Hunting High and Low: DOK, Blooming Plum, and Everything by Electricity

Behind the capitalized, monosyllabic term DOK stand three young Ukrainians: Stanislav Ivashchenko (drums), Evegnii Kravtsov (bass), and Stanislav Kravchenko (saxophone, keyboards). The immediate impression they produce is one of absence, in that DOK have no vocalist. The level of concern, though, is close to zero. "DOK offer a program of first aid for victims of springtime melancholy, daily hassle, and international misery... Dismantling all rules and stereotypes, the group operates from two cities [Donetsk and Kiev], whilst actively touring across neighboring lands. The band's live shows continue to amaze audiences with their daring, even frenzied levels of energy. You simply have to hear them!"

Daring, even frenzied levels of energy!

Our three musicians have just released a second album, entitled - with equal confidence and directness - "Dva" (Two). The Ukrainian press has responded positively. The previous CD had been awarded "Debut of the Year" in 2009 by the Moscow music journal Fuzz, so expectations were high. Few people were disappointed: one Kiev trade paper opened its assessment by saying the new tracks had enough excitement and tension to fuel an espionage thriller.

This was more than mere repetition of prior triumphs, however. One of the biggest differences from previous material, said observers, was a greater sense of humor, no matter how high the "dramatic tension." In particular, some parodic elements were noted that mock Slavic musicians living in emigration (seemingly in Israel). Another target, also discerned through stylistic parody, was the generation of home-based, elder artists who lay claim - still! - to the rebellious spirit of the Soviet '60s, when swing and rock recordings both made their way secretly through customs.

In a word, two reactions to Ukrainian life were pilloried: flight and self-aggrandizement.

Those reactions of escape and arrogance in tough times have arguably become norms, hence DOK's claim at the outset to wise contrariness. The complexities of quotidian experience benefit neither from cowardice nor pugnaciousness; a life of surprises instead needs a similar, honest sound.

And that's exactly what met with the greatest praise in Kiev: "Unswerving advocates of juxtaposition, the members of DOK have now drawn even greater attention to various extremes in our daily lives. This new album runs the gamut from carefree jollity to nervous drama; it moves from a frightening, wound-up cacophony to a sort of relaxed, lyrical psychedelia. Even within the confines of a single track the musicians start juggling with their listeners. We get tossed about like tennis balls on waves of sound; we're thrown upwards and then hurled down into some immobile backwater..."

Such is the experience of your average citizen.

Things move from a frightening, wound-up cacophony to a sort of relaxed, even lyrical psychedelia

These impressive - though impressionistic - notes gradually become part of a broader picture. With DOK's humor established at the expensive of overseas songwriting, the musicians then focus upon the sounds of local life, which justify the rather extreme rhetoric of their promotional texts. Life in Donetsk and Kiev is best expressed with "daring, frenzied levels of energy." As we see.

For all the negativity, though, there's an undoubtable cinematic grandeur to the (wordless) material from DOK. Indeed, as we've already heard, the Ukrainian press speaks of this trio's soundtrack to daily drama as something worthy of James Bond! Amid unpredictable realia, where private lives are "juggled" like small spheres upon an ocean, instrumental expression succeeds where language fails - in the very best traditions of melodrama.

DOK draw special attention to the fact they operate between two cities: their inconvenience, known to countless residents, is likewise fashioned into themes of greater applicability. Parallels with a common burden lead to music of greater relevance: it all fosters a thespian, sometimes feisty strain from proud regional representatives that we can find elsewhere - even among those people who do leave home.

The mockery of emigration suggested in DOK's catalog emerges, one presumes, from accusations that local crafts in exile often become tawdry, marketable stereotypes. A move abroad, usually undertaken in the name of material security, leads to artistic poverty. Beginning with musical emigres of the early 1990s, Slavic performers were certainly doomed to a life of restaurant "shows" - and a repertoire of endless gypsy romances, say. Drama would be exchanged for drab security. There's a dignity, therefore, to staying at home - where hassles are proudly suffered.

Matters, all the same, cannot be reduced to a group of bruised patriots. There's also a potential artistic benefit to leaving, if - and this is vital - one does not fall to bourgeois, mercantile mediocrity. That distinction makes the experience of one young collective - Everything by Electricity - all the more important. It helps to complicate any simple binary picture of "here" and "there."  

The band's name comes from Jules Verne's 1869 adventure tale  "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The full quote employed by these musicians reads as follows: "There is a powerful agent, obedient, rapid, easy, which conforms to every use, and reigns supreme on board my ship. Everything is done by means of it. It lights it, warms it, and is the soul of my mechanical vessel. This agent is electricity. Everything by Electricity."

Transferred to the modern day, this intrepid spirit finds expression in two young Siberian musicians - guitarist Julia and drummer Dmitrii - who not long ago moved to London. Together with local bass player Brendan Kersey, the trio has now announced the appearance of some debut tracks on Soundcloud - with the kind of phrasing that would shame a restaurant bard.

DOK express concern that a creative biography might be sacrificed to filthy lucre, all the name of an "improved situation." Everything by Electricity show how to maintain the romance of departure and travel. They turn the risk of displacement into a metaphor for aesthetic progress. Journeys are taken not for greater stability, but in order to subvert and dismiss the demeaning limits of an MOR existence. The "daring levels of energy" celebrated in Ukraine become manifest in London because the journey itself is both risky and riveting. Poverty has its benefits, apparently. 

Dense waves of guitar, reverberating walls of noise, and fragile melodies

Here's how two homeless Siberians speak of their craft: "Whilst lush pop beats strongly at the heart of this music, dense waves of guitar, reverberating walls of noise, and fragile melodies all collide amidst distant bells. Synth-drones and ghostly shapes form in the night sky - they're anchored fast by a pulsing bass, throbbing drums, and drum machines. The band's sound is littered with the strains of alienation and a longing for escape - as one would expect from a childhood spent gazing westwards, across the cold and barren landscapes that lie far beyond the Iron Curtain..."

That sense of "alienation" and "longing for escape" is not directed towards another location so much as it embodies the striving towards another soundscape - towards an alternative creative process. We're a very long way from the emigre universe of leather sofas and a well-polished 4x4. One of the band's favorite images - above - positions itself midway between nineteenth-century adventure and a domestication of risk. Even our eloquent champions of "reverberating noise and fragile melodies" are not averse to a little self-deprecation. 

Already in London attention has been forthcoming from the BBC's Steve Lamacq and the NME. In the meanwhile, these musicians - no doubt existing on a shoestring - still say they've found a "new sense of purpose." Prior to any adult concerns over calm, comfort, or security, an air of adventure endures that is best captured by antique science fiction. And a porcelain leopard.

Synth-drones and ghostly shapes...

A third collective helps to illustrate this logic, again from Ukraine: Blooming Plum, who reside in Odessa. Formed at the end of 2009, the band also promises live performances full of vigor. "It's hard to define the group's style; we'd like to try and avoid any labels. One thing, however, is obvious: the music played by Blooming Plum is the result of our own practice. And that's certainly cause for respect in an age of 'cover versions,' where people try and carve out a living simply by straining their vocal chords."

The band document their line-up in a way that hints jokingly at such professional pressures. It consists of Vladimir Maliuk ("destroyer, heavy artillery, and drummer"); Irina Lukianchuk ("guitar, mandolin, and nerves"); Roman Gaevskii (bass guitar and piano), and Dmitrii Datskov ("vocals, guitar, sinews, scarves, and hats"). Jauntily-positioned cigarettes and sunglasses - on a cloudy day! - also act as witty insurance against chutzpah.

Why, amid these nervous states, should one even commit to a musical life at home? An adventurous outlook may be laudable, but surely the desire of emigre artists for a stable living is worthy of some respect? It would appear that the more sacrifice is required by a career, the less these Ukrainian artists are willing to make any concessions to financial gain. Difficulty becomes a badge of honor - just as DOK are proud of being "caught" between two cities.

The band lay down a few ground rules for this dedicated behavior at an online forum: "1. This is a discussion group for who people who [already!] see a purpose in it; 2. We'll be announcing forthcoming events by Blooming Plum; 3. This group will likewise delete - without further explanation - all kinds of advertising, self-promotion, abuse, extreme negativity, or improper statements."  Put differently: the music and its supporters exist for no special reason: the songs are their own raison d'etre.

Secondly, the resulting soundtrack offers a sense of community that is more pressing and precious than any fiscal gain "elsewhere." Membership can be heard - which takes us back, once more, to the statement above about melodrama. This music allegedly gives voice to communal, cathartic sensations that cannot be spoken - especially in the terms of shoptalk.

When the band made a debut video recently, the director deliberately focused her attention equally on the audience and the stage: "I was capturing little bits of their lives. Kisses, love, chance glances, friendships, silence, isolation, embarrassment, emptiness, sadness in somebody's eyes... or the search for something better. The chance to change something." Such are the challenges at home - and the opportunities to make a positive impact, without driving to the airport.

Kisses, love, chance glances, friendships, silence, isolation, embarrassment, emptiness...

Just as Everything by Electricity hope to save the kind of social or creative adventure that often surrenders to a moneyed cliche, so Blooming Plum are keen to avoid a related collapse. Much has happened in post-Soviet songwriting to show the nasty relations between melody and profit. And so the market-driven metaphors of collective, hedonistic release than one finds in blase songwriting are stolen back. Talk of an expansive, inclusive artform is either salvaged by London-based romantics or Ukrainian artists who find greater kinship with the "silence and isolation" of their local, browbeaten audience.

In other words, these songs - the soundtrack to compassion and empathy - are offered to the kind of people who obviously need them. The description of a debut video we hear from Blooming Plum shows clearly that the song's reception matters more than any polished production. Sentiment is placed higher than showiness. Rather than seek a new community overseas, the call goes out for something better at home. 

And, as we sense from a couple of images used elsewhere by Blooming Plum, a transformation is indeed possible from sulkiness to a sunny disposition. Right from the comfort of your armchair.

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