A couple of days ago, we looked at the ongoing work of Latvia's Dirty Deal Collective and specifically at an excellent compilation designed to showcase their joint efforts. One of the figures we bypassed within that lineup, yet who plays a key role in the organization's growth, is Oriole, who also performs under the stage-name of "Astral High." Behind both of those monikers is Mr. Uģis Vālodze, who lives and works in Riga. As a long-standing role model within Dirty Deal, he has enjoyed significant expressions of gratitude - both from fellow countrymen and foreign observers.
Estonia's own Natalie Mets recently summarized the work of Dirty Deal as the fitting soundtrack to an entire day of activity in the Baltic. "The compilation album begins with slow, almost gulping beats and some wandering melodies. It then moves into some memories of the 'night before,' accompanied by the first words of the day... not to mention some teetering [hungover] steps. As the minutes pass, the blood starts to move faster... as do the rhythms." And so Ms. Mets sketches out the appeal - and application - of Latvian hip-hop for local residents.
Broken rhythms accompany a tentative engagement with one's surroundings.
The compilation begins with slow, almost gulping beats....
Vālodze has now moved beyond any "wavering" steps towards ostensible reality and instead cast a gaze skyward. More specifically, he has released an album with the title of "Mushroom Music, Vol. II." Adorned with a fantastically gaudy, hot-pink cover, the LP is then conceptually framed by its maker in terms of an even wider social experience than Dirty Deal. When society fails to impress, chemistry may help... Everybody looks lovable after some hallucinogens. With the support of a few mushrooms, be they real or simply imaginary, a wobbly morning gait become instead a grand, open-armed expression of civic trust.
Looking for a vocabulary to match his new-found social faith, Oriole describes these compositions as reflective of some "colorful, cosmic, and experimental mood." The entire track-listing is written in capitals: modesty and anxiety are cast swiftly aside, as the music of intrepid social engagement is likened to space travel. The future looks rosy - and risks appear minimal.
By the end of the second track, we're treated to the following line in English: "A preachment, dear friends, you are about to receive on John Barleycorn, nicotine and the temptations of Eve..." Those deliberately pompous words come from a comedic mock-sermon performed in 1947 by a well-known US music-hall ensemble. The dangers of sinful behavior and legal risk are documented, but then laughed off...
A colorful, cosmic, and experimental mood
In their place comes a second, equally ironic use of positive rhetoric, again redolent of speechifying from a pulpit. Just as Natalie Mets likens the Dirty Deal recordings to a social soundtrack for young Estonians, so Uģis Vālodze declares: "This is my world! They are my people, my brothers and sisters, it's about us!" Leaving aside the rather confusing use of pronouns, it's clear than a desire for kinder, more inclusive experience is uppermost. Yet that common embrace seems as likely as a trip to the moon...
The search for good-natured, manageable civic romance continues.
Arguably even more wistful are the new recordings from Max Belous (or Bilous) and his alter ego, "B Lous." Based in Zaporozhe, Mr. Belous has published a three-track maxi-single this week, together with the duo known as AN:TI, based in the Russian north. Zaporozhe is a powerhouse of Ukrainian industry - and has been for a very long time. During WWII, for example, the German army was desperate to seize the region's factories. As a result, surrounding towns were attacked with awful force - and would then remain under enemy occupation for more than two years.
To this day, the smokestacks and pylons are visible everywhere. Max Belous - a man of few words - has previously cracked some jokes along these (polluted) lines on the pages of his photo-blog. One early image was tagged with a neologism made from the two words "Zaporozhe" and "Detroit." In the light of those melancholy parallels, we've noted before that Max Belous and AN:TI both produce music that's designed as a response to various negative features of their local environment. No matter how cold, smokey, or shrill that same context becomes, though, none of these men reacts with hyperbole or other kinds of excess.
Neither obsessive, nor compulsive!
For precisely that reason, it was most interesting this week to see that Belous' new tracks are gathered under the title of "Compulsaka EP." That additional neologism might, perhaps, suggest behavioral tensions inherent within the industrial sphere of Zaporozhe. We decided to check with the composer. When, however, we contacted Mr. Belous, he informed us that neither interviews nor PR materials are available in order to clarify matters. Should we be looking for some kind of thematic or philosophical context, he turned us instead towards a DIY meme, reminding us that the life of a puppy(!) is "neither obsessive, nor compulsive."
Innocence develops far from the anxious traits of OCD. Happiness, put simply, is fantastically banal, yet equally elusive.
This same doubting romance colors the work of Dawncat, a young producer who documents his address as "the forests of Moscow's suburbs." The Big City is engaged with scant enthusiasm. Born in 1983, and therefore perched similarly on the edge of some profoundly adult decisions, this musician documents a wide range of enthusiasm(s) for US and Russian rock, various local bars, and European football. For all the working class credo suggested by those passions, Dawncat himself has little faith in society's ability to mirror his love of mass phenomena.
Somewhat surprisingly, for the second time in two days we find a young artist quoting the thought of French revolutionary wit Nicolas Chamfort (d. 1741), specifically on the subject of society's woes. The quote used on this occasion "explains" that human society first arose as protection against natural disasters. Once humans had gathered together, though, they simply increased their own idiocy - and that led to the need for a state. The state - of course - then amplified and institutionalized the failings of those people who created it. "And that's the entire story of mankind."
One person blessed with a slightly more objective view of social realia is Igor' Kombarov, otherwise known as Sideflip. Currently publishing work through Saint Petersburg's Subwise label, he operates between that city and Riga. Many observers draw parallels between his work and the bold, brassy sounds of '90s electronica. So how does that on-stage swagger of twenty years ago transfer to today's context?
Thus far we've already seen Dawncat's civic passions fizzle out, specifically in a range of markedly rural photographs adorning his Vkontakte pages. An author of urban instrumentals replaces his face with countless shots of fields, forests, and lakes - outside of Moscow. All of which look very appealing.
The current, unhurried location of Dawncat (Moscow periphery)
Kombarov admits that he often looks back fondly to his earliest musical acquaintances with The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, and Orbital - to whom he listened on lo-fi audio cassettes. In the same manner, one of the Sideflip tracks currently available uses a mumbled, spoken-word sample that can be traced back to Cypress Hill's Eric Bobo Correa: "It's just somethin'... you know. It's just like I said, it's...um... it's the next level"
That performative confidence, whatever its drug-addled delivery, still seems divorced from real-world typicality. The brash sounds of 90s' electro-pop and rave hits are very far from today's browbeaten economy. Kombarov, addressing that sense of decline or deceleration, has spoken of Riga's sleepy cultural life. "Based on what friends tell me [since I'm currently in Saint Petersburg], the evolution of 'non-standard' music in Riga is pretty lamentable nowadays."
Um... it's the next level...
Kombarov does not, therefore, recommend that today's music fans get to grips with another generation of new (yet equally fickle and transient) sounds. There's a melancholy admission in his Latvian notes that smaller or "provincial" cities are simply fated to be sleepy and culturally inconsequential - forever. If music is to remain meaningful and be a "soundtrack" to something loftier than the daily grind, it must be attached to a more promising address.
As a result, Sideflip offers a better location for civic improvement - somewhere to match the uplifting effect of his own discography. We've already seen Natalie Mets speak of Oriole and his Dirty Deal colleagues as the authors of a modern, very urban soundtrack. Kombarov, on the other hand, would rather see social and sonic harmonies developed elsewhere - in places that would have pleased Chamfort. Sideflip takes his urban catalog out of town, to the lush landscapes that predate concrete and asphalt.
"I'd suggest that people spend more time in the countryside with their friends, both swimming and sunbathing. At the same time, they should keep listening to interesting, 'proper' music. Don't get hung up on any one style: keep broadening your musical horizons. For that reason, keep up with new labels and new releases, too." The stumbling beats we heard from Oriole were designed to accompany some faltering aspects of urban life: big cities are entered with trepidation. Oriole's LP, as we saw, directly implied that civic harmonies are in fact realizable only in fantasy. The way to overcome a bumbling, tongue-tied involvement in stressful society is to take a few mushrooms, apparently.
I'd suggest that people spend more time in the countryside with their friends
Max Belous' silly puppy meme held that superior - and less stressful! - experience might actually lie in some ridiculously simple and self-evident spheres. The desire of Dawncat to state his address as "the forests of Moscow's suburbs" certainly placed happy reverie and social trust a little further from anything urban. The best alternative to metropolitan woes is to get on a bus - and throw something heavy on the accelerator.
Finally, in the closing observations from our fourth musician, we see that the music of Saint Petersburg's Sideflip may be inspired by the gaudy confidence of the 1990s' rave scene, but that blissful surrender to a dancing crowd has now been transferred to a sunny, imaginary riverbank. In other words, the best way in which to enact trusting acquiescence is to visit the countryside.
And so some new Russian, Ukrainian, and Estonian releases - giving voice to quintessentially urban styles - claim, in fact, that today's cities are woefully lacking. Much in the spirit of Chamfort, our streetwise artists therefore depart for a noiseless, ecological alternative to modernity.
Max Belous: deep house, deeper lakes, and civic faith