By Dawn Hazle
Popular music presents a problem to authoritarian regimes: by its nature it either has to be controlled, or banned. Yet, control requires a lot of resources, and simply just pushes the problem underground. In the Soviet Union, both approaches were undertaken: popular music was controlled through state-sponsored Vokal’no-Instrumental’nyi Ansambl’ (VIA) groups and everything else was banned. Consequently, anyone who didn’t fit the bill simply went underground and, due to pressures, ignorance or lack of enforcement, they went often unpoliced and proliferated.
Russian metal music was one such disregarded and, therefore, underground genres. It grew in a similar way to Western metal music and was inspired by Western metal, but also
by Russian rock. Metal and rock, intentionally or not, are forms of ‘counterculture’ that provide an alternative to the dominant culture, and in the case of Soviet Russia, to official Soviet culture. One of the first bands in the Soviet context to establish themselves solely in the genre of metal are Aria, still going strong today and regarded as the Russian Iron Maiden. On 31 October 1985 they released their first album, Maniia Velichiia (Megalomania), in magnitizdat format.
Upon a cursory glance at the tracklist (in Russian), it is clear there is more to this album (and by extension, to the band) than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: the final track, ‘Pozadi Amerika’, with its generally recognised translation ‘America is Behind’, looks much like an anti-Western song. But a closer look at the lyrics shows something altogether different: it is merely describing a man reading a travel magazine. The song talks about the world being laid out in front of him, and this sense of ‘pozadi’ is lost in the translation .
Another potentially anti-Western song is ‘Zhizn’ Zadarom’ (‘Life for Free’). A simple reading of the lyrics shows this is not necessarily inaccurate, as there are lines such as the following:
Wisdom, beauty and talent – all overshadowed by the pricelist And it happened that he gave his life for nothing
But a simple reading is not enough: this denunciation of Western decadence can also be accurately applied to Soviet officials and the privileges that they enjoyed. The eponymous instrumental, ‘Maniia Velichiia’, can also be read this way: highlighting not only capitalist decadence in its harsh guitar entry but also Soviet megalomania as the near-operatic vocal chorus becomes ever louder.
The album moves further into anti-Soviet territory with ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ (‘Tusks of Black Rocks’). This song contains the following lyrics:
He shouts to the gods: “I have no more need for you,
I can understand everything and do it myself!”
The cry’s echo was picked up at the same moment,
Carried away and smashed on a glacier
A rock cracked and an avalanche came down
And carried him away like a grain of sand
This appears to represent the leaders of the atheist Soviet Union, now beginning to pay the price after turning their backs on their people as they have turned their backs on God: the
economy was in terrible shape, food imports had increased and relations with the West had soured.
In an interview I conducted with the writer of these lyrics, Alexander Ielin, in November 2015, he assured me the intention was largely anti-war. I have found this hard to fathom in ‘Pozadi Amerika’, but the lyrics of ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ and ‘Volunter’ (‘Volunteer’) could easily be interpreted as such. One song which makes this anti-war stance particularly clear is ‘Eto Rok’, with its dual-meaning title (‘This is Fate’ or ‘This is Rock’). The last verse reads as follows:
It is enough to put on a brave show, the fate of all of us is as one Suicide really isn’t war, Not Waterloo, or even Armageddon There is not and never will be a winning side
I do, however, urge you to listen to the song: the lyrics given here paint a dreary picture (this part starts around 3:48) but the musicians are clearly enjoying themselves during most of the song. This, after all, is usually the point of this kind of heavy metal: to have fun, share that joy with others and ignore those who don’t like it.
Bio: Dawn Hazle is a part-time Master of Arts (by research) student in Russian & Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Russian heavy and power metal, Tolkienism and the convergence of myth and reality. Her current study is investigating the influences on Aria’s first album, Maniia Velichiia, in the contemporary late Soviet climate. You can find her on Twitter at @keletkezes, and find out more about her interests on her blog.
Full Image Attributions
Image 1 & 2: created and provided courtesy of Dawn Hazle