In the mid-'80s, the sub-genre of dream pop grew out of UK projects such as Scotland's Cocteau Twins and related labels, for example 4AD. To this day the term is used in order to describe a style of introspective lyrics, delivered in barely audible fashion against a wall of melodic, semi-distorted sound. The origins of these Scottish noises can be traced back to Thatcher's term in office, when industry and development were very much focused on London and the Home Counties; Scotland suffered greatly.
The rationale of rebellion, however, was weak. Not only did an entrenched fatalism mean that loud songs of insurgency were unlikely; there was even an unspoken feeling that clumsy social uproar would only dignify a southern opponent.
This view was famously captured in some lines from Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting," set in the late 1980s. "I hate being Scottish. We're the lowest of the f***ing low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever sh*t into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don't. They're just w**kers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by w**kers."
Social protest and the songs thereof seemed laughable; as a result, a very quiet - or "twee" - tradition of lyricism developed, making the sounds described above. Now, as then, whenever the outside world offers little promise, meek, semi-shrouded voices still embody the charm of dignified isolation.
Ensconced within a suitably blurred, blue image - of an equally appropriate flower, is a new and debut album from Ukrainian quartet Amurekimuri. The band is based in Odessa (shown above) and directly inspired by the same Scottish heritage of The Cocteau Twins - together with Robin Guthrie's solo work, too.
Preferring, in these dreamy contexts, to prejudice ethereal experience over anything overtly fleshy, the band's eponymous CD is "dedicated to all the angels to ever walk this earth: all those forgotten, remembered, and everpresent souls."
As angels are lauded, physical existence slumps in value.
Celebrating these lofty and intangible figures, at the expense of their earthbound happiness, are Elena Voinarovskaia, Andrei Basov, Aleksei Dovgalev, and Aleksei Tkachevskii, all shown here. Voinarovskaia is already well-known as one of the two vocalists with Ukrainian outfit Fleur, about whom we've written on more than one occasion.
Here she gathers a wide range of British poems and songs, guided by the influence of Shelley, Keats, Blake - and Ian Curtis. All these texts were set to music during studio sessions in Odessa from August, 2010.
The group have framed these works with a series of small and subjective prose poems of their own, one of which reads in translation as follows: "Together they stared in silence at the stars, which disappeared slowly behind the clouds. They stared at the wings of tiny yellow butterflies, scorched by the flames of a bonfire - and at the slender stems of an immortelle, bent towards the ground by the wind. And everything that seemed transparent or incredibly fragile was, in actual fact, neither threatened by destruction nor subject to the elements..."
And everything that seemed transparent or incredibly fragile was, in actual fact, neither threatened by destruction nor subject to the elements...
The name of that flower, also known as "everlasting," takes us again back to a solo Guthrie album.
Fragile figures, both Celtic and Slavic, cast their eyes upwards - and take strength from a presence far above the rough and tumble of physicality. As suggested, though, any praise for absent, intangible notions will logically come only after an admission of loss in the here and now. Defeat, therefore, can sometimes have a paradoxical appeal.
A celebration of demise and surrender runs throughout these songs, which the band view as a philosophical statement made "on the edge of an abyss." They offer - as a response to such worries - more positive qualities: "the support of another's fragile warmth; honesty; and the melancholy of somebody waiting, eternally, for an angel."
During the early years of The Cocteau Twins' existence, Scotland lost 20% of its workforce, and witnessed the devastation of the coal, steel, and textile industries. Songwriting hid away from such socioeconomic violence in dreamscapes of its own making. Amurekimuri namecheck that same heritage on a frequent basis, as do other bands in Russia.
From less tepid climes - from the industrial city of Izhevsk - come two new EPs from the virtually unknown fivesome Palms on Fire. The ensemble is made of Anna Kislova, Max Kislov, Ozzy Leon Mysantroph[!], Anton Bochkarev, and Kostya Korolev. Their hometown is a major center of oldschool heavy industry, specifically in realms such as arms manufacture and transportation. Amid load noises from local warehouses come some pronounced forms of inward-looking lyricism.
Here again, our musicians draws upon the introspection of Scottish indie labels of the '80s, more specifically the style of Postcard Records' twee pop - in which doe-eyed romantics feigned both physical and artistic weekness. Lo-fi, small-scale, childish amateurism took on great charm in a decade of gloss, glamor, and southern shoulder pads. This same contradiction of childish romance and the troubling challenges of adulthood is both audible in the songs and visible in the artwork, too.
Palms on Fire - with diminutive female vocals buried deep in the production - draw directly both upon that Caledonian twee-pop tradition and, from the US, The Beach Boys. The innocence of nineteenth-century lyricism we see in Amurekimuri is now reconsidered through the misty lens of '60s psychedelia. Callow naivety is no longer defence enough against the adult world and - seemingly as a result - the amount of distortion grows.
If twilight dreams can tune out an unappealing normality in Odessa, people in Izhevsk seem keener on a little chemical help. This is the shift from easy reverie to more driven, contrary forms of daydreaming that we hear against a wall of tinny sound. It's a form of white noise that almost obliterates the very vocals it's supposed to frame.
Max Kislov himself has defined this mix of Scottish miniaturism and Californian drug-pop as "beach punk." That phrase alone is a good balance of two contradictory, yet dovetailed states; one is passive, the other pugnacious. Neither is actively social.
Kislov states that the collective is currently working on some additional tracks. "Maybe they'll become an album. Maybe not." If the outside world threatens to scupper your plans, a form of off-handedness or indifference is always a good form of emotional insurance.
This gap or disconnect between dreams and goals is nicely evoked on a recent EP cover; note the boy on the left bank. He doesn't look like a strong swimmer.
The appeal of this Scottish tradition is understandable for various reasons; the bands included in lists of "influences" come from an aesthetic and socioeconomic background that's familiar to many people in Eastern Europe. It's predicated on an excess of romance and minimal funds. As a result, we can find a similar sound in many places, whether or not its makers are willing to list people from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and other rain-drenched streets.
These same ideas are, for example, extended in a new single from Khabarovsk's Tree, Bosier (Дерево Бозье). Entitled "Feeling" (Chuvstvo), it's built on distant, muffled or mumbled lyrics and a recourse to distortion - even from the opening bass drum, as if we're dealing with a heart too big for small speakers!
The lyrics read as follows, once translated: "A feeling that's hidden in thousands of faces. We dedicate hundreds of pages to it; the movement of paintbrushes, the harmony of notes, reels of film, and flights of fancy. A feeling that hides in strange places - in an overcast town or radiant dreams. In the rhythm of breathing - or in old photo albums..."
A feeling that hides in strange places - in an overcast town or radiant dreams
As the dreaming shrinks in size, the surrounding noise increases.
In developing these works and mapping out small daydreams in a loud, intrusive environment, Tree Boisier turn often to forms of improvisation. Songs of early romance lend themselves well to a "try-and-see" approach. This marriage of tentative lifelines and improvised performance allows them to state: "We're not tied to any one style; we're always open to experiments with new genres or moods. Sometimes we play very simply... and sometimes with great complexity."
Smallness, introspection, and constant change all occur amid growing noise. The innocence of these dream- and twee-pop releases has to work very hard to find some peace and quiet. Hence the attractiveness of isolated, blissed-out figures that we see in Tree, Bosier's artwork - positioned against a very messy and probably deafening backdrop.