Estonian musician Margus Voolpriit is perhaps best known as drummer in the capital's celebrated post-rock ensemble Pia Fraus. That band, in turn, has enjoyed a long-standing association with the Seksound label, who have just released a solo LP by Voolpriit, under his stage-name of Wolfredt. Stylistically speaking, his early recordings of 2012 hoped to offer "ascending vortices of atmospheric guitars, framed with pulsating electronics––and additional sonic effects." The artwork chosen to accompany these instrumentals four years ago was a very wistful evocation of the Baltic countryside. Any penchant for a shoegazing aesthetic was not viewed in terms of urban moping––there was seemingly much beyond the city limits of Tallinn to aid reverie. Dreamers needed only head for the marshlands of a flat, northern nation. Those purely spatial or geographic allusions, however, would become otherworldly a few years later, in the following manner.
You need a good understanding of repetitions and their impact
The newest Wolfredt album, entitled "Neverno," comes with an interview this month in the Estonian press. Immediately a journalist asks Voolpriit what exactly––in 2016––is needed to "form a proper post-rock ensemble." The musician claims to have no idea––whatsoever. This penchant for modesty, reticence, or silence, even, is noticed elsewhere. In multiple interviews, Voolpriit declares his fondness for cycling. The harsh Estonian winter may sometimes force him to spend more time employed (indoors) as a camera operator, but in the summer––"if the weather is good––then everything gets reversed. The bicycles are ridden first; only after that does anything get done with music." That fondness for solitary movement is only the first indication that noisy modernity is best avoided.
The career of Margus Voolpriit began in 1993, "when the last Soviet military units were leaving Estonia." He was serving in the army at the time––and by chance discovered some drums left in a warehouse. Early or amateurish tub-thumping gradually became membership in a punk outfit, where Voolpriit would also play bass on occasion. Skills and compositional challenges would both grow over time, leading to the long, involved instrumentals on "Neverno." Spontaneity would become studied craftwork.
Hence the questions about what exactly constitutes contemporary post-rock, since this Baltic performer has, in a relatively short time, travelled the distance from a military warehouse to Estonia's most reputable venues––and is now penning compositions inspired by Soviet science fiction movies of the 1970s. Some of the Wolfredt tracks on "Neverno" are conceived visually by their author, as the soundtrack to "people traveling through space, full of excitement in their search for a new home." The early images of an unpeopled landscape have become those of space travel; peace and calm lie further from home.
The Wolfredt album, fundamentally without vocals, consists of nine tracks that Voolpriit has found "difficult to name." Instead he imagines them in terms of astral passage or progression. And then, in an intriguing formal gesture, he suggests that the LP's closing number, "T Minus 90 Seconds," could work equally well as an intro. The linear path of a rocket (or track-listing, even!) is thought of as cyclical. These revolving patterns are clarified a little, when Voolpriit decides––eventually––that he does know something about the DNA of post-rock. He again talks of looping designs. "The classic answer to your question would be that 'proper' post-rock requires the maximum number of pedals––and at least the same amount of reverb! In reality, though, you also need what we might call a 'shamanic sense.' I mean you need a good understanding of repetitions and their impact."
Siberia gives us a sense of expanse or what used to be called 'internal emigration'
What, however, might the ultimate direction of these patterns be––if the music of Wolfredt is imagined as a spiraling rocket or whirling, Siberian shaman? What's the point of all these repetitions? In suitably terse terms, Voolpriit replies that "after post-rock comes silence." Meditative patterns leave little need for words. Instrumentals––hopefully––become increasing, stargazing introspection.
In Siberia proper, so to speak, we find the Novosibirsk quartet FPRF: Evgeny Gavrilov, Mikhail Gavrilov, Anton Glebov, and Daniil Sharomov. Once again, an empty, noiseless place is best described by analogy with the night sky. In the recent past, these four young men have introduced themselves as follows: "FPRF offer a nervous energy, plus a dash of lyricism––together with a yearning for the stars." The majesty of the Siberian taiga or the cosmos––say four Russian dreamers––turns everybody into nobody. One reviewer has written of "cosmic shoegaze that's full of futuristic synths, retro-psychedelia, and some mysterious singing that appears to reach us from far away."
The brand-new FPRF release, entitled "87% Chill," has been accompanied by an interview in the Russian press. The issue of physical space and sound arose quickly, once the musicians had politely declined, like Wolfredt, to explain the titles of their songs. When asked, in more mundane terms, about life in Novosibirsk, the performers said: "Siberia gives us a sense of expanse or [what used to be called] 'internal emigration.' Music for us is a form of emigration. My home and parents are here. We're certainly not the kind of people who consider Novosibirsk to be hell on earth!" The phenomenon of internal emigration comes from Brezhnevian culture, when many Soviet underground artists admitted their civic ineffectiveness and turned instead to private, cultural concerns. They ignored the outside world as much as possible. Hence the science fiction of the 1970s mentioned by Margus Voolpriit.
These associations of lyricism with erasure or escape are commonplace in modern songwriting. Take, by way of illustration, the Saint Petersburg outfit Eerie Summer, born from the ashes of Teen Themes––an earlier project of front woman Vika Zolotukhina. Currently she is joined by a certain Maxim, who declares––rather vaguely––his home to be Finland.
One Russian journalist has spoken of Zolotukhina's tendency to forge a self-image through lo-fi Instagram pictures of "sand, sunshine, bicycles, and selfies in the style of a frightened doll." This emigration into childish nostalgia accompanies pop songs deemed "naive, sunny, and endlessly charming." Apparently these same sensations of happy flight could hold wide appeal: "There's a clear ability in Eerie Summer's music to fashion a pleasant atmosphere. In fact, if the bass guitarist could play with a little more energy, then half of these songs could head straight for primetime radio!"
This is how songs about dreams and meditation should sound
Elsewhere, Eerie Summer are praised for an "ephemeral, airy sound. The vocals are full of a warm, hypnotic melancholy. It's obvious that this duo's debut could enjoy enormous success... if we lived in a totally different country with a more developed music industry." Happiness and good fortune reside elsewhere––or in another, "warmer" past that's sadly missed.
And so, in other publications, the band's music is said to "wander between reality and slumber. The songs of Eerie Summer are enveloped in a shimmering, rather sad filigree––they're wrapped in something both elusive and intangible. It all recalls the early morning mist, just before sunrise." And again discussions of some "hypnotic echo" emerge, as if desire might escape the here and now with the looping, mantric patterns of meditation. "This is precisely how songs about dreams and meditation should sound. They should resonate with a radiant sadness."
Even though Eerie Summer sing in English, these assumptions of wistfulness or despondency, even, are not shared in the US or UK. English-speaking reviews of the band are more likely to strike this upbeat note: "Magic is all around, Ladies and Gents. You just have to remember to search for it yourselves every now and again." For that British blogger, happiness merely requires effort; for most of the Slavic reviewers, however, there's apparently little point in trying.
And that brings to another Saint Petersburg band, Ongkara. Formed in 2010, the group has both Russian and Canadian members. The current lineup is Artem Kochurov (guitar/vocals), Aidar Abrakhmanov (bass), Yegor Yurkevich (drums), and Kubikmaggi's Ksenia Fedorova (keyboards). Committed to a fusion of "Eastern and Western styles," the ensemble's geographic division between two lands or traditions leads to a specific worldview: life spent "nowhere in particular" prompts thoughts of even farther locations. A peripheral existence invites tales of boundlessness, even. "Ongkara plays music that evolves from observing the 'edges of life'—and their connection with outer space or the universe."
That snowballing romance is linked, in a direct fashion, with the group's name. "Ongkara" comes from the Balinese alphabet, specifically from a famous symbol of Hinduism pronounced "Ong" or "Om." The musicians add a little context for us: "Ongkara is a sacred word combining birth, death, the universe, and life itself. Just as that [meditative] symbol is multifaceted, so our music is multidimensional and eclectic..." Should the general outlook here still be unclear, the musicians declare their key interests on one portal as "outer space, the trauma of birth, and one's adaptation to reality."
The new album is titled with an imaginary hashtag, which in English translation might read "#inthedangerzone." Its musical narratives of risk or jeopardy are then transferred to the realm of genre. Put differently, rock songs in Russia have such a proud tradition of civic duty or protest, that the decreasing economic influence of rock music overall can be worrying. Social care and attention are at risk––at the hands of indifference. Morally responsible rock music is "in the danger zone." One such worry arose on Ongkara's social networking accounts. The need for socially committed lyricism in 2016 was questioned: does anybody want or need songs about individuality and its ethical role in the world?
Wish us strength, patience, and good luck. We're going to need them all––in large amounts
The band raised this issue when complaining about the closure of "Radio Roks." "Ongkara's songs were played there... One thing is still puzzling us. Is there really nothing left except the audiences for trashy pop songs and chanson?" That latter genre is an MOR, downtempo form of Russian songwriting, often dedicated to tales of the underworld. It is wantonly unfashionable. Other media outlets have also failed songs of dignified selfhood. "There are no [decent] magazines left, no radio stations, and TV has long since passed away. 'They' won't let us hear what we ought to hear. The internet will probably vanish soon, too. How will we ever know about anything new, interesting, beautiful, or intellectually stimulating?"
Fans and supporters of Ongkara chipped in. "Money always gets the final vote. We've never known any rating system based on honest votes––unfortunately. That's why people around the world associate Russian culture with [old] ballets and art. They don't think of modern music. Our pop music is copied from elsewhere; nobody needs it in the West. Genuinely interesting Russian performers will never enter the [vital] machinery of show business. Everybody knows this, yet none of us can do anything."
For reasons of generic convention, crippling distance, rhetorical habit, or mere business practice, any ability of these four projects to imagine full self-realization is compromised. Dreaming takes considerable effort, as Ongkara admitted recently when speaking of their cherished plans for 2016. "Wish us strength, patience, and good luck. We're going to need them all––in large amounts."