With their origins in the chilly Russian climes of Saint Petersburg, The Grand Astoria are bound to bring something unique to their take on stoner rock, and sure enough, with their appropriately-titled second offering, II (R.A.I.G.), they do just that, eschewing a fuzzy sound for a harsher, noisier distorted jamming that occasionally goes full-cosmic. While some of the material on last year’s self-released self-titled effort seemed punkish, II comes from a less hurried place and shows The Grand Astoria as unafraid to experiment within their sound, adding samples or feedback to the mostly instrumental material as a way of engaging their audience.
Immediately noticeable about II is the way it’s organized. In terms of track length, the five songs that comprise the album would make a ‘U’ were you to graph them. Opener “Enjoy the View” reaches furthest at 14:50, then the cumbersomely-named “The Inner Galactic Experience of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath” (Plath was referenced on the self-titled as well) clocks in at 7:40. “Visit Sri Lanka” gives a Siena Root-esque moment of Subcontinental Asian influence at 2:44, then it’s back to the longer material with “Wikipedia Surfer” at 9:02 and closer “Radio Friendly Fire” at 12:18. What was behind The Grand Astoria arranging the tracks this way I don’t know, but II does have a rich and smooth flow to it and “Visit Sri Lanka” breaks up the surrounding tracks in a way as to make the second half of the album as refreshing as the first, so no complaints.
The double-guitar four-piece are, as I alluded, mostly instrumental, but six-stringer Kamille Sharapodinov adds vocals to the riff-based groove of “The Inner Galactic Experience of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath,” his voice being rough but well-situated in the mix behind the guitar. Farid Azizov’s bass does well to thicken the tracks, and he adds no shortage of enjoyable fills, but Sharapodinov and Igor Suvorov’s lead the way. Their tone is atypical for stoner rock, and more in line with a ‘90s sound than the typical post-Kyuss fuzz you might expect or the psychedelic warmth of a band like Colour Haze, but it works for The Grand Astoria. Even as a sample from mission control does the talking in “Enjoy the View,” Suvorov and Sharapodinov are able to evoke a pastoral sound with their weapons of choice, drummer Nick Kunavin landing heavy on the snare to add to the song’s gradual build.
A lengthy lead line runs throughout “Wikipedia Surfer,” in place one assumes of the vocals that otherwise might be there, but the track transitions from a peaceful kind of laid back groove to more crunching and aggressive without batting an eye, so it’s clear the effort The Grand Astoria have put into the songwriting and matching one part to the next. The harsh, abrasive feedback they inject into the closer makes it anything but radio friendly (as though a 12-minute song might otherwise be), but it does certainly grab your attention late in the record and keep it. As “Radio Friendly Fire” moves past the nine-minute mark, Suvorov and Sharapodinov’s guitars take on a more familiar tone for the next couple minutes, the song gradually devolves into noise and more from mission control to end the album.
The Grand Astoria cover a good bit of ground in just these five tracks, touching stylistically on stoner rock conventions without succumbing completely to them. Sharapodinov balances his vocals well against the instrumental side of the band, and one finds that each of the songs on II has something different to offer from its companions, but that the album works as a whole as well. I would argue that the dryer aspects of the mix and the tones present therein keep II from being a full-on psychedelic listening experience (those things usually come saturated in reverb), but there’s no denying The Grand Astoria are well in orbit on their second album. It’s a trip beyond the atmosphere that’s well worth taking.
Tags: R.A.I.G., Russia, Saint Petersburg, The Grand Astoria