, harsher, such as on "Cross" and on the otherwise excellent and rocky "Lakes", then it detracts from the overall enjoyment.
It would be a shame of you were dissuaded from listening to Little Tragedies's music because of the vocal element; however, it is a factor within the overall soundscape and therefore plays a role, which unfortunately, is to detract from the whole. As an indication, had the vocal delivery been more appropriate then we'd have been looking at a four or a four-and-a-half star album.
The CD booklet for the international release apparently comes with a translation of the lyrics (although my promo copy did not).
1) Cross (8:34)
2) Autumn (4:57)
3) Lakes (4:13)
4) Old Abbey (7:32)
5) Portrait of a Man (3:46)
6) Tanets (4:28)
7) The Voice of Silence (19:10)
8) Eagle (6:42)
9) Hippopotamus (2:48)