Lesser-Known Gem: Эпос – Илья (Epos – Ilya)


Band: Эпос (Epos) | Album: Рок-Былина Илья (Rok-Bylina Ilya) | Year: 1989 | Genre: Progressive rock, Progressive folk

From: Leningrad, USSR (now Saint Petersburg, Russia) | Label: Мелодия (Melodiya)

For fans of: Magma, Batushka, Sigur Rós

I have an inexplicable affinity for Eastern Bloc progressive rock. I suppose it extends to music from oppressive regimes more generally, but Communist Europe had a rather thriving artistic scene (outside of Albania). Epos was among the most distinct groups to come out of the Soviet Union, a bizarre blend of cosmic synthesizers, earthy strings, and haunting vocal arrangements. That being said, there is almost no information available about the band. The musicians’ names are listed on the back of the record sleeve, but the (English-language) internet holds very little background about the group. Even looking through the first two pages of Russian-language Google results didn’t yield anything at the time of writing.

This album tells the story of Ilya Muromets, a folk hero of the Kievan Rus. It bills itself as a “rock-bylina” (a bylina being traditional East Slavic style of epic poetry), and this album is one of relatively few that actually feels uniquely Slavic.

Starting with an ethereal synth drone and haunting female vocals, this piece makes an immediate impression. The opening “Izdolishche” (“The Outlook”) maintains an expansive atmosphere that manages to feel close and oppressive through nervous violins and off-kilter bass and drum runs. At about the halfway point in this song, the rock structures dissolve into somber vocals over violin and cello before closing out with its previous tense atmosphere.

“Vladimir – knyaz” (“Vladimir the Prince”), the second track here, dives deeper into Russian folk traditions. It does not take long for this song to move away from the relatively accessible rock structures of the opening track and into an extended stretch of a cappella harmonies of alternating male and female vocals. The ensemble’s vocal tracks weave together in a way that is rarely heard in modern Western music, evoking Orthodox chants. Nearly the entire eight-minute runtime passes without instrumentation.

Where the preceding song ended calmly, the third track, the titular “Ilya Muromets” opens with a bang of strings and drums. It’s on this song where the competing threads of Russian folk and progressive rock really begin to weave together. The complex vocal arrangements once more take the lead, underpinned in equal parts by synthesizers and violins. Tension builds and resolves a few times over this song in alternating slow and fast moments

This album’s closer, “Bitva” (“The Battle”), is its real highlight. This album’s brief runtime has been building toward this point. Previously-addressed music themes are revisited and reinterpreted, and this is where rock influences are most obvious. Orthodox chants are underpinned with skittering drums and droning synthesizers. The whole affair ends on a relatively gentle moment, with the keys laying a broad groundwork for the vocals to float over.

This is possibly the most uniquely-Russian sounding rock album I’ve heard, and it’s a pity it isn’t more widely-known. I love when an act can really imbue experimental rock music with a unique national flavor, instead of just playing Anglo-prog with non-English lyrics. Unfortunately, as far as I can find, though, the only way legitimately to acquire this album is to buy a physical copy from a collector on a site like Discogs, which is unfortunate. Three of the four tracks (Tracks 1, 3, and 4) are available on YouTube, at least. Should anyone know of a place to stream this album in its entirety, let me know, and I’ll edit this post to include a link.

Score: 92/100

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