Walk down the main thoroughfare of Saint Petersburg—Nevskiy Prospekt, the street beloved and loathed by Pushkin and Dostoevsky—and you are constantly accosted by reminders of the past. Not the least of which are the ubiquitous placards on pockmarked masonry and public statuary informing passers-by that these were among the civic treasures maimed by the four million or so shells lobbed into the city by the Nazis in a 900-day siege that cost between half a million and a million Leningraders their lives. Peter the Great is interred nearby, as are Catherine the Great and what remains of the murdered family of Czar Nikolai II. The composers Glinka, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky died here and were buried in the graveyard on the Aleksander Nevskiy Monastery, the latter after either recklessly or suicidally drinking unboiled water at the height of a cholera outbreak.
The point of all this? When the last icy crusts of the Cold War were melting away in the late 1980s, Americans celebrated the appearance of a Soviet musical export clearly made in our image: the metal band Gorky Park. Though not from St. Petersburg (as the name would confirm), Gorky Park gave many their first taste of contemporary Russian rock, and even back then I remember thinking Who gives a rat’s ass? Not that I ever expected any young Russians to walk around preoccupied with—much less feeling responsible for—the burden of history, but if I’m going to listen to a Russian band—especially one from Saint Petersburg—it had better be something that I feel distills the raw essence as best it can, and not just a reflection of American mass metal with dark Russian L’s and facile references to themes from Russian symphonic music.
Something that wails and whimpers, cries out in existential agony and coos “lyooblyoo, lyooblyoo” like a lover with 300 years of baggage, musty and grand as one of the cavernous subway stations lined in red glass mosaic, sharp and earthy as the tang of sweat in a line at the Hermitage. Macabre as the collection of deformed infants floating in formaldehyde at the Kunstkamera, sobering as a shrapnel-torn statue, giddy and intoxicating as a Petersburg white night.
This is a lot to ask of any band and, as you can surely imagine, there aren’t that many Russian acts well-known in the United States to choose from. But Auktyon is one band that, it can safely be said, offer exactly the converse of what Peter the Great built Saint Petersburg to be. Brooding, melancholic and constantly surprising, Auktyon are as close as you can probably get from here to a window on Saint Petersburg’s restless soul.
Auktyon perform this Monday at the Wilma Theatre, 7:30 PM. Tickets are $10, available at the door, all TIC-IT-EZ outlets and by calling 1-888-MONTANA.