Gruppa Krovi

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The album that was intended to break the influential Russian band Kino in the west was by far the slickest of their releases, with sound quality up to the standards of European and American bands. This is notable because much of their previous work was crudely recorded and didn't hide the fact that the guitarist was no virtuoso on his instrument. Nevertheless, their early work had all the wild energy of punk rock and much more interesting instrumental textures, and had earned them a considerable following even outside Russia. Gruppa Krovi got an early boost from a favorable review from influential Village Voice critic Robert Christgau. It's easy to see why -- the music has a unique dynamic composed of Igor Tikomirov's driving bass set against Yuri Kasparyan's oddly tuned, mechanical-sounding guitar. Kasparyan had become a pretty respectable guitarist by this time, and though he was no technical genius he showed flashes of ingenuity. The band adds hints of Eastern European music to their lively alternative rock, with occasional excursions into R.E.M. territory and even reggae, and the result is continuously interesting. Nevertheless the focus is squarely on frontman Victor Tsoi, whose gruff baritone vocals are compelling even to a listener who speaks not a word of Russian. Listeners who did speak Russian could attest to Tsoi's subversively poetic lyrics -- remember, in the '80s, you still had to be oblique about any anti-government sentiments or you had long involuntary interviews with people who could send you to Siberia. "Gruppa Krovi," the title song, translates as "Blood Type," the information that is written on the sleeve of every Russian soldier's uniform. This song from the point of view of a conscript in a foreign war didn't mention any specifics, but any Russian hearing it would think immediately of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was still in progress as this song was recorded. Victor Tsoi's weary-sounding voice was perfect for his material, in the tradition of Tom Waits or Lou Reed, except that Tsoi was a better singer than either. Non-Russian speakers can still hear the naked emotion in both the music and words, and the critics swooned. For a short time it seemed that Kino might be a major commercial success even in countries that normally ignore material that isn't in English. Tragically, Victor Tsoi was killed in a car accident only a few months after Gruppa Krovi was released. The other members of the band toyed with the idea of carrying on and played a few gigs with other singers, but they released no more material. Note: Copyright protection is not strong in Russia, and bootleg versions of this album, live Kino concerts, and other releases are still available. Some may have lower sound quality than the original Gold Castle release. However, some Russian fans consider this album to be overproduced and prefer the crude versions and earlier work.

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