From the small Estonian town of Paide come the band Ans. Andur, penning modern songs against a thirteenth-century backdrop. Founded in 2002, the group consists of a stable foursome: Madis Aesma, Mihkel Kirss (both vocals and guitar), Gert Pajuväli (bass), and Madis Kirss (drums). The musicians have worked both with the excellent Seksound label - often celebrated here - and contended for a spot at the Eurovision Song Contest. Both ends of the Baltic music scene have therefore been experienced and investigated: the proudly independent and the boldly commercial. In an interview with the Estonian press not long ago, Madis Aesma helped to flesh out this context and explain the band's raison d'être.
We were a pretty surrealist outfit to begin with...
Not surprisingly, the group's complex stage-name was quickly introduced into the discussion. Aesma clarified matters in a most straightforward tone: "We were a pretty surrealist outfit to begin with and our drummer suggested this silly name. It has stuck with us ever since... 'Andur' means detector or transmitter, and 'Ans' is an abbreviation of the word 'ansambel' - or ensemble in English." Metaphors of connecting to the wider world of fame and fortune were no doubt implied. That same imagery of linkages has certainly come into play of late - and been built into the band's stagecraft in the following manner.
Although openly influenced by performers such as R.E.M., the Beatles, Beach Boys, Sonic Youth, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and Pavement, these Paide musicians opted for a rather different thematic when a recent national competition appeared on the horizon. Any canonical - or stereotypical, even - expectations one might have of browbeaten lyrics from an indie collective were quickly frustrated. An optimistic worldview came instead to the surface.
More specifically, and when vying for that place on national television, Ans. Andur chose a song entitled “Lapsed Ja Lennukid” (“Children and Airplanes”): "It was basically about waiting for your moment in time. It draws parallels with children as they watch white lines forming across the evening sky; they dream about being high in the air - and flying wherever they want... We wanted the composition to be taken as a joyous, summery pop song. We decided to submit the track because it was - by far! - the poppiest new number in our catalog."
Stay happy, get dressed, grab a guitar, and perform!
The goal, therefore, was simple: "Send off the songs, get chosen, stay happy, get dressed, grab a guitar, and perform!" The artists' willingness to smile for the public is actually quite considerable, since Ans. Andur see that Estonia's national television shows, once designed purely for MOR conservatism, are nowadays open to a wider range of options. There's good reason to have hope. In short, local media are offering various forms of support, and a happy middle ground is mapped out between dignified independence and market necessities. Voicing that upbeat forecast is a new album from the band - "Kõverad" - and a related single, the lyrics of which extol the virtues of succumbing to oceanic currents. The outside world is welcomed and trusted.
Bridging a similar thematic and professional divide are Instrumenti from Riga, Latvia. The band - whose name translates as "Tools" or "Instruments" - is actually a gifted duo, consisting of the mysteriously named Shipsi and Reynsi. Classically trained, this twosome celebrates a generic range that runs all the way from "beatbox to operatic counter tenor." Boyish falsettos and institutional orchestras work side by side: kitsch, glam, and self-deprecation are to be expected. At the same time.
This good-natured display travels well, just as Ans. Andur realize the broad appeal of optimism. So much so, in fact, that Instrumenti have no problem declaring themselves the "best live act from the Baltics of the last decade." Much of that thespian effort has been in support of the band's debut album from late last year: "TRU." Supporting Mika and James Blunt hasn't hurt, either. The duo has even performed on the same stage as Scissor Sisters; things again are looking up.
Needless to say, assistance is required in various forms when performing live. Instrumenti's growing professional demands cannot be managed without extra hands. That assistance is often provided by musicians and technicians... wearing panda masks (below). The logic behind those playful costumes, apparently, is less artistic than it is societal: "Pandas symbolize lazy, easy-going development and great kindness, too. They're often associated with themes of peaceful and positive coexistence. Plus they look kinda stylish... Black and white, yin and yang...!"
Latvia's most stylish ensemble
For these and other reasons, Instrumenti were recently awarded the prize for "Most Stylish Ensemble" at the Latvian Style and Fashion Awards. And not for the first time. This success on various fronts often prompts questions in the Baltic press as to the band's future plans. "We get the greatest satisfaction from a positive audience response. We've no real desire to be famous, though: we're just typical people who try and create that little extra..."
Instrumenti and colleagues...
This dalliance with grandeur, lights, and an operatic falsetto is sometimes undercut with camp humor. That balance between excess and self-mockery, dreams and self-deprecation goes down well. As with Ans. Andur, it seems that a healthy range of professional opportunities is likely to foster a jollier aesthetic. Potentials make folks happy, both on stage and off.
A slightly different worldview seems to color the simultaneous release of material from Minsk outfit, Open Space, discussed here on several occasions. The band's new album is tellingly called "Pressure." The project was capably overseen by producer Dmitry Ivaneev, who has worked with such Ukrainian stars as Okean El'zy and Ani Lorak, but Open Space still feel that professional opportunities are not forthcoming with sufficient frequency. The workplace is lacking something. "You'll already know some of the tracks from the new album - and our most recent compositions have been played a lot on Minsk radio. Nonetheless, the names of bands are rarely given on air..."
The names of bands are rarely given on air...
Rather than cultivate an air of devil-may-care optimism, the members of Open Space are currently more occupied with holding various problems at bay. The most recent information on their website concerns collaborative work with local representatives of the United Nations, fighting against issues such as AIDS, drugs, and sexual violence. Civic duty is a more pressing issue than escapist reverie.
In fact, on that subject of escapism, it's interesting to note how the band have recently documented their own history, looking back at the song "that started it all. We mean the first song we ever wrote and then played together as a band." That initial lyrical statement (in English), designed to establish a musical and textual trajectory for the future, was already marked by a certain pessimism: "Two weeks ago when I left my home/ All my life went wrong, the rain was falling/ Down again. The day was so grey/ And I saw you, you were dancing/ On the grass. Dancing in the dark./ You were barefoot, so happy and alone./ And then you disappeared..."
And then you disappeared
The world is a greater place of challenge and confrontation (or "pressure") than it might seem to our Baltic artists. In fact, extending that air of tension further still, we might turn to the Moscow outfit, Die Hard. Not only does their stage name draw (tongue in cheek) upon the testosterone-fueled blockbusters of the 1990s; the band also list their professional data on one social network in German. From the standpoint of Russian readers, the language of promotion becomes that of war...
And so our three exponents of improvised "psychedelic dub" tell us "Wir kommen in Frieden." Such is the bittersweet humor of Evgeny Akimenko (bass), Sasha Chirkov (guitar), and Oksana Grigorieva (drums - or, if you prefer, "Schlagzeuger").
Die Hard (Moscow)
On Russian-language resources, we're told to expect a "unique, often volcanic mix of shoegaze, dub, and post-punk." Introspection and wall-wobbling, angry bass-lines coincide: escapism and extremism operate simultaneously. For the same reason, Die Hard elsewhere namecheck with gratitude both the work of Sid Barrett and Jimi Hendrix or, on another network, both Pink Floyd and The Stooges.
Wir kommen in Frieden
This delicate balance between peace and a punch-up has been nicely summarized by one Russian observer: "Die Hard tread the thin line between psychedelic dub (sounding like some bad dream in the desert!), an insistently pulsating bass, and incisive, even aggressive guitar work." Another listener adds: "This really is very unconventional dub... People in general, though, are fairly conservative in their tastes. They probably won't like this very much!"
The fading reverberations of dub, indicative of some opening, probably empty space, promise little of appeal. Our Baltic performers offer a hopeful worldview when facing things unknown, either because their professional environment makes that possible or because it politely dictates those "jolly" terms. In Minsk and Moscow we discover slightly less upbeat narratives. Actuality itself appears less "conservative" - and more inclined to produce nasty surprises.
It's evidently easier to smile in some places than others.