New Unease from Ancient Towns: ByZero, King Imagine, and Kitty Cat

The three ensembles discussed here operate in relatively discrete styles: witch house, freestyle jazzcore, and digital hardcore. What unifies them, however, and nudges their collective output in the direction of a beat-driven rock aesthetic, even, is the world outside the studio. Either through live, improvised performance or a mere consideration(!) of public existence, these musicians begin to produce very insistent, rhythmic patterns.  

Let us begin, for example, with the artist known either as Kitty Cat or "Ki††y C▲t" to the typographically fussier members of society. Those symbols might lead us to expect some of the swirling, gothic sounds of Slavic witch house – and we'd not be disappointed. The tracklisting of Kitty Cat's newest recording - "Hold On" - promises tales of "Zombies in Your Kitchen," a "March of the Not Very Dead," and other disruptions of normality.

Kitty Cat: 'Art is long, life is short' (Goethe)

Important here is the fact that these sounds come to us from the town of Pskov, which was first mentioned in chronicles as early as 903. Over subsequent centuries, the town's location on the edge of Russia and EstoniaLithuania meant that it was destined to witness a staggering amount of battling and bloodshed. The fortress shown below was attacked no less than twenty five times over the course of the fifteenth century alone. 

Once Peter the Great conquered the region in the 18th century, it was subsumed into Russia. As a result, Pskov may have been saved from borderland melees, but it also lost its importance as a frontier trading place. As a result, it went into rapid decline.

One would think that economic underdevelopment would be a preferable option to constant gunfire, but even if that were so, the two world wars of the twentieth century threw the town back into the heat of battle. Although Pskov was now well inside Russian lands, modern artillery was still able to hurl shells over great distances, hour after hour. As a result, many of the area's ancient fortresses were destroyed, simply unable to withstand the pounding. To this day, it is generally accepted that Pskov could become a major tourist destination, but an enormous injection of funds is needed in order to restore the older buildings to their former glory.

Pskov, therefore, is a town associated with wars of attrition and final stands, perhaps most famously in March, 1917, when Nicholas II abdicated the throne here. Standing on the edge of an empire, with political options reduced to zero, surrender was the only choice left. In fact, it was hardly a choice at all; the Czar was backed into a philosophical and physical corner. Today the sense of civic threat is much vaguer - yet no less imposing. And so we move from the color red to darker hues - from a failing empire to things existential.

In other words, the recordings here express concern over vague and ominous social forces - yet they're unsure as to where those dangers begin. Who's to blame? In semi-serious fashion, our first musician turns to the Devil.

As we see from the materials gathered, the individual behind Pskov's "Ki††y C▲t" suffers from (or simply feigns) some classic symptoms of felinophobia. The project's web venues are replete with images of cats, none of which look happy... or bode well, symbolically speaking. Most of the miniature beasts look threatening - as does Ki††y C▲t's logo. 

These games embody a rather nervous attitude towards "other," external realms that finds even greater expression in the new material by Kiev's Alexei Mikryukov - aka King Imagine, who was born in 1972. His studio output, available through Soundcloud, sticks primarily to the quiet, introspective framework of idm and ambient tones. Some new live recordings have now appeared, however – and the style is very different indeed. Taken outside, to peopled locations, the soundtrack to modern experience alters - and darkens.

As in Pskov, so the Kievan tracklisting establishes a few core themes – before the wobble bass and harsh noise thunder forth. These instrumental narratives announce the onset of some "Apocalyptic Blues" - in which phrases taken (seemingly) from an old Doors' recording are reworked as a distortion-rich melee. We then move onto issues like "Asphexia" [sic], en route to "Yamatsuka Suka," itself an apparent reference to the renowned Japanese noise-rock performer, in which case the title translates as "Yamatsuka Is a B*tch."

The laughs are few and far between. The distance between artistic expression and anxiety also remains troubling; furrowed brows are evident as reality slips out from under one's pen - or chalk.

Mikryukov's own background began in equally noisy formats, specifically as the (defunct) punk outfit Zooy E Orchestar, which was created in the last two years of the Soviet era. Because state-run recording processes were uppermost at that time, the band was only able to manage some DIY recordings, all of which – sadly – have been lost. Over time, though, Mikryukov would enter the clamorous realm of Yamatsuka, so to speak, and play live with various Ukrainian noise/ industrial collectives, thus combining the joy of improvized chaos with elements of electro-dub.

The resonant, dubby sounds of vacuity were made within emptiness, as a new society strove to escape the vacuum left by socialist failure. Generally speaking, the 1990s were given over to this transition from guitars to electronica, i.e., from a style of civic protest to one of novel, sometimes discordant soundscapes. Protest became more of a sage, yet concerned perusal of the world. And confusion.

It's impossible to catch the sunlight

Mikryukov's photo archives, used to frame these nervous, contrary sounds, are again replete with cats – in all manner of semi-Satanic poses! As with Ki††y C▲t, so the visual catalogs of King Imagine are compiled with a dark sense of humor. We even find a tiny "proto-haiku" on one of the Ukrainian sites, entitled "Diary of a Samurai's Cat." These are the views of an ancient, furry warrior(!), battling against actuality. Whether he does so in the name of Good or Evil remains a mystery.

Translated into English prose, that little poem might read: "It's impossible to catch the sunlight. Silly people. I wiped the dust from an old record… Bliss." Sound becomes both an evocation of some demonic, external realm and a means of escaping it. In other words, these are juxtaposed, sometimes contradictory and audible attempts to deal with the ineffable.

The picture above - from a King Imagine collection - shows four attempts by locals to find stability and cultural permanence amid risky social changes. The slogans read: "Jesus Lives"; "Lenin Lives"; "[Soviet rock star Viktor] Tsoi Lives"; and "Michael Jackson" lives. Surely one of them can offer some lasting consolation... It's a delicate balance between the invocation and management of disorder, a tricky process that's also found in the work of Moscow's ByZero.

...a disturbing blend of avant-garde jazz, progressive/ hardcore rock, noise-glitch, and modern freestyle

Founded a couple of years ago, ByZero consists of Aleksei Bobrovsky (drums), Anton Kolosov (bass), Fyodor Fokin (guitar), and Katya Rekk (synths). Those names automatically give us a connection to other members of the Moscow noise-rock community, specifically to Motherfathers and Iad. The collective upshot of these efforts across the Russian capital is called a "disturbing, heavy blend of avant-garde jazz, progressive rock, hardcore rock, noise-glitch, and modern freestyle."

Prior recordings, captured over the last couple of years, added four saxophonists to the mix – leading, of course, to major disorder and discord. The unique status of the saxophone in Russia only strengthens that effect - as an instrument either "excessively" Western (under Stalin) or unappealingly complex (in later jazz under Brezhnev, say).

Symbolic of intellectual rigor, rather than of lounge lizards, the saxophone often implies an aural challenge - at least for Russian listeners. The live tracks on display here (known en masse as "Livestock") make explicit use of Nikolai Rubanov (above), best known as the sax player for prog-rock legends Auktsyon. Together they fashion what has elsewhere been called "hardcore punk… in a postmodern jazz style." It's not easy listening.

Surreal noise that's demanding, unpredictable, and yet trance-inducing…

Before us we instead find an unpredictable, unruly format born of live performance. These social displays, born of audience interaction, embody a certain view of social existence. The result is not consoling – as a recent review of "Livestock" for the Serbian press pointed out. It focused upon ByZero's "scary and sometimes surreal noise that's demanding, unpredictable, and yet trance-inducing…" Parallels are drawn with Krautrock (Faust), King Crimson, the ornate time signatures of Don Ellis, and other people or patterns. 

The response remains impressionistic.

The Serbian reviewer concludes that "Livestock" "is unique – and that's a quality you rarely come across these days." For "unique," though, we might be well advised to read "indescribable." After all, these three recordings from Kitty CatKing Imagine, and ByZero avoid (or struggle with) language. The resulting sounds are gothic, baroque, and occasionally tortured.

That same issue of ineffability comes into play when the musicians either ponder or enter the outside world. Resulting worries are dealt with into two ways: either a magical, mystical scapegoat (i.e., cat!) is to blame or, conversely, musical expression lapses into the improvised, yet impassioned patterns of jazzcore. In neither case does anybody sing of these ontological horrors. Put differently, external, social phenomena never endure long enough to be named. That which changes – infuriatingly, frighteningly – has no name.

Do not listen to this if you have a hangover!

"Entertainment" is thus spun from anxiety - both for the performer and audience. As one reviewer of ByZero has it: "We [as listeners] are battered, bruised, but also exhilarated, knowing we'll return for more. This is the most frightening, yet compelling record I’ve listened to in a long time... Do not [however] listen to this if you have a hangover!"  A clear head is required for dignified, difficult labor. Alcohol may promise calm, but - as modern science tells us - the human nervous system simply goes into overdrive after a few drinks, in order to counteract the sedative effect of liquor.

As shown above, Kitty Cat is fond of the Goethe quote: "Art is long, life is short." There's not much time to grapple with some universal conundrums. These three musical projects suggest that reticence and diligence are at least a good start. As is sobriety.

Audio

King Imagine – Apocalyptic Blues
Kitty Cat – Dope Step
ByZero – Livestock 02 (feat. N. Rubanov)
ByZero – Livestock 04 (feat. N. Rubanov)
Kitty Cat – March of the Not Very Dead

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