Intuitive Noise: Electrate, Cosmonauts Day, Colour Dreams, and Knyaz Mishkin

"e" by Electrate (Riga, 2011)

Electrate are a threesome from Riga, Latvia, although presumably of Slavic heritage. The lineup strongly suggests some Eastern connections: Constantin (bass), Ivan (drums), and Yuriy (guitar). Surnames are absent, as are any indications of a vocalist. The debut recording from this trio attempts not only to free itself from the shackles of language; it also shows that whenever Electrate do make recourse to linguistic statements, they dismiss all forms of punctuation. If syntax must be employed, it should be maximally free.

An album has just been made available for free download, titled simply as "e." It is accompanied by a sizable one-sentence paragraph that hopes to document both the recording's origins and influences. The lack of punctuation within this promo-text is designed, presumably, to give an impression of fluidity over (the dangers of) any fixed statement. Given that Electrate tag themselves as a "psychedelic jam band," that same yearning for liberty certainly makes sense.

A wide range of sounds, each of a different tone, type, and color

If, nonetheless, we try and pull something resembling a coherent statement from this flow, adding the occasional capital letter and period, what results is: "The album was inspired by many factors, such as the streets of our city and its strangely familiar inhabitants. We've used a wide range of sounds, each of a different tone, type, and color." That chromatic metaphor has proven infectious.

Electrate

The same PR-text, after a few more wayward phrases, then hopes to champion an escape from "narrow-mindedness" with a celebration of ubiquitous, "wild nature that's always evolving." Any such commitment to mobile, unpredictable processes, however, is not without risk. Electrate admit that improvised music "could be good as pie or bad as sh*t." We're then offered a range of ad-libbed adjectives and adverbs, all trying to capture that same feeling of profitable jeopardy: "sad funny melancholic dramatic magical gloriously stunning plain ugly..."

Anything can happen.

Sad funny melancholic dramatic magical...

An even grander sweep (or sense of insecurity) is evident in the work of Moscow post-rock outfit Cosmonauts Day. Here the preferred adjectives multiply: "experimental/ atmospheric/ post-metal/ sludge/ ambient/ shoegaze/ post-rock/ post-hardcore." The members list themselves with some equally vague phrasing: Nikita (drums), Krasen (bass), Chekan, and Dima (both guitars). We're not informed of anything else.

Once again, concrete voices are absent. More restless, vagrant processes instead become the focus of attention. Less vocals, more vapors.

Cosmonauts Day: "Paths of the Restless" (2011)

In the place of any authorial statement, we find some quotes chosen by the band from the work of Erich Fromm, attributing friendship, antagonism, and the yearning either for power or submission to "various conditions of life." These, it would appear, are forces of signification that work to much greater and lasting effect than any rhetorical zeal. Nature - operating on most occasions in silence - tells more impressive stories than any verbose narrative.

Then, in narrower and more ominous terms, Fromm's words are used to ascribe all these positive and negative qualities to economic factors. The fickle workings of commerce have allegedly led to an unfocused, if not groundless existence. Modernity has produced the kind of behavior that requires no commentary. 

Pessimism is thus born of material experience; difficult conditions smother numerous ideals and then, according to a perverse logic, they elevate those same values to an even loftier plane. Love aside, though, what might these abstract victims of filthy lucre be? Implicit in the Fromm quote are some of the intangible, "basic human needs" that were tabulated and celebrated by the man himself. These included transcendence (experience beyond the here and now) and an emotional or spiritual rootedness (a "sense of belonging"). Material, mercantile culture leaves both of those ideals in a rather sorry state. 

Transcendence and emotional "groundedness" are best salvaged or captured, we're told, in improvised, instrumental forms. Composed during long, directionless walks.

Cosmonauts Day (Moscow)

Western blogs have made approving noises: "This stunning album should be counted as one of the best this year!"; "Cosmonauts Day play trippy music that's ideal listening for the freezing days of winter"; "The band merges the glowing intensity of sludge-metal with the spacey, meditative textures of shoegaze - not to mention traditional space-rock..."

Sludge-metal plus the spacy, meditative textures of shoegaze

What's interesting here is the tendency of some Slavic bands, especially those with a penchant for ad-libbed performance, to lean upon folk roots as a way of attaining any "spacey" heights. Take, for example, Colour Dreams, also from the Russian capital. The band members define their output as "Serious, Fresh, Loud, and Free." Vocals are excised, only to be replaced by a saxophone and - oddly enough - an accordion, in ways that sometimes recall the Minsk instrumental outfit Port Mone

Online discussions of the band's catalog have dismissed any suggestion that instrumental material might be simply (or cynically) designed for an international audience. "Those considerations are for foreigners - and we live in Russia!" comes the response. Another fan adds, in a related vein: "Music on its own says a great deal more [than lyrics]." Elsewhere we hear: "I think that vocals would be a mistake... Better to add some more accordion!" The plaintive sounds of an unsettled, pre-modern existence speak somehow to a related feeling of bittersweet liberty today.

Colour Dreams (Moscow)

A lengthier tradition of this folkish psychedelia, however, comes from outfits like Knyaz Mishkin, named after the hero of Dostoevsky's novel "The Idiot" and based in Minsk. That ensemble, fronted by Leonid Narushevich has, in fact, been in existence for two decades. Over that lengthy period, and thanks nowadays to the distribution possibilities of the web, the band has also managed to publish over thirty albums. Electrate proposed a form of self-expression that was devoid of punctuation and thus "freer": Knyaz Mishkin turn that stream-like utterance into a production technique.

Endless sentences become endless sound.

And on a stylistic or generic level, the group is committed to what it calls "intuitive improvisation" on stage, which has allowed for the inclusion of Knyaz Mishkin in a wide range of line-ups, all the way from blues and folk to avant-garde jazz festivals. Narushevich attributes the origins of his own improvisational enterprise to schoolboy efforts in the mid-70s. That initial desire to move beyond habit was born of a special fantasy, he says, the kind that grew from a lack of international and/or cultural contact. Put differently, Narushevich has often asserted that the USSR's isolation spawned a certain kind of naive imagination: "We're all children of the Soviet Union. We're idiots." In the best possible sense.

Being on stage is freedom. You can do whatever you like...

He continued this logic in a recent interview, explaining how sonic experimentation has, for him, always been an additional escape from any sociopolitical shackles: "Music is a different existence altogether. When somebody's on stage, they become a wholly different person. It's an experience you really come to need. It offers the kind of adrenalin or sensation that'll let you feel like a true human being. It's freedom. You can do whatever you like..." 

Knyaz Mishkin (Minsk)

These sorts of impromptu, dramatized utterances and melodies are, says Narushevich, relevant for other local reasons. They have remained important even after the collapse of socialist enterprise: "We all live 'intuitively' in Belarus. We feel our way through life. We exist intuitively 'cos we don't know any other way... What we play [as an extension of that common experience] is 'proto-music': we're dealing with pure creativity on stage, no matter where we happen to be performing." Little liberties are claimed, over and over.

We exist intuitively 'cos we don't know any other way...

Narushevich refers on one occasion to Knyaz Mishkin as a "joke project," but that throwaway quip has a serious significance, at least within the framework of Shakespearian fools or jesters, using apparent absurdity to cast a harsh light upon some home truths. And then, of course, there's Mishkin/Myshkin himself, whose awful experience of epilepsy robbed (or freed!) him of rational perception, including the logic of speech. Whether that loss of clarity and syntax granted an insight into "truth" is undoubtedly a moot point. It did, at least, offer a potentially broader vista.

In the same way, these four bands from Russia, Belarus, and Latvia all jettison language, generic norms, or modern custom - in the hope of something "cosmic," spiritual, or simply "comic." It all depends upon one's point of view. 

Leonid NarushevichKnyaz Mishkin

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