"Hi, we're Pikapika Teart, the band from the heart of Siberia (it's in Russia)," the members of this self-described "chamber postmodern orchestra" cheerily announce in the liner notes to their debut album, Moonberry, released by the Italian AltrOck label in the waning days of 2010. "You don't know us yet," they continue, before enumerating their own musical favorites: "We do really love music of such group [sic] as Volapuk, Henry Cow, Fred Frith, Aranis, King Crimson and some Russian academic composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schnittke." And not only are they enthusiastic about the aforementioned, throughout Moonberry they also arguably stand shoulder to shoulder with these acclaimed antecedents, at least the ones from the "rock" world. Like various other AltrOck groups, Pikapika Teart -- featuring guitarists Roman Nikitin and Pavel Bushuev, bassist Maxim Bulatov, drummer/percussionist Evgeniy Kryazhev, clarinetist Sergey Amelkov, pianist Marina Bulatova, and vocalist Marusya Kozheurova, along with violinist Nastya Shapovalova and violist Olga Ziborova (the latter two apparently guest musicians who nevertheless make substantial contributions) -- fit well into the label's Rock in Opposition aesthetic. They invite particular comparison to Rational Diet from Belarus, with complex and thorough scoring and intricate arrangements that wind through myriad changes informed by classical chamber music, but with rock's rhythmic drive. Likening the band to Rational Diet might suggest a certain severity, but while these Russians obviously take their music seriously, there is also a lightness of spirit here (not what a lot of Westerners imagine when they think of Siberia).
The lighter side of RIO is apparent from the start, as leadoff track "Slavyanskaya 1" begins with what sounds like the rhythmic jangling of sleigh bells leading into an initially delicate dance with guitars and violin stating a somewhat folkish theme, while bass and clarinet provide counterpoint embellishments before the track explodes into an angular fusion with the bandmembers joining in jagged unison lines. As the album progresses, a Fripp-ish guitar chord burst may interrupt the proceedings -- as in "Endless Chant of the Sliding Bridge in the Declining Day Twilight" -- and send the band off in a new direction, but there is usually a strong sense of forward flow, thanks to the tight rhythm section and guitar playing that recalls Fred Frith's early solo work, Quebec's musique actuelle-associated Conventum from the 1970s or 21st century antecedents Rouge Ciel, and even Belgium's Present (without the bad attitude). Bulatov is a particularly noteworthy bassist, nimble and melodic, playing central thematic lines while also holding steady to that all-important pulse (think John Greaves in early Henry Cow). "Project X" is almost funky, "Proeman. Glare of Sunlight" comparatively spacious and dreamy, and "For Glass" is, as its title suggests, an exercise in post-minimalist precision, although not devoid of feeling. Meanwhile, Kozheurova is featured in three brief chantlike a cappella vocal pieces that seemingly reflect the region's folk music links to orthodox liturgy. The unexpected harmonic twists of "Moonberry"'s frantic conclusion (recalling the end of Von Zamla's "Antsong" from Sweden over a quarter-century earlier) are an ear-bending pleasure, but most surprising is the appearance of something -- what, exactly? -- that sounds like a Chinese erhu melded with Mike Ratledge's fuzz organ from Soft Machine's classic era during the concluding "Slavyanskaya Prazdnichnaya." Pikapika Teart have demonstrated that snowy Siberia can be a hotbed of musical creativity indeed. ~ Dave Lynch