Each investigation of a recording by 4 Pozicii Bruno ("The Four Positions of Bruno") tends to begin with the same information. These musicians are from Ekaterinburg, ranging in number - depending on the occasion - from a trio to a quartet. The fullest possible lineup is Aleksandr Sitnikov, Nikolai Babak, Anton Klevtsov, and Vladimir Seleznev. The project's name relates to a non-existent Romanian dance of the 1930s. With that data in place, a wider range of topics opens up.
The current reason for turning once again to 4PB is a fine new album, "Myriapods and Heartbreakers" (Mnogonozhki i Serdtseedki). That comparison of insects and humans is enough to suggest - with some accuracy - the general outlook of the band's material. Grounded on most occasions in downtempo melancholy or industrial drone, the recordings of these young men evoke the kind of nasty, even demonic threats that lie on the outskirts of Russian typicality. In many of their recordings, we're invited to consider the dangers that begin where normality ends.
That border between safety and hazard may be located at a city's limit, at the end of a familiar road, or - in temporal terms - whenever the sun goes down. The resulting juxtapositions of fantasy and fear mean, by way of example, that nursery rhymes and ghost stories may be conflated in one instrumental. On other occasions, we find that upbeat, inviting chords - redolent of commercial jingles - are placed side by side with the discordant clamor of an impending murder.
Unpleasant surprises are assured. The result is rarely heartening, but always impressive.
The title of the new recordings from 4 Pozicii Bruno leads us immediately down the same, shadowy path. Consider the tracklist, too, before anybody even has a chance to press the 'Play' button: "By the Laws of Venomous Beasts"; "Something Stopped Me Sleeping (I Was Afraid to Open My Eyes)"; "Tango with a Bastard"; "Yellow Water"; and "The Panic Attacks of Young Mothers." Three of those compositions are included here: all are capable of producing the undesirable state mentioned in the closing number.
A recent article by Aleksandr Gorbachev in the Moscow magazine Afisha expanded upon these images in dramatic fashion. These are the concrete associations that emerge from vague, worrying soundscapes. He begins with a phrase sometimes used by 4 Pozicii Bruno to categorize their depiction of social vacuums or industrial wastelands:
These are field recordings from a factory setting; subconscious fears spoken aloud
"This is toxic dub. There are squeaking sounds, sobbing, [radio] interference, and other forms of industrial naturalism. It all emerges from somewhere inside a pedestrian underpass, groaning as it does so. These are field recordings from a factory setting; subconscious fears spoken aloud. A kind of serpentine electronica, perhaps, running like goosebumps across your skin."
Perils transpire when you least expect them - especially after dark.
These worrying instrumentals should be considered together with a kindred project - also from Ekaterinburg and in which two members of 4 Pozicii Bruno take part: Ptitsu Em (i.e. "I'm Eating a Bird"). That duo, to be more specific, consists of Aleksandr Sitnikov and Nikolai Babak. Most recordings by Ptitsu Em tell a story of average folks on the dusty streets of Ekaterinburg or beyond - in places where the supposed law and order of city life quickly becomes the laws of nature, which are much less forgiving.
These horrible - yet sometimes humorous! - yarns come primarily from failing social contexts. From the mismanagement of microcosmic spheres, we get a nasty sense that the entire nation is suffering. In other words, many Ptitsu Em tracks are set among the hopeless disorder of provincial childrens' camps, in rundown school classrooms, at the workplace, or in smaller family settings, which are probably haunted by the specter of alcoholism, divorce, and so forth. None of the tales are happy, yet they often bear a touch of bitter-sweet (perhaps even gallows) humor.
Music by 4 Pozicii Bruno depicts the kind of reality you're afraid to admit to yourself
Our musicians have nicely summed up the differences between these two endeavors: "Ptitsu Em is the kind of reality you'd be ashamed to explain to your own mother; in 4 Pozicii Bruno, on the other hand, we depict the kind of reality you're afraid to admit to yourself."
Together, those opposites might be gathered under the overarching category of "grotesque," i.e., a realm in which laughter and horror stand on equal footing. Recent news events from Ekaterinburg have included ethnic tensions between local and immigrant workers from Central Asia; more than 150 people suffered this week from widespread food poisoning. These are the kinds of holes in a social fabric through which the sounds of 4PB appear.
They run the gamut from cries of outrage to the barely audible shrug of submission.
Any hope for divine law and order beyond these failings seems minimal. Here, by way of example, is the sketch for a series of forthcoming narratives planned by 4 Pozicii Bruno. The band members pondered the thin line between actuality - itself less than perfect - and a parallel world in which things were even worse. What, for example, if divine decree were not just ignored but horribly misinterpreted?
Noah only heard half of what God said - but went off to prepare his ark, anyhow...
And so we start a story of awful alternatives: "God spoke too loudly to Noah [in a series of incomprehensible noises]. As a result, Noah only heard half of what God said - but went off to prepare his ark, anyhow. Noah missed the bit about 'pairs of animals'... And so, by the time he reached dry land [after the flood], he had nothing but mutants on board. It was a total nightmare. Noah reached the Promised Land, where everything was just fine... but his ark was full of miserable monsters."
Not horrible, vengeful beasts, but "miserable" victims of heavenly disorder - just like the rest of us.
If the hopes for discipline and dignity, no matter their origin, are slim, it's useful here to include the work of St Petersburg's Est' Est' Est'. That repeated syllable has several meanings in Russian, but an interview with the musicians recently explained in no uncertain terms that "it's meant as a verb here. It means both 'to be' and 'to eat.'" Immediately, therefore, we get the impression that themes of bestial, predatory existence will continue. The overlap with 4 Pozicii Bruno becomes a little clearer; both see the world in bloodthirsty terms. In realms where civic structures fade - or collapse altogether - a Darwinian competition for survival begins, in which existence is synonymous with the stalking - and consumption - of one's rivals.
Western observers have long noted that crime rates in Russia first skyrocketed in the 1980s, as the centralized systems of the Soviet Union started to wobble. And then, if we leap forward to the 2000s, for example, it takes no great effort to unearth related figures, suggesting that half of Russia's economy is linked in some way to organized crime. Including piracy.
The members of Est' Est' Est' seem so amazed when anybody buys a legal copy of their music, they display proof of the receipt on their website. Miracles do happen, albeit very rarely.
There's good reason for the pessimism and black humor we hear from these musicians.
Est' Est' Est' grew from the ashes of respected rap outfit 2H Company and is also related to another northern ensemble of similar leanings - Elochnye Igrushki (Christmas Baubles), of whom we've often written. The relationship between EEE and kindred groups is sometimes sketched in the Russian-language press. From one Ukrainian publication, we hear: "The psychedelic tongue-twisters of vocalist Mikhail Fenichev depict a grey, post-Soviet reality seen through various narcotic hues and the marked shades of mental illness. The lyrical heroes of an EEE track are always suffering from paranoia; they're constantly hallucinating, and don't do very well in social settings."
The lyrical heroes of these tracks are all suffering from paranoia; they're constantly hallucinating, and don't do very well in social settings
One of the promotional images for Est' Est' Est' below shows - with high levels of self-deprecation - that the band members themselves are not above such problems. And in fact, the three tracks on display here likewise give voice to a related gap between the dictates of proper society and scruffy, ailing actuality. Special attention is paid to ideological rant: the three songs we've chosen suggest that whatever politicians may say about plans for the Olympic Games, commercial development, and even the seasons of the year, reality and Mother Nature refuse to play along.
This tendency to hand "normality" over to absurdity and illness is best summed up in a "manifesto" put together by the members of Est' Est' Est'. It's based upon a well-known joke that begins as follows. The setting is a biology classroom, starring - no doubt - these same handsome figures a few years ago...
We hear the voice of a teacher, hoping to sketch the laws of nature in objective terms: "Children, today I'll be talking about octopi. They live on the bottom of the ocean and move around by means of their tentacles. To start with, they only move slowly. They crawl and crawl around the sand - moving towards the shore. Gradually they get faster. As they speed up, they approach the shoreline; they run out onto the beach, and go further still..."
At this point, logic is outstripped by lunacy: "Accelerating all the time, the octopi head through the valleys, over the deserts, and reach the mountains. Moving at an amazing speed, they hit the mountain tops and zoom into the skies. Off they go, into the stratosphere and outer space..."
Accelerating all the time, the octopi head through the valleys, over the deserts, and reach the mountains
Without revealing the rather rude end to that anecdote, we can nonetheless relay the intention of Est' Est' Est' to use "all their creative powers and repeat that path of that octopus... The band members themselves don't yet fully understand what kind of music they're making with their beats, synthesizers, a few guitars, trumpets, and literary texts. You could probably call it some kind of 'intellectual dance music.' After all, we wouldn't want our listeners to be standing there in the crowd, immobile and po-faced!"
And yet, as ever, all attempts at humor are overshadowed by the sad realization that what appears to be funny is, in all likelihood, the edge of an absurd universe. Pleasing oddities quickly morph into universal disorder and generalizations about "miserable monsters."
The image below was recently used by 4 Pozicii Bruno on one of their web venues. Rather than show the four positions of that Romanian tango we mentioned at the outset, it instead appears to represent the four positions of a human figure - slowly buckling under the weight of invisible pressure. Such, no doubt, is the posture adopted on Ekaterinburg's city limits at sundown.