Russian prog duo STARSOUP has a simple mission statement: "to invite different cool musicians and make some good music". For Alexey Markov and Andrew Gryaznov's purposes, this means pushing their less-than-simplistic creations into concrete, if sometimes slow-cooked DREAM THEATER vehicles with an entire horde of guest performers to help them along the way.
Credited as one of STARSOUP's guest performers, Alexander Vetkhov fields the drums on the album, with other external support coming in the way of supplemental guitars, bass, choral and backing vocals plus flute and saxophone. This may ring as communal spirit on Markov and Gryaznov's parts, but many of their songs would be decidedly naked without these contributions, naked only being good in certain cases. By instinct, they must know this, since "Bazaar of Wonders" as a whole becomes more duteous than progressive.
The opening number "Angels" is the best-conceived and most detailed number on the album. While the rest of "Bazaar of Wonders" is filled with exceptional talent, nothing quite stands up to the potency and the swinging cruxes of "Angels". The loudness comes incrementally after this song, which is not to say there's anything wrong with the shift toward mostly easygoing numbers. STARSOUP's softies are often beautiful ("Rain in the Desert" being the most attractive number); that's hardly worthy of a red flag. Yet "Bazaar of Wonders" loses the elasticity offered by "Angels" as Alexey Markov and Andrew Gryaznov tend to execute more than they play on some of their tunes, exposing a glaring quirk to STARSOUP's otherwise sharp musical acumen.
Markov and Gryaznov slap out a jiving power number on "Ain't No Superman" that's a hair too tight, but a fun joint nonetheless. Alexey Markov tends to let his singing gruff down into James Hetfield territory (as he does often on this album, least appealingly amidst the agro crunch of "Perfect Loser") as "Ain't No Superman" chucks along confidently. From there, the delicate and sweet "Try" turns the album on a dime, and "Bazaar of Wonders" never really recaptures the same urgency as the first two songs. "Try" is written well, at least, while the equally subdued "Cradle of War" is affective in its somber lyrical content, though it tries a bit too hard to merge its primary parts of drum, bass, piano and saxophone as prelude to the heavier sections of the seven minute song.
Again Markov finds himself dipping into Hetfield territory at times as "Cradle of War" reaches for a climax by letting the guitars creep in and assume control. Thematically, "Cradle of War" is a winner, but everything is too snug and compact to inject the intended emotion of tragedy and loss. The transitions between key and guitar solos are far too clean, accordingly. "Cradle of War" could benefit from loosening up to let its parts breathe and shout, since Markov and Gryaznov have good ideas cooking on this song, especially by reprising it later on the elegant and powerful "Voices of the Wind".
The mostly acoustic-driven "Rumors of Better Life" is one of the most agreeable ballads on the album and the song flows nicely with supplemental flutes by Oleg Mishin. As tough as the proto rocking "Past Bites" tries to be coming out of "Rumors of Better Life", again the issue is a constrictive rigidity, so much the guitar lines sound meticulous instead of dexterous. More attention to groove instead of precision is what's called for here. After that, "The City and the Stars" glides along with more Hetfield impersonations that sound a bit out of place for the song's mild touches. The subtle strings that conclude "The City and the Stars" loft into the heavier, progressive instrumental (instrumental outside of a brief choral section) "Bazaar", one of the album's more fulfilling compositions.
As Markov and Gryaznov are unquestionably gifted artists, "Bazaar of Wonders" has its charms. The collaborative efforts of their numerous guests elevates this album beyond the limited capacities found on many one or two man prog operations that have cropped up in recent years. This trend of trying to maximize prog projects with a minimal core of musical minds is alarming somewhat. The best prog units are those encapsulated by a full arsenal of players who understand that a summation of parts and fills are what substantiates the form. STARSOUP are far better than many of their peers, but with keyboards that frequently pierce in isolation overtop many of the songs' main drives, it's telling that these guys might want to rethink their future devices by bolstering their ranks with more permanency.