Founded in 2006, the Ukrainian band Marakesh enjoyed solid success over a six-year period. Increasing renown also led - by the late 2000s - to various nominations and awards in the Russian press. Keen, however, to operate beyond the Slavic world, Marakesh's members moved this year to Berlin. Just before that transition, a side-project emerged - Sex in Space - and the new location has already led to another offshoot, Four Phonica. Its creators speak of a "bizarre mixture of electronica, rock, and dark ambient sounds - framed with melancholic verse."
Fronted by Mark Gritsenko and Daria Chepel, Four Phonica happily declare an ongoing debt to "90s alternative music." The fact that Marakesh once played warm-up for Placebo and Mumiy Troll makes the connection even clearer. Some futuristic leanings are informed by sounds of the recent past. This implicit lack of faith in tomorrow will prove increasingly significant.
Dark ambient sounds, framed with melancholic verse
To a large degree the move to Berlin both reflects and extends those earlier forays into the Russian marketplace. During the year of 2007, Gritsenko had lived in the Russian capital for several months while working on a Marakesh album. It's hard not to hear the adventurous spirit of a young tourist in his memoirs: "We fondly remember the walks we'd take around Red Square. Some people even recognized us and asked us for autographs. That was especially cool if you consider how few people at home knew about us! It goes without saying that we were really touched by the public's reaction."
There's a slight tension here that has become increasingly pronounced of late. A band transfers itself - consciously! - into a new, physical arena at a time when success is increasingly driven by networked, virtual audiences. Which of those realms and strategies deserves more attention?
A related dilemma emerged when Gritsenko and Chepel opened an online forum, in order to entertain some questions from distant fans. The artists spoke at one point of how live, physically demanding shows now interweave with digital crowdsourcing initiatives. "The level of interest among local organizers always defines whether or not we perform somewhere. And their interest depends - directly - upon your [digital] activity. So please download and share our music; take part in organizers' surveys - when they ask about arranging new gigs. Create online groups yourselves - and gather the signatures that'll help us come to your town. In fact, when you've got a decent number of interested people, send us a link [to your list]!"
Everything will be destroyed
This notion that web-based, intangible practice is becoming more important than physical slog, perhaps, led Four Phonica during that same Q&A session to quickly research the etymology of the noun "idea." The band agreed that the core "idea" behind any creative enterprise was key, but the musicians were unsure as to what the word actually means.
It refers, they concluded, to: "Mental images of an object, phenomenon, or principle." Taken as true, vague perceptions are prior to any objectively predetermined values. We've already seen that Four Phonica take their inspiration from the work of 1990s' ensembles: the very idea of the future does not, therefore, seem too rosy. New Four Phonica titles such as "Everything Will be Destroyed" or the Nietzschean "Human, All Too Human" both suggest that ideal potentials - be they romantic or digital - will succumb to some crude reality.
Something - sooner or later! - will treat the physical world very badly indeed. Hence, no doubt, the gothic/emo stylings of Four Phonica. And their love of Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011)...
The related choice of Berlin as a creative base is surely an active endorsement of some decadent commonplaces. The city is chosen, according to various cultural truisms, in anticipation of some gothic physical decline - or colliding planets.
Toying with other "fated ideals" is the young Saint Petersburg outfit Shortparis. The musicians - Nicolay, Sasha, Pasha, and Danila - refer to their work as "audio-theater. It's a combination of ancient Greek tragedy and pubescent sensuality." Things will probably not end well. Sure enough, the band's potted bio sets a related scene (already in the past tense). "There were four of them: four 25-year-old youths... In 2010, Siberia aborted[!] these young men, dispatching them to Saint Petersburg. Although they're no fans of [life's] linearity, our musicians are unable to overcome it. For that reason they 'mask their output with easy-going dance rhythms.' Beneath that mood lies a real sense of drama - but we've no idea where it came from. The 'audio-theater' of Shortparis can operate as a fine backdrop to hysteria, sex, and irony."
Greek tragedy, hysteria, and irony
As time progresses in its worryingly "linear" patterns, only irony and hysterical outbursts seem a valid response to a growing fatalism.
Shortparis occasionally participate in a new Saint Petersburg artistic movement known as "Sobor" (i.e., "Cathedral" or "Assembly"). It's designed to free "our native village from all enemies. 'Sobor' hopes to get rid of society's infections." Other participants in this angry, yet vague protest are known to readers of FFM, such as Lemonday, Electroforez, and Slow Suicide. How serious are these intentions, though, and to what do they actually refer? What kind of ideas or ideals fuel this rhetoric?
In a seeming parody of secret and masonic societies of Russia's dark past, Shortparis tell a local journalist that the organization, voicing its views in musical form, operates on three levels. The so-called "White Assembly" "consists of the information that we're able to publish in the media." As for the slightly loftier and more mystical "Red Assembly," it will only reveal various civic or spiritual truths to chosen members. Logically enough, the third and final "Black Assembly" is involved in things "we can't talk about - at all. It's the nucleus of the entire 'Sobor' organization. Only there are the most secret goals and motives spoken out loud."
Over and above ostensible reality, ominous forces are supposedly at work. They're not to be discussed in front of the faint-hearted. If Four Phonica view issues like fate, destiny, and impending collapse through the prism of elegant decadence, then Shortparis know well what murky, dangerous forms an apocalyptic conviction can take at home.
Whether, therefore, the discussions with "Sobor" are informed by tragedy or bitter irony remains unclear. As a nation's social fabric unravels - again - perhaps sarcasm and witty cynicism emerge as a consequence of helplessness. Maybe a dark humor is used to sideline some very uncomfortable convictions.
Songs of possible interest beyond a circle of friends and family
One could argue that these worries - taken seriously or not - lead to the quiet, acoustic style of today's other two projects. The first is known as MKRV, an outfit overseen by Dima Mokrov and his colleague Narek Arutyunyants. Both men originate from the town of Chernogolovka, some thirty miles outside central Moscow. Home to a wealth of nationally famous research centers, Chernogolovka is considered part of Moscow Province and yet is sufficiently far away to afford peace and quiet to people who require them.
Beyond that vaguely discerned location and a handful of charming recordings, there's little to say about these two enterprising performers. In fact Mokrov even declares on one social network: "Extra information about us really won't be that useful. But that's precisely why we've given MKRV a no-nonsense slogan: 'It's your [own] mood. Just listen.'"
With a mini-album now on display called "W.A.Y," MKRV have decided to say something to the Russian press. The musicians admit that Dima has moved to Moscow proper, since the commute from Chernogolovka was proving to be very time-consuming. Here we see a much smaller version of the dilemma facing Four Phonica: is physical effort more important than digital enterprise - and can that effort hope to counter the equally ubiquitous, weightless workings of fate? In simpler terms, where does self-determination lie and does it actually change anything?
We've not been to many places - or seen a great deal
MKRV set their sights low, just in case destiny disagrees. They currently say they'd like to distribute their music "to anybody at all beyond a circle of friends and family." According to the same modest sphere of activity, the band members also admit they'd be "happy to visit any towns around Russia. We've not been to many places - or seen a great deal." That same tension between effort and inevitability leads, ultimately, to pleasure taken not from lofty or great goals in the future, but instead from the humble process of creativity itself.
"Inspiration comes from the work [of writing a song]... if, course, I'm carried away by the ideas within a rough draft." Choice and self-determination slowly leave the premises.
The same hushed register informs the diminutive catalog of Renat (or Renalt) Taktarov, who performs as Melan! and lives not far from the city of Ufa. Although that stage-name is often written with an exclamation mark, Taktarov describes his output in even more self-deprecating terms than MKRV. If we polish his English phrasing a little, what results is: "Good day! I'm a musician from Russia. I write all these songs myself. I record everything at home - using a web camera." A smiley face follows - as an endearing, yet submissive shrug of the shoulders. Unable to afford even a proper microphone, Taktarov still keeps going. If these songs sound especially muted, it's also worth mentioning that we had to amplify the mp3s - considerably - to make them audible.
As with MKRV, a new album is available - "Panorama, Pt. 1" - which is an extended version of an earlier EP. Here, again as in Chernogolovka, some rare observations have appeared online as a result of the new publication. In one online interview, Taktarov explains that his hometown is actually Sterlitamak, an established - through profoundly unromantic - center of chemical manufacturing.
In the form of a muted manifesto from an unfashionable address, he then states that "lo-fi songwriting is the most sincere form of all." Barely audible noise is used to console people with low expectations: "I'd be happy if my music helped somebody in a difficult moment. After all, it's me writing this material - and I genuinely consider myself to be the saddest person I know." He tries to foster an occasional note of hope: "I'd like people to be more honest. I know that sounds fantastic, but all the same..."
I've been a moonshiner/ For seventeen long years... (Bob Dylan, 1963)
Taktarov continues: "I'd also like see greater levels of understanding in Russian society. Especially when it comes to people who [continuously] look sad. Generally speaking, I'm in favor of peace and compassion." That happy, maybe wistful mode is echoed by an English line that crowns his profile on Vkontakte: "True love will find you in the end." No sooner have those words been spoken, though, than we recall the identical phrasing of Daniel Johnston, the US singer-songwriter whose fight with bipolar disorder was the subject of a 2005 documentary. A physical ailment puts paid to romantic couplets.
And then, as if ideals weren't fading fast enough, Taktarov also quotes some 1963 phrasing from Bob Dylan: "I've been a moonshiner/ For seventeen long years./ I've spent all my money,/ On whiskey and beer." If ideals have any chance of surviving on the road from Berlin to Sterlitamak, they're seemingly going to need some liquid assistance. In the four instances of Four Phonica, Shortparis, MKRV, and Melan, idealism takes a beating. Fate travels very far and fast in some countries - or so it appears to the browbeaten.