Rowdy party music with a cynical edge, these Russian rockers hide a nihilistic message within their upbeat tunes
Russian ska punk rockers Leningrad certainly know how to make some noise. The album title translates to minced meat, and even before you’ve listened to the music, that should give you an idea of what Leningrad are about. Formed in 1997, and aside from a short hiatus from 2008 to 2010, Leningrad have been a thorn in the side of polite society and the Russian establishment. So detested were they by former mayor of Moscow and Vladimir Putin ally Yury Luzhkov, he banned them from playing shows in large venues, meaning they could only play in privately owned pubs, bars, and clubs. It is easy to understand why authorities would hate a band such as this. Though the band have described themselves as a band that sings about ‘vodka and girls’, they are also unafraid to veer into bad taste. They also speak openly and freely about issues that face ordinary people, they write songs that harshly criticise the political class and cultural clichés of Russia, as well as using Russian ‘mat’, a kind of vulgar form of speech that Roskomnadzor, the Russian state body for media standards and compliance, regards as completely unacceptable for broadcast in mass media. Founding member of the band Sergey Shnurov, known as Shnur, has wryly commented that “the most accurate description of Russian life is impossible without a mat. And the officials are in favour of the inaccuracy of the description of Russian life.”
“If ever there was an ethos to a band such as this, it is that. Celebrating, making music, dancing, revelling in earthly delights in spite of what is to come, not because of it.”
While listening to Minced Meat, I of course was not aware of the sort of topics that Shnur and the band sing about, but their aggression, energy, and lust for life is communicated through the music. However, there is a subtlety that was lost on me while listening, and according to Shnur, it’s lost on many Russians as well. Shnur identifies a deeply pessimistic strain to their lyrics as well, stating that many of their songs are about the end of the world. “We literally scream about it in every line, but no one hears us!” This irony seems to be particularly Russian, as pointed out by Shnur in an interview, where he states that “we process this energy of endless Russian self-criticism with a plus sign… this is when a mushroom cloud unfolds in front of you, and you are not afraid”. If ever there was an ethos to a band such as this, it is that. Celebrating, making music, dancing, revelling in earthly delights in spite of what is to come, not because of it. Once you know this, the harsh vocals, brash brass riffs, and rugged guitar and bass accompaniment all seem somewhat nihilistic, though you do feel the urge to open up several cans of lager and join in the fun. Particular highlights include the first two tracks which convey the boisterous carnival atmosphere very well, and the third track is a slightly gentler track, featuring softer vocals from Yulia Kogan, as well as a melodic guitar solo which is a nice change from the aggression that came before. The final track is also a departure from their style, featuring a more modern pop beat with techno influences, but keeps their essence as a party band.
Their style definitely is not for everyone (as Mr Luzkhov can attest!) but certainly I liked it a lot, and if you decide to listen you’ll know if it’s for you within a few seconds. Even when it was to me just raucous party music without any appreciation of the themes behind their music I really enjoyed it. It’s a very even album, with all of the songs being extremely entertaining. Now that I have a greater understanding of what they are about, I have even more respect for their provocative stance in a society where such provocations can be dangerous. That’s the real spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and punk. Their current situation seems to be up in the air. Having announced their farewell tour in 2019, they announced in 2020 that they were due to be the first Russian-language band to play at Coachella, however, due to the pandemic, the performances in 2020 and now 2021 have been cancelled. I do hope they will get their chance to reform and to play again together as a band, though who knows what the future holds. Whatever does happen, this album is a perfect way to get to know one of Russia’s most provocative bands.