Keyboardist and composer Gennady ILYIN is the founder and mastermind of Little Tragedies, one of Russia’s most important progressive rock bands. “The Sun of the Spirit”, originally recorded in 1998, was released in 2000 as Little Tragedies’ second album. In 2009 MALS Records re-released it and its predecessor, “Porcelain Pavilion”, as Gennady Ilyin’s solo projects. Like most of Little Tragedies’ albums, “The Sun of the Spirit” is based on the lyrics of early 20th-century poet Nikolai Gumilev.
1. Parrot 6:16
2. Witch 7:54
3. I Saw a Dream 5:06
4. Reader of Books 8:43
5. Thoughts 6:29
6. Marquis de Karabas 3:49
7. Post Officer 3:53
8. The Sun of the Spirit 3:51
9. Christmas 3:59 (b/t)
Gennady Ilyin – keyboards; vocals
Igor Mikhel – guitars
Fans of Ilyin's band Little Tragedies will most certainly recognize this production, as this album was issued under the band's moniker rather than as a solo venture first time around. So although recorded 11 years ago and issued the first time 9 years ago, 2009 is the first time that Ilyin's debut solo effort has been issued under his own name. What we're served on this production is a pretty diverse offering of symphonic music: quite a few of the nine creations presented belonging to that particular dimension of the art rock universe, but not all of them. The opening three compositions in particular could hardly be described as rock within any definition of the genre, exploring musical territories somewhere in between classical symphonic and symphonic electronic in style. On these three efforts the keyboards do a good job in providing classical symphonic textures and the tracks end up as pretty captivating numbers overall, as individual as well as combined descriptors. These are creations that I hope some day will be performed by a symphony orchestra, where Witch in particular is an effective track with its at times frantic pace and bombastic tendencies. The following track, Reader of Books, seems to explore similar territories at first, until a sudden break 3 minutes in adds techno-inspired rhythms to this effort; a surprising turn of events that actually comes across as successful for this release. With Thoughts the album moves on to art rock territories - the song in question a grandiose creation I presume has been inspired by ‘70s greats Emerson, Lake & Palmer – especially since Ilyin apparently is a major fan of Keith Emerson, but also because the song in question combines explosive keyboards with energetic guitars and rhythms in a manner many followers of ELP would find familiar. For the following two efforts classical symphonic elements are combined with folk music tendencies for a lighter, joyful musical expression where the first of those, Marquis De Karabas, stands out as a really intriguing effort of the kind you'd listen to on a gray day to get in a better mood, and hot on the heels of those two excursions comes the title track, a gentle atmospheric venture more in the vein of what is generally spoken of as Neo-Progressive rock. Album closer Christmas, a bonus track that did not appear on the first pressing of the disc, represents yet another aspect of Ilyin's work: This time a gentle piano effort that evolves into a majestic, multiple layered effort that wouldn't have been out of place on a ‘70s album by a pomp rock outfit exploring the symphonic subset of the genre. This is a diverse album, obviously dominated by the keyboards of Ilyin, and as such it is a fine effort. One aspect of this production that may be off-putting is Ilyin's vocals which are a blend of spoken voice and song that is pretty unique and with Russian lyrics as well. The end result is vocals that some will have a hard time appreciating.
The main weakness of this effort is a distinct lack of original elements. Despite the diversity at hand this venture covers musical territories pretty extensively covered back in the ‘70s. As long as you aren't underwhelmed by Ilyin's vocals this disc is an interesting one. Well made and well performed, this is a strong effort that should find an audience among those who enjoy symphonic art rock.
Listening to “The Sun of the Spirit” is a weird experience in many respects. In fact, some of the tracks, especially the ones placed at the beginning, have very little (if anything at all) to do with rock music, and clearly show Gennady Ilyin’s classical roots. As one progresses through the album, more and more modern elements begin to make their appearance, as well as occasional references to classic prog outfits. Being basically a one-man effort (the contribution of guitarist Igor Mikhel is not as prominent as one could expect), “The Sun of the Spirit” suffers from all the limitations of the case, the biggest one of which can be summed up in two words: drum programming. Having listened to other, similar albums, I can safely say that the use of such a device (unless in very rare cases) takes away a lot of the natural flow from any composition. It is a pity, because Ilyin is an extremely gifted keyboardist, and his playing is often very enjoyable even for non-musicians. The other major flaw of the album, as is the case with all Little Tragedies’ albums, is the vocals. In all fairness, it should be said that Ilyin’s singing has somewhat improved over the years – however, on “The Sun of the Spirit” (recorded over ten years ago) it is so weak that often ends up marring the occasional beauty of the musical passages. His voice, which can be best described as breathy, is certainly not the best vehicle for poetry (or anything else for that matter). Unfortunately, he is only one in a long line of gifted multi-instrumentalists who seem to be unable to come to terms with the fact that singing is not one of their talents. Another problem is the frequent patchiness of the compositions, with the heavily percussive Reader of Books being the main culprit – a track that tries to reconcile symphonic music with techno-flavoured rhythms, with lashing of synthesisers thrown in for good measure. Thoughts, on the other hand, is a delight for lovers of ELP-style keyboards (the Hammond organ in particular), and at times the similarity with the best output of the seminal British trio is uncanny. However, the appearance of an unpleasantly whistling synth in the second half, as well as a slightly out-of-place guitar solo with a somewhat odd sound, does the track no favours. On a more positive note, the first two tracks are possibly the highpoints of the album, and, as I stated in the opening paragraph, much closer to ‘pure’ classical music than the rest. Though Parrot would have benefited by the absence of vocals, the instrumental passages are very interesting, especially the slow, majestic keyboard opening in contrast with the livelier, circus-like mood of the second half. Witch, my favourite track on the album, reprises the circus/carnival theme with some moments that bring to mind Igor Stravinsky’s similarly-themed ballet, “Petrushka”. The most distinctive feature of this lengthy track (at almost 9 minutes, the longest on the album) is the use of harpsichord, with its percussion-like, metallic sound that lends itself both to gentler and more frantic passages. This is an almost purely classical piece, with only a brief synth snippet suggesting modernity. I Saw a Dream has a subdued, mournful mood and stately pace that reflect the somewhat macabre nature of the lyrics. On the other hand, Marquis de Karabas (based on Perrault’s well-known tale of “Puss-in-Boots”) is a light-hearted, feel-good tune, as is the waltzy Post Officer. “The Sun of the Spirit” is a rather eclectic effort, which would have benefited from a bit more consistency at the compositional level. Personally, I think Ilyin should have pursued the ‘modern classical’ approach of the first two tracks (as well as dispensing with vocals altogether), which would have earned the album a considerably higher rating.
“The Sun of the Spirit” will definitely appeal to those who like Little Tragedies’ particular brand of stately, classically-influenced prog – and, of course, to lovers of keyboard-based music. Those looking for minimalism in their music of choice should instead stay away, though this album is not as excessive as others in a similar vein.