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Tsar Wars Turns 15!!!

Tsar Wars, Never Forgotten

There are those events in life in which you remember each and every detail; the sunlight coming through the window, the smell of the stale July heat, and the disheveled bed that you hastily threw that package on as you couldn’t wait to rip into. You see, in that packaged contained both the vinyl and CD of The Space Cossacks’ Interstellar Stomp of which I had been wearing out the Real Player samples of on the Space Cossacks', then, cutting edge website. While Interstellar Stomp would be the jewel of most any other package this package also contained the brand new Cossacks album, Tsar Wars. From that album I had heard The Defector, and immediately thought, “This is no Red Sunrise”. This was not the only mistake I was to make as a 16-year-old. This mistake is a common one, playing music outside of the context of which it was intended. You see, Tsar Wars is no mere album. It isn’t an experience, it isn’t even a journey. It is an adventure.

Tsar Wars was released under hurried conditions by MuSick Recordings, with the Cossacks heading to California for a 3-date tour in March of 2000. On March 26th, at the Rendezvous Ballroom Reunion, the first copies of Tsar Wars were sold by the band. The LP, a gorgeous purple marble with silver labels, and the CD, an interactive CD, both contain cover art by Shag and illustrations by Steve Blickenstaff. On that CD, a novella written by Jamie Miles with illustrations by Blickenstaff. The novella, follows the trajectory of the album through a classic story of a man and his car, a classic surf music trope. The difference, is the car is a spaceship and he is relentlessly pursued by an evil alien species and it is up to him to save the day.

One could have an album consisting of number 1 hits, and still have a so-so album. The true power and beauty of the ‘album’ lies in the tracklisting. A perfect album, like Tsar Wars, has a unique feel, tells a story, and causes the world to disappear as you listen to it. Tsar Wars is truly compelling, it’s first track setting the tone of the album. On this track we know something serious is happening as the reversed audio leads to frantic drums and fragile double-picking that resolves to pummeled double-picking only to bring forth a beautiful melody to break the tension before returning to whence it came. As we progress from that perfect opening track the album moves hearts with The Jewel of Duende, creates euphoria with Escape from Gulag 17, and causes us to celebrate with ¡Fiesta Del Cossacapulco!  This is an uncertain time, an era of unease, this is Tsar Wars. It is heavy, it is dark, it is triumphant, this is Tsar Wars.

To the author, Tsar Wars went where no surf music had gone before. Arpeggios, double-stops, reverse audio, acoustic guitar, texture, and dynamics to die for. I never had the Shadows or the Atlantics growing up, but I had the Space Cossacks. This is why I am not alone in celebrating the 15th anniversary of Tsar Wars.

Please keep reading for a modern review by our very own Noel and reviews from circa 2000 as well as an interview with Art B of MuSick Recordings.

And be sure to share your thoughts on the forum threads: LINK TO FORUM THREAD

Tsar Wars by The Space Cossacks LP Review by Noel


Here we are in the year 2000, in the first year of the Twenty-first Century, and the beginning of the new Millennium. Our computerized civilization survived Y2K just fine, and the world is still here. Arthur C. Clark’s famous novel, 2001: a Space Odyssey, is 32 year’s old, and the International Space Station currently under construction pales in comparison to the marvelous wonder portrayed in the film version. Tsar Wars is the brand new album by the The Space Cossacks. Their first release is 1998’s Interstellar Stomp, and it would be an understatement to say Interstellar Stomp caught the unwary by surprise. It’s that fabulous! Expectations are always high for second albums. Can lightning strike twice? Is it as good? Is it better?

First impressions. The cover art by Shag is worthy of the cover of Amazing Stories, perfectly capturing the look and feel of that magazines’ vintage covers. The Kremlin is under attack from space. There’s an illustration by Steve Blickenstaff on the back cover, of Ivan the Martian playing a red Stratocaster, that’s classic surfer art. And the record? It’s grape! The color. It’s grape. I had to ask; it looked purple to me. It’s very cool and I’m totally stoked to give this a spin.

A story of one possible future was revealed to me. What follows is a true account of what I experienced during the time I played Tsar Wars.

Side A -


What’s that light? The light! It’s all around outside, everywhere. It even reaches into the dark spaces and lights them up brighter than day! Then vision, blinded by the suddenness of the light, slowly returns and with it, something else that wasn’t here before. Signs and portents are revealed in the light, if you can read them. Do they foretell the beginning, or the end? The story unfolds in the music. I must listen.

Space Race

This sounds ominous at first. The dark intro moves into an opening verse which creates an impression of danger, of powerful forces, a warning perhaps of something to fear. But the song suddenly transitions to a joyful chorus full of hope and the promise of a better tomorrow. I remember how I felt the first time I heard Telstar? Exactly like that! At first I thought I should choose one of these two paths into the future. But the two themes go back and forth, one of fear and one of hope. I think they are two distinctly different futures coming this way. As we venture out into space, what do we bring home? Then…

The Apes of Wrath

A simple thing like a solitary chime can mean anything. Is it a signal? Of what? Misunderstanding leads to argument. Emotions flare and with them fear, then anger. Conflict rages and takes on a life of its own. Loud voices blanket any quieter thoughts. Only the shouting voices can be heard now, urgently striving onward. But it’s beautiful and glorious, the kind that leads to death, or victory. Tennyson understood, and Kipling. Do I? Meaning within meaning, like a wheel within a wheel, the song spins its story, and on it goes, and I listen, and I see.

Tsunami Tsurprise

This is not what I expected. Change is in the music, but is it in my future, the one unfolding in the songs? The different feeling is palpable as it washes over me. There’s unexpected nostalgia in the surf beat. It creates a longing for the simple past. But we can’t see ahead if we keep looking rearward. From my perspective, carried along by the songs, the future is rushing inexorably toward me. It comes even if I stop, for I’m not really standing still. The future will catch me no matter how hard I try to run away, to stop its coming. But a rest stop is nice, while it lasts.

Escape From Gulag 17

So it was an illusion after all? Where had the previous songs lured me? Am I trapped here permanently? How do I get out, back to reality? The song hurries, driving me along. Maybe if I run as fast as the song, I can outrun the illusion. The song is relentless, and I’m breathless keeping up. But where am I now? The song ends, and with its ending I look up to catch my breath. And what I see takes my breath away all over again.

Sea of Tranquility

I’m here. In space. All is calm at last. I look around, and all is bright. Everywhere. The stars. So many stars. The sky so full of stars. I’m floating in a sea of stars. I look at myself in the starlight. The starlight is so bright I’m transparent. I seem to be motionless. But no, I’m moving. Am I drifting? Am I lost? No. I’m being pulled toward something, something I can’t see, for the starlight is so bright. But the feeling of peace is overwhelming, and I feel no fear.

The Defector

The music cuts suddenly to another part of the story, or is it another, different future? How was I suddenly in Gulag 17, and how did I really escape to find myself in the Sea of Tranquility? Stories within stories, illusions within illusions, or realities within realities? Who is the defector? The defector is running, but is it away from, or to something? Being chased, hard, and then the chase ends, suddenly. Am I the defector? Or something… else?

The Crusher

Run! Just run! As fast as I can! Got to get away from the crusher before it catches up to me. The Crusher is the famous song by The Atlantics. I can’t help it. I have to stop to listen to this amazing performance by The Space Cossacks. And here I am, strapped down tight in the launch chair of another rocket ship. The ten-second countdown ends, and then…

Side B –

Cossack Rocket Patrol

I’m crushed back into my seat by the force of the massive engines that lift me into space from the Russian launch site. The rocket shakes and pounds from the enormous effort necessary to carry it out of the atmosphere. It’s the greatest, most exciting ride on Earth, and out of it. Then suddenly, all is peaceful and quiet. I’m back in space, again. Time to see what’s out there.

The Jewel of Duende

I might translate this title to mean something like the jewel of beauty illuminated by sorrow. What makes something more beautiful is the knowledge of that which is not beautiful. We understand emotions in the context of their opposites. How do we know joy except in comparison to sorrow? The blue note, and the unresolved phrase that creates tension in music, have duende. This beautiful, melancholy song is a jewel of duende. It’s certainly a perfect song for spending the last night in paradise, standing on the beach under palm trees, watching the night sky fall. It’s how I imagine I’d feel in space, face to face with its impossibly beautiful, starry vastness, as I look down at the Earth, our own jewel of duende.


Ready. Set. Go! The universe is out there. As the ship readies to leave to Earth and our solar system, party music plays. Everyone’s full of anticipation and excitement, looking forward to what lies ahead. This is the departure song, and it’s perfect for the occasion. Eminently danceable, joyful and exuberant, you’ll want to party to this song all night long, or until you enter the hyper-sleep chamber.

Beyond the Third Star (with Jim Frias on saxophone)

This ship doesn’t go to Never Land. But it is a journey of the imagination. The only limits to the voyage are set by the listener. This song takes me to the center of our galaxy, where there are so many stars the sky is never fully dark. And where ancient races ply the short interstellar distances much as we drive over to the next town for dinner with friends. Jim’s saxophone is like hyper-fuel in this song, adding a layer of sonic energy that makes time travel possible. Where in outer space do you want to go?

Tsar Wars

Ah, the amazing sound of crashing tube reverb! It can power a time machine. Tsar Wars is like a duel between space fighters, with the music turning on itself and interweaving a wonderful light show of rocket exhaust fire and sound that can even be heard in space, where there is no sound. I know Disney added a new soundtrack to Space Mountain a few years ago, but I humbly suggest Tsar Wars is a far, far better match to that wild ride than the current score. I’m gonna play Tsar Wars in my pocket cassette recorder when I ride it next time!

¡Fiesta del Cossacapulco!

As this musical journey through the outer space of my imagination winds down, I stop off at the wonderful Interstellar Resort, Cossacapulco, for its big fiesta. It’s really just a large space station in geosynchronous orbit over a gas giant, but it’s a duty-free resort, so I made sure to pick up lots of outer-worldly souvenirs for the trip home. Thing is, why would I leave? Maybe they have an opening in one of the music stores? This is easily one of my favorite songs on the entire trip… er, record.


I always thought interstellar travel to be more like sailing than flying. All that’s missing are giant sails to catch the energy waves that course throughout the galaxy. (Hey, it’s my imaginary journey, and Sci-Fi is often based on imaginary science.) Out in space are solar systems with planets that seem like tropical islands. Lush with life, beautiful beyond belief, and close enough to make sailing between them a pleasant breeze. It’s a place to retire, pick up a small cargo ship, and run trade goods and tourists between the planets. Life in paradise. I can hear the ocean from here.

To say Tsar Wars is expertly played is an understatement, and it’s also completely true. Every song is musically complex, fully realized, and each requires the hands of masters to perform. All fifteen of them are wonderful. I mean all these songs engender a sense of wonder in me as I listen to them, and they carry me far away from my daily cares and obligations. Many of the songs are simply breathtaking! If Tsar Wars is any indication, I think the new century is going to be a very exciting time for fans of surf music!

The Space Cossacks are Ivan Pongracic, Jr. on lead and rhythm guitars, Mark English on rhythm guitar, Catherine Gray on bass, and Doug Hoekstra on drums.

Tsar Wars in on MuSick Records and is available wherever surf music is sold.


Phil Dirt,, 2000

This is a stunning release. The writing and musicianship are excellent, and the unique blend of Russian and Spanish influences with surf and space make this a standalone disc. Recommended.

Picks: Exolumina, Space Race, The Apes Of Wrath, Tsunami Tsurprise, Escape From Gulag 17, Sea Of Tranquility, The Defector, The Crusher, Cossack Rocket Patrol, The Jewell Of Duende, Departure, Beyond The Third Star, Tsar Wars, Fiesta Del Cossacapulco, Tradewinds

Track by Track Review

Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

As we fade into dissonance for a moment, we are lulled into anticipation of something much less than this aggressive and very well played track. Melodic and powerful, this is a stellar track with sparkling guitar and rapid picking. Stunningly beautiful and ominous as well, "Exolumina" simply rules.

Space Race
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

"Space Race" is very well done - nice arrangement and solid power. Low-E menacing, melodically interesting, and fluid.

The Apes Of Wrath
Surf (Instrumental)

With the low-E pummeling the title implies (imagine the Apemen angry), "The Apes Of Wrath" bowls you over from the get go... relentless shredding double picked guitar, powerful arranging, and mean. Intensely driven with flair and relentless energy.

Tsunami Tsurprise
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Great title... and likely the most fluid track here. Really good writing, exceptional playing, and rock-solid staying power. Crystalline twang and a fresh sparkling face. The damped high note picking is so cool, and the clever spelling in the name is too much!

Escape From Gulag 17
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Inspired by the Atlantics, "Escape From Gulag 17" is a mighty tasty example of the Aussie surf sound, though of course they are not from down under. Beautiful playing, fine tone, melodic and fluid, this is warm and friendly, and enjoyable.

Sea Of Tranquility
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

As peaceful and moving as the "Sea Of Tranquility," this floats on a bed of delicate sound and wistful playing. Mature writing, and quite pretty.

The Defector
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Surf chunk, a reverb haven for spies on the lamb, and moody eastern block melody riffs. Really nice, and very fluid. "The Defector" gets into the crevasses of your ears, and reverberates throughout the day. Excellent writing and playing.

The Crusher
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

The Atlantics's tune is shredded with more surf and lots of drive. Swimming guitar tone, round and full. The fire of the original is here, and with more reverb, it's got more surfability. The up-glissandos are just too cool.

Cossack Rocket Patrol
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

A rocket launch opens this fine rendering of "Meadowlands." Solidly performed, arranged for surfability, with liquid guitar work and a great rhythm section. Very fine track.

The Jewell Of Duende
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

This sultry piece floats gently across an evening interlude. Very pretty, quite restrained, and enjoyable.

Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

With the polish of a fifties MOR guitar classic, the Space Cossacks play through this almost too well written number with extra smoothness and finesse. Perfection may be an illusion, but the accuracy here certainly approached the unthinkable range.

Beyond The Third Star
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Based on / inspired by "Third Star To The Left," "Beyond The Third Star" has all of the solid thunder and experimental charm of the Nocturnes' tune, but with a new melody line and power drive. Guest on sax here is Jim Frias (Nocturnes). Powerful, stunning, and magnificent. It cross fades through space-fi sfx right into "Tsar Wars."

Tsar Wars
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Surf and Russian battlefield epic melody lines, and huge powerful attack. The ringing nature of the tone and the great double picking, combined with the effects and very well thought out arranging make this shine. An excellent break and bridge.

Fiesta Del Cossacapulco
Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

Now there's a name for you! "Fiesta Del Cossacapulco" sports a fine blend of vodka and tequila, a party down Baja way with Cossack dancers. An amazing amalgam of cultures and styles. Exceptional playing on the guitar, and a very solid backup.

Russian Space Surf (Instrumental)

As the surf gently laps the shore, the ringing notes take you to faraway places where there is no time, just palms and island ladies. It's breezy like the trade winds. Very beautiful.

Now that the trend of surf guitar punk has been dead for about five years, only the bands who were truly inspired by guitar legends like Link Wray and Dick Dale still play it. That’s a good thing. No more of everyone and their brother trying to knock of the Ventures. Only the strong have survived. Only the dedicated will dare dip their feet into the surf. Among that short list of daring surf-guitar rockers are the Space Cossacks. They play uptempo, instrumental surf music along the line of Satan’s Pilgrims. There’s not a lot of flash or tricks to this album, but it’s solid rock’n’roll. Perfect for cruising along with the windows down. This CD is supposed to come with a bunch of pictures of band photos and a novella if you stick it in your CD-ROM, but I was too lazy to try to figure that out. It doesn’t matter. The music is enough. –Sean Carswell


Jon Deadman,

Tsar Wars is the long awaited follow up to The Space Cossacks' excellent debut, Interstellar Stomp and it certainly proves to have been worth the wait, packed as it is with great tunes and playing of quite extraordinary virtuosity. Anyone familiar with the first album, or with the tastes of head-Cossack and lead guitarist Ivan Pongracic, will find the usual mix of influences: surf, space themes, The Shadows and The Atlantics, but there are one or two surprises thrown in as well.

The album opens with a burst of backwards guitars, before launching headlong into the frenetic double-picking, coupled with tasteful melodic middle section, of Exolumina. Next up is a cover of The Ho-Dads' Space Race, which is fine in a TV space-theme kind of way, but which barely holds a candle to The Space Cossacks' own Apes of Wrath, which follows: drummer Doug Huekstra bashes three shades of hell out of his skins, Mark English and Catherine Gray nail the rhythm down tightly, while Ivan tosses off huge reverberant guitar lines with gay abandon. You may already know this number from the Surf Monsters compilation, but if you don?t, it alone makes Tsar Wars worthy of your attention; massive, simply massive.

Tsunami Tsurprise doesn't have quite the same enormous impact, although it too allows plenty of scope for all members of the band to show off the quality of their playing. Escape From Gulag 17 is a bit like The Shadows on speed, highlighting Ivan's love of a good melody; this one bearing a slight resemblance to Greensleeves (or did I dream that? Greensleeves was never played this fast, that's for certain).

Sea of Tranquility is a waltz which provides the first pause in the breakneck pace of Tsar Wars and features acoustic rhythm guitar, very much in the Bruce Welch mode, while it's pretty easy to imagine Hank himself picking over the lead melody in the verses. It's quite beautiful too.

The calm is short-lived, however, with more high-octane playing on The Defector, which is followed by a cover of The Atlantics' The Crusher. Ivan Pongracic has long been a champion of the (apparently soon-to-reform) Australian instrumental sonic experimenters and when you hear tunes like this one, or Bombora, which featured on Interstellar Stomp, it's easy to see why. Apparently The Space Cossacks particularly enjoy playing this number, since it is such torture for drummer Doug Huekstra. Actually, the next number can't be all the much better, since Cossack Rocket Patrol, also has some pretty nifty stick work on it. This is a version of a traditional Russian tune, previously performed, under different titles, by both The Spotnicks and British band The Krew Kats, whose members numbered two future members of the Shadows. I sound very knowledgeable about obscure instro bands here, but have to admit that Ivan gave me the details!

The Jewel of Duende is another of those laid back, acoustic strums, with a South Sea island feel, very nice too. I have to admit that the next track, Departure, is not exactly my favourite, although it's pleasant enough. It does, however, feature a quite ridiculously clever guitar line at the very end, the sort of thing us guitarists feel very smug about if we manage to pull it off; the difference being that Ivan actually does pull it off!

Beyond The Third Star, which was co-written with Jim Frias, original sax player of The Nocturnes, whose Third Star to the Left (a prequel to this tune) featured on Interstellar Stomp, sees the band back in top gear, tearing along and shredding those strings. Frias' sax can also be heard augmenting the choruses. Tsar Wars itself is up next; more pounding tom toms, more surf beats and great melodic playing.

I mentioned that the album contained a few surprises and, for me, Fiesta Del Cossacapulco! is the greatest and most pleasant. If I were to have one criticism of The Space Cossacks, never having actually met any of them, or seen them play live, it would be that their recordings sound a little earnest at times. Not so here, though; not only does this tune sound fun, it sounds like to was fun to record (although the "Yee-ha" type chanting obviously contributes to that sense). It's just what you might expect to find in a Mexican holiday resort canteena (or so I fondly imagine, never having visited such an establishment); really excellent stuff, which will make you want to order a jug of marguerites right away.

The album closes with Catherine Gray's Tradewinds, a rather lovely, relaxed tune, redolent of warm summer evenings, sunburst skies and walks along the beach.

If you buy the album on cd you also get some additional features, at least you do when you drop the disc into your computer's cd drive. Firstly you are presented with the option of listening to the audio tracks or viewing the multimedia content. The cd liner notes suggest that it is not possible to do both of these things at once, although my pc seemed to manage this task, so give it a go. The multimedia content consists of a number of photographs of the band in action (I want Catherine's cowgirl hat!), links to both the MuSick and Space Cossacks web sites and also Tsar Wars the Novella. The Novella turns out to be an entertaining and nicely illustrated Science Fiction story, each chapter relating to one of the songs on the album. This kind of thing can lead to mental writer's cramp, as you try to twist your plot to fit a series of not-especially-related song titles, but it's all good fun anyway. The navigation panel at the side of the screen links can take you to any chapter you like and, when I had the audio playing at the same time, also took me to the relevant track, although this didn't work predictably, nor in every case.

A second great album from The Space Cossacks, featuring some very interesting new ideas in terms of multmedia presentation.

Jon Deadman


Interview w/ Art Bourasseau of MuSick Recordings
By MuzikMan

MuzikMan: The new Space Cossacks CD "Tsar Wars", has just been released and there is quite a buzz in the Surf-Instro community. Why did it take three years for the group to release another album?

Art: It's really been two years, but maybe to some fans it feels longer than that. It takes a while to produce and mix a good recording sometimes and that was the case with "Tsar Wars". We spent a lot more time in the studio with this one, from recording techniques and ideas, the mixing of the songs and even the mastering, which was re-done 3 or 4 times. You had 3 perfectionists striving for the final result, Engineer genius Bruce Kane (of Rick James fame), Cossacks guitarist and main songwriter, Ivan Pongracic and myself. I thought I was tough, but I met my match with these two guys. They really knew what they wanted and worked endlessly for it.

We also divided the recording, mixing and mastering into various sessions over the course of almost a year. Another difficult obstacle to overcome is that Ivan now lives in the mid-west and away from Catherine (bass player), Mark English (rhythm guitar), both songwriters, too, and Doug Hoekstra (drums) who all reside in the Washington D.C. area- where the band started. So it took some creative planning (as well as long driving and or flying hours) to pull it all off. I believe it was worth it, and I hope instro fans think so too.

This story has 5 comments.


When there is a must have album, this is it!

HallmarkSweptWinger | 26-Mar-2015 05:02:01 | Flag

Best space album, ever.

kruelkats | 26-Mar-2015 05:30:50 | Flag

What a great tribute!

MadScientist | 26-Mar-2015 08:59:36 | Flag

I had wanted to write something about this album (Jake had asked me to share my thoughts), as it was one of the first albums I picked up when I discovered the third wave (a bit late, but better late than never). But as I listened to it several times, I found that words just would not come. My mind is in a thousand directions lately, and words just seem to get in the way of my thoughts, and they can never actually describe what I intend. In short: I flaked.

So after reading this really nice tribute, I sat back and listened to the album again. This time without looking for words. Then it hit me: Its an instrumental! What in the hell do words have to do with it?!?! So I closed my eyes and let the sounds paint pictures in my mind. It took me on interstellar journeys. It brought me home again, thankful for experience.

Thanks to Ivan & Co for such a sonic treat! Perhaps we can be treated to another reunion in the not too distant future Wink

josheboy | 26-Mar-2015 09:31:29 | Flag

Definitely a landmark album for me.

Richard | 26-Mar-2015 09:54:30 | Flag

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