LITTLE TRAGEDIES is a Russian band that was formed in 1994 and is first and foremost the creative vehicle of composer and keyboardist Gennady Ilyin. Somewhat unusual for this act is that Ilyin himself is based in Germany and travels back to Russia to record albums with his bandmates. “The Cross”, originally recorded in August 2007, though released one year later, is their ninth studio album, with lyrics by early 20th century poet Nikolai Gumilev.
1. The Cross 8:34
2. Autumn 4:57
3. Lakes 4:13
4. Behind the Walls of the Old Abbey 7:32
5. The Portrait of the Man 3:46
6. Tanets 4:28
7. The God Abandoned 19:10
8. Eagle 6:42
9. Hippopotamus 2:48
Gennady Ilyin – vocals; keyboards
Alexander Malakhovsky – guitar
Yuri Skripkin – drums
Oleg Babynin – bass guitar; vocals
Aleksey Bildin – saxophone, clarinet
Little Tragedies has made a name for itself as an act specializing in symphonic art rock, with musical references to the 70's in general and Emerson, Lake & Palmer in particular. Over the years they have made a number of albums highly regarded by fans of this particular stylistic expression, and it's safe to say that those who have enjoyed their previous excursions should find this latest venture of this act to be of interest as well. Keyboards of various kinds are the central elements in all compositions here: from soft and gentle efforts with an almost ambient tinge to them to multi-layered, richly textured and majestic movements. The Hammond is ever present throughout all explorations and gentle, floating synth patterns are another mainstay on this production. In addition, most segments feature one or more additional themes provided by the keys - in fact all main and secondary melodies come courtesy of various forms of tangents and some minor and major details to boot. A distinct and often jazz-tinged bass underscores and carefully provided percussion and drums provide momentum and drive. The guitars have more of a secondary role here, but gentle wandering acoustic guitars do provide some nice details in the gentler passages while drawn out heavy riffs are essential in the formation of the more bombastic passages found. And a common feature here – as in many other productions exploring the symphonic art rock universe – is melodic guitar soloing harmonizing with one or more keyboard themes. The most distinct element of the sound pursued by Little Tragedies, and the one element that apparently makes people love or leave the band, are the vocals of Gennady Ilyin. He's got a pretty unique talk-like form of singing, and as with past productions the vocals are in Russian. Personally I find his style intriguing and when combined with the elements mentioned above in well performed and planned ventures I find the end result to be pretty captivating. The listener is served distinct evolving themes, a good natural flow and development of the compositions and careful utilization of effects such as abrupt changes and subtle dissonances. From the majestic, energetic opening track The Cross and the following gentle excursion Autumn to the bombastic endeavors of the almost 20-minute-long The God Abandoned we're served treat after treat of high quality symphonic progressive rock. Not highly original in any measure of the word, but well made and avoiding most of the major cliches of the genre too, which is something of an achievement in itself for this stylistic expression.
The music presented on this album isn't original as such and probably won't satisfy the needs of those with a need for challenging and boundary-breaking creations. However, if you have a special affection for symphonic art rock, "Cross" is an album well worth investigating, especially if you are familiar with and enjoy the previous ventures by Little Tragedies.
I would be lying if I said that the music played by LITTLE TRAGEDIES is my favourite brand of prog. My first approach to the band was through their second album, “Return”, and I distinctly remember having trouble getting to the end of it. On the other hand, though my first impression of “The Cross” was rather similar, adopting the technique of ‘intensive listening’ prior to tackling the present review helped me to see the album in a different light. As Little Tragedies’ founder and mainman, Gennady Ilyin, is a classically-trained, highly skilled keyboardist and composer, it will not come as a surprise that the band’s music is nothing short of impeccable on a technical level. However, unlike other bands (especially of the progressive metal persuasion), Little Tragedies avoid ultimately pointless, pyrotechnic displays of technical prowess, and concentrate on producing music with a nice, pleasant flow, and some occasionally beautiful moments. Besides the obvious influences from the classic prog acts of the Seventies, there is a lot in Little Tragedies’ music that can remind the listener of the great Russian composers of the 19th and early 20th century. Their sound has a definitely epic sweep, eschewing nevertheless the dreaded ‘cheese’ factor plaguing the output of so many other bands. Basing their album on authentic poetry rather than some half-baked concept is definitely a bonus point, and kudos are due to their label MALS for including English translations of the texts in the CD booklet (they are also available on the band’s website). With the sole exception of the lively Tanets, influenced by Russian folk music (in my opinion, one of the album’s highlights), all the tracks on The Cross have vocals – and, unfortunately, here is the rub. Gennady Ilyin delivers Gumilev’s verses in a style closer to reading aloud than actual singing, and his voice – while not intrinsically bad – is a tad too weak for this peculiar style, which would call instead for a commanding, dramatic voice (Jumbo’s Alvaro Fella comes to mind here). The poetry itself, while undoubtedly an acquired taste, has the vividly descriptive, almost visionary quality typical of the Symbolist movement, coupled with a strong religious (though not preachy) flavour, and Gumilev’s fascination with the exotic – particularly evident in album closer Hippo. Musically speaking, “The Cross” is an orgy of keyboards – synthesisers, Hammond organ, pianos, even harpsichord. The structure of the individual songs, however, is not as head-spinningly complex than in the output of many jazz-rock or progressive metal bands. The other instruments are used as a complement to Ilyin’s masterful flights of keyboard fancy, and are rarely to be heard on their own. Little Tragedies’ sound on this album is pure symphonic prog, almost devoid of contaminations with harder-edged rock (as proved by the decidedly secondary role played by the guitar) – with one notable exception, the powerful double-bass drumming that often underpins the lengthy keyboard passages. The occasional, tasteful use of woodwind instruments adds interest to some of the tracks, such as the stately, vaguely spacey Portrait of a Man. The album’s centrepiece, and the most complex composition by far, is the 19-minute The Voice of Silence, a mostly instrumental track alternating fast-paced sections with slower, majestic ones, lyrical and bombastic in turn. Yuri Skripkin’s precise, high-energy drumming lends further intensity to the more dramatic keyboard passages. Behind the Walls of the Old Abbey, bookended by a medieval-flavoured harpsichord section, develops into an aggressive, no-holds-barred synth-fest much in the style of ELP’s “Toccata”; while the opening of Lakes cannot help bringing Genesis (circa “Selling England by the Pound”) to mind. An ambitious, highly polished effort, “The Cross” is an excellent example of ‘retro-prog’ – not innovative by any means, but much less derivative than one could think. It does, however, need repeated listens in order to be fully appreciated.
Fans of classic symphonic prog, especially the likes of ELP, with their heavy emphasis on keyboards, will not fail to be impressed by this album. However, the foreign-language lyrics, as well as Gennady Ilyin’s vocal delivery, might put off listeners who might otherwise find “The Cross” appealing. Needless to say, those who like their prog to be actually ‘progressive’ can safely give this one a miss.