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Culture Reviews
By Martin Richardson
Stagecraft is one of the great mysteries of music. How is it that some acts, apparently by force of personality alone, attempt to belie the limitations of their material by hiding it under layers of performance trickery while others offer next to no acknowledgement of an audience but still put on a good show? Long ago, goth godfather Andrew Eldritch talked of his early exploits with the Sisters of Mercy, admitting that much of it might not even have sounded like songs, but combined with the onstage smoke and mirrors they created a space "in which you could lose yourself, or more probably find yourself". Nobody, therefore, could accuse Eldritch of being anything less than pretentious.

But his words came to mind in the somewhat unlikely surroundings of a new restaurant-brewery on Novy Arbat when Russia's veteran electro-rocker Dolphin took to the stage. The venue, the recently opened Maximillians, seems to be working hard to blend two seemingly incompatible ideas - a pseudo Bavarian bierkeller with a playlist of alternative Russian rockers. It seems paradoxical, combining mass-market dining with acts who struggle for airtime in the shiny new world of Russian pop, but good luck to them. For years Novy Arbat has been the garishly-lit home of fading Fabrika Zvezdy no hopers with little to offer beyond long legs and over-produced chart fodder; now there is at last a chance to hear something worthwhile without plunging into the hipster hotspots of Krasny Oktyabr.

Which brings us back to Dolphin. If the moody synthpop of Mujuice is what is currently exciting the Afisha crowd, Dolphin, Andrei Lysikov to his friends, is the sorceror to whom the new kid has been apprenticed. He belongs to that wave of Russian acts which hit its peak around the turn of the millenium - perhaps at the point when the likes of Leningrad, Mumy Troll, Zemfira and the like were at their finest. Now these guys can seem half-forgotten, or trading bravely on past glories as a new generation outshines them. But, on looking at that new generation, it quickly seems that a decade of Putin-inspired stability has changed Russian music - or its audience - radically. Where there was once a mass market for bands trying to be different, the country is now in the depths of a retro revival which sees Stas Mikhailov's crooning rated as the acme of influential celebrity. So-called "Alternative" music gets itself invited to chummy little singalongs with the president (yes, Mr Samoilov, I do mean you), and a generation of listeners looks abroad for something to stimulate its ears.

Or looks to the past. Dolphin might be old news, but he still draws a Friday night crowd large enough to turn an intimately-sized restaurant dancefloor into a scrum which gives the evening most of the disadvantages of an arena gig (hardly anyone can see anything) without the benefits of that larger scale and a big stage to exploit. Which raises the whole stagecraft question. Dolphin prefers not to address his audience, or even make himself particularly visible behind his drum kit as the stage is strafed with strobes or plunged into violet gloom depending on the whim of the lighting crew. Inter-song repartee is replaced with white noise or chugging drumbeats which slowly morph into the next number - so slowly, on occasion, that the band has time to slip off for a quick drink before returning to action. And yet, like those early Sisters gigs, it works. Beneath the unprepossessing exterior lies a heart of synth-rock menace, studded with echoes of Depeche Mode (because no Russian musician growing up in the 80s could escape the DM influence) and carrying forward the darker shades of the electro movement. Fans of The Faint will find much to admire, followers of Front 242 might pick out something worth hearing. And those who like good beer and good music will be back at Maximillians in due course to sample more from a venue where appearances can be deceptive.

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