Tales from the Edge of Normality: Kobyla and The Four Positions of Bruno

As noted before on FFM, 4 Pozicii Bruno ("The Four Positions of Bruno") are from Yekaterinburg. The members range in number between a trio and quartet: Aleksandr Sitnikov, Nikolai Babak, Anton Klevtsov, and Vladimir Seleznev. That roll call, however, does little to reveal Bruno's mysterious identity. Last December we pointed out his alleged origins. The artists claim it refers to a Romanian polka of the 1930s that was once created in Bucharest - by a choreographer called Bruno Radulesco; we can find no records of any such person.

Nonetheless the legend continues, told both frequently and with confidence: apparently the dance involved young men and elderly female partners. It was designed to symbolize both "impatience and the withering of the flesh."

As that if were not sufficiently confusing, the lineup of 4 Pozicii Bruno is also responsible for a related - and equally productive - duo known as Ptitsu Em ("I'm Eating a Bird"). Aesthetically the projects differ in that Ptitsu Em are inclined towards a loose, deliberately slapdash form of hip-hop, whereas the discography of 4PB is much less rhythmically insistent, producing the kind of drunken, distorted soundscapes we find on display here. 

Despite any such disparities, though, there is some common ground between the two projects - thematically speaking.

More specifically, they both spin tales about the kind of self-destructive "jollity" that pervades Russia's provincial culture: epic swearing, heavy drinking, and general time-wasting at the expense of one's income. Behind that laughter, not surprisingly, sits the constant threat of social collapse, in forms such as divorce, unemployment, domestic violence, and imprisonment. Not to mention death.

This theme of impending doom - sooner or later - is clearer still whenever an absence of the hip-hop elements takes us away from dancefloor. Which is precisely where the dark, ambient compositions of 4 Pozicii Bruno tend to abandon their listeners. Their lurching shapes suggest a total loss of one's bearings.

Our compositions should operate like the soundtrack to a parallel existence

In a newspaper interview last year, the musicians claimed that they try with their grim reworkings of folk-tales, nursery rhymes, and the like to "create a certain kind of new reality... Our compositions should operate like the soundtrack to a parallel existence."

For "parallel" read "both possible and worse."

That same existence, they insist, is typically "unknown to us [on a daily basis]. Sometimes it can be unpleasant, sometimes even horrifying. If, that is, you go poking around the wrong sort of places... Then you might get gobbled up. These are kind of places about which people often say: 'Don't stick your nose where you shouldn't!'"

Don't stick you nose where you shouldn't...

These same themes have come powerfully to light once again in a new album, entitled "Fifth Position." If we've been told that the first four positions were supposedly from a dance showing "impatience and the withering of the flesh," then the fifth is no jollier. The CD gathers thirteen live performances between 2006 and this year; all of them bear the the trademark signs of slurred beats, massive ambient hiss, and the constant intrusion of very unnerving thumps or bumps - from undisclosed locations.

The macabre storylines of these songs are no less nightmarish when performed live; in fact, their moribund aspect comes even more to the fore. It's as insistent as the gaze below might suggest. The laughs are thin on the ground and, as usual, all the 4PB tracks are rich in distortion, which only amplifies our sense of unease.

One of the band's better-known works is included, speaking of an "hatchet, buried in the forest." The text is narrated from the viewpoint of two dead figures, who somehow managed in life to cease their mutual destruction and bury a hatchet, both metaphorically and literally. The weapon, however, now lies only half buried, in places where people easily stumble.

More blood will be shed, needlessly.

These worrying topics are given even more local resonance with the use of samples from the Russian pop canon. 4PB gave an interview not long ago to Aleksandr Gorbachev, in which they explained the rationale behind their loops and sound snippets.

"We always sample Russian material. It's somehow more sincere that way... Why take non-Russian samples, when you can find what you need at home?" The group prefers to use material that's widely popular, nationally representative, and utterly unfashionable. It all helps to show the dark underbelly of glitzy pop culture.

They continue: "Why use music you actually like - or something cool from overseas, even? That'd be pretty pathetic. It would be as if you're creatively hopeless yourself, or begging for something from an older, more successful friend... We don't need to go looking for the songs we use, in any case. You hear them playing everywhere... We take any old phrases that touch us in some way..."

We don't need to go looking for the songs we use, in any case. You hear them playing everywhere...

The sounds to accompany tales of downfall can be heard in any supermarket or cheap cafe. 

The best example of that sampled sadness on "Fifth Position" is a phrase from the universally recognizable, fin de siecle romance, "I Was Traveling Home" (Я ехала домой). The original is full of troubled hope for a blossoming romance; it expresses the joyful anxiety of a young lover. Our new version, however, begins with muffled, decelerated instrumentation. It then turns the charm of pre-Revolutionary sentiment into the depressingly confrontational words of a modern-day citizen. 

Tears and tension give us the impression our heroine is suffering a pressure that's unbefitting her age. She's a child thrown into an adult's world. And yet she fights back "bitter tears," insisting to herself (even despite herself) that... "Just a little more, just a little further... and I'll be free." Escape is more appealing than love.

The surrounding world offers no genuine hope of liberty, which brings us to the new - eighth - album from Moscow's lo-fi Kobyla i Trupoglazye Zhaby ("The Mare and Corpse-Eyed Toads"). As the band's name might suggest, there's a shared concern here with some ubiquitous threat. The result of those common emphases does not make for easy listening.

We quoted earlier the reaction of one blogger before to this absurdism and anxiety: 

"How messed up do you need to be in order to create a stage name like that?! I listened to a couple of tracks by the band. There's no way you could call this music. There are no 'songs' here, either. In a word, I recommend that the musicians change their stage name to 'Аn Abuse of Hearing Aids and the Nervous System of Homo Erectus.'"

There's no way you could call this music

As we also mentioned on a previous occasion, Kobyla i Trupoglazye Zhaby are an outgrowth of the equally shambolic "avant-garde punk" ensemble from Moscow, Oblomok Unitaza (Lavatory Fragment). Formed in 2004, "O.U." have not advanced their promotional efforts beyond a disorderly collection of mp3s at Real Music and a LiveJournal account.

Neither is designed to be attractive.

Now these efforts have continued in the form of a new recording, "1988." It comes in the wake of some more feisty remarks from web-based observers. "This is what you get if you throw ten people in a room that's ten foot square. Give each of them a kilo of grass, plus a microphone, guitar, trumpet, and drums." Or, elsewhere: "F**k knows who I'd recommend this to"; "You can tell right away it's total cr*p"; and so forth.

As the title implies, "1988" throws us back into the age of synth-pop, specifically the recordings of Kraftwerk, OMD, and Depeche Mode. The band adds to this context: "We're continuing our absurdist crusade against banality, against all manner of bronze pedestals, and even the idea of 'relevant' art. Everybody knows that the best forms of protest are those sporting a grin. And '1988' is nothing more than hysterical laughter."  

It's this irrational treatment of sung narratives that, ultimately, takes us away from the mechanical structures of Kraftwerk and instead towards the canon of Devo and/or Pere Ubu from a few years earlier.

The lyrics, by way of example, certainly recall the surrealism of those US bands with such literary gems as "A bulldozer's like a wild boar/ A saucepan's like a wild boar/ A cow's like a wild boar/ A child's like a wild boar." We're then told about dinosaurs that are Decembrists, pacifists, and even pan-Slavists.

There's a very well-entrenched tradition of absurdism in Russian literature - and it tends to appear at times of driven, if not obsessive "progress." The album's artwork places a lofty skyline of proud, equally forward-looking construction against an almost prehistoric landscape of bison. Lurking in the basements of modernity are, it seems, some very old, maybe primeval urges.

And that brings us to the significance of 1988, when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and violent riots took place in the Baltic. The end was nigh. What looked like a hopeful emergence from the Soviet project was, perhaps, a step backwards towards a feral world of poorly-buried hatchets.

Towards the kind of bestial behavior that has no logic whatsoever. These sorts of enduring, if not timeless concerns emerge from the work of 4 Pozicii Bruno and Kobyla; they all lead to the following remarks from online listeners. "[Musically speaking] this is a hopeless f***-up, but you must listen to it." 

Musically speaking, this is a hopeless f***-up, but you must listen to it

Because anything might happen - and, if it does, it probably won't be good. It is useful to be warned ahead of time, because the corpse-eyed toads go round and round forever. The members of Kobyla used the image below on one of their web resources and apologized if it bothers anyone. Not so much for aesthetic reasons, but because it may also be a narrative "f***-up" that reflects a reality elsewhere, in the nearby, "parallel existence" of 4 Pozicii Bruno.

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