In the same year that Nasa officially abandons its space shuttle programme it is fitting that five musicians and artists in the UK have decided to create a project to pay tribute to those hardy heroes of a space race that is seemingly no more.
Under the name Vostok 5, the five artists who include Darren Hayman and Paul Rains from Allo Darlin’, have created a range of artwork, an exhibition as well as this fine nine track CD, looking at the often heartbreaking tales of the animals and human heroes of the space race.
For Robert Rotifer the setting of his two tracks is Star City, the strange elite cosmonaut city on the outskirts of Moscow, through the eyes of Austrian Clemens Lothaller, a substitute cosmonaut who stayed behind in the 1990s while his friend Franz Viehbock jetted into space and became a hero.
Opener ‘Star City’ focuses on Lothaller stuck in the surburban safety of Star City, dreaming of what could have been. There is a happy ending though, as Lothaller is now a bass playing neurosurgeon (yes, seriously).
On his second track ‘The Cosmonaut Who Never Flew’ Rotifer looks at Lothaller’s imagined darker days; bitter, drunk and very much earth bound in the vodka bars of Star City.
Both Rotifer’s tracks bring space travel right down to earth through the far more terrestrial themes of friendship and ambition and are all the better for it. There’s also a deliberate hint of Ziggy Stardust era David Bowie on his vocals, giving the tracks a nice cosmic touch.
The beautifully sad names of the dogs that were catapulted into space, strapped to wires and surrounded by darkness, provide Hayman with his inspiration.
Both his tracks use different styles to give the listener a genuine sense of the fear and confusion these dogs must have felt.
On ‘A Breeze and a Little Piece of Coal’ (the English translation for space dogs Veterok and Ugolyok who hold the dog record for space endurance at 22 days) Hayman has raided his vintage keyboard collection to surround these canine cosmonauts with the bleeps and electro belchs that became their master’s voice for so long.
While effective, it is his second track ‘A Little Arrow and a Little Squirrel’ where Hayman really nails the emotion of dogs tumbling through space. Combining the same country twang from his 2010 album Essex Arms with painfully sad lyrics we learn of the two space dogs of the title (whose Russian names are Belka and Strelka) who became the first to return to earth alive.
Lines such as “In a cage made of metal and glass, two beating hearts, beating too fast,” are among the best of Hayman’s career.
For Rains and Fever Dream, whose bassist Sarah Lippett is another of the Vostok 5, the focus is firmly on heroism.
Fever Dream’s track Poyekhali! (The Russian for ‘Let’s go!’ – the words uttered by Yuri Gagarin as he took off to become the first man in space) is bashed out like Joy Division’s Transmission as it tracks Gagarin’s flight. Fever Dream’s brand of rock provides an excellent contrast to the other more melancholy tracks. Not a bad thing. Space exploration is after all exciting.
Rains is a little more thoughtful in portraying herorism. For him it is Gagarin’s friend and fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov who is more of a hero.
When Gagarin died in 1968 when his plane crashed, Leonov had to identify his shattered remains, giving his second track on the album its tragic title ‘Remains in a bowl’.
Rains’ other track ‘Michelin Man’ looks at Leonov’s heroism when he almost died becoming the first man to float in space. As his space suit drastically inflated and he feared for his life his sheer bloody mindedness and bravery meant he survived. This is perhaps the most indie-pop sounding track on the album and one that has prompted me to seek out more Hexicon releases, a band I’d shamefully not heard until now. The French horn on this track is a particular joy.
Tigercat’s Duncan Barrett’s two tracks look at Wernher Von Braun, the former Nazi scientist who built the deadly V2 rocket as well as the Saturn V rocket that took US astronauts to the moon. On ‘Sometimes I Hit London’ the unofficial subtitle of his biopic ‘I Aim At the Stars’, Barrett looks back on his reluctant Nazi days .On ‘Maria’, his love life is the focus. Both effectively bring that human touch to his grand dreams although ‘Sometimes I Hit London’, which features the other Tigercats, is marginally the better of the two.
Across all nine tracks there’s a togetherness even though the five musicians’ have their distinct styles. This gives the CD more of a whole band feel than other compilations. Above all its good to hear some good stories in song, especially when the heroes are such extraordinary space pioneers.
By Joe Lepper
There are just 500 copies of Vostok 5 available. For more information on how to get a copy click here.
We also visited the London exhibition by the Vostok 5 on Saturday 3 September when some of the artists performed these songs. Read our review here.