This week sees the newest addition to the Siberian compilations known as "Garage or Culture" (Garazh ili Kul'tura). That former noun could refer to garage rock or to the consumerist, "uncultured" values that would lead one to buy a garage, thus shielding (and coveting) a cherished motor. That may sound extremely silly, but the very prevalence of one-car garages in Russia is, for many people, a prime marker of post-Soviet materialism. If, though, we're indeed dealing with "garage" in the sense of slapdash rock music, then “culture” becomes a negative notion, as an indicator of po-faced elitism. In short, the result is confusion – and the more that perplexity increases, blurring the line between cash and propriety, the more noise we should expect.
Fifteen friendly and positive tracks
The newest of these DIY compilation albums, as before, is dedicated to a specific region of Russia. They have all been edited by Siberian noise exponent Booby Mason, who himself is based in Omsk. Given that address, it's probably no surprise that the CDs have tended to showcase the lo-fi talents of Eastern bands. Indeed, on this occasion, we're focusing on the relatively nearby city of Novosibirsk, approximately 400 miles from Omsk.
Mr. Mason has made the recording available for free download, and adds a brief note. "I've been planning this compilation since my first Novosibirsk trip. The initial tracks were gathered in April, but I'm ready now to let people hear the result. It's all being published in two halves, which together consist of fifteen songs." Mason then adds in passing that everybody involved has been both "friendly" and "positive" in outlook. Those two adjectives will prove to be very significant, as we'll see.
The genres used to tag "Garage or Culture" would suggest a rather morose worldview, at least to start with: punk, screamo, harsh noise, psychedelic, post-punk, doom, and shoegaze. One of the ensembles involved in the project - Kul'tura Kureniia (The Culture of Smoking) - goes further still: metal, black metal, blackwave, post black metal... Having gathered as many lightless hues as possible, the musicians then define their general location as somewhere "under the fingernails of Novosibirsk."
In apparent support of that scruffy misery, some of the other bands have nothing to say online. Take, by way of illustration, Before We Got Lost. The first webpаge one encounters with regard to this group will read: "Hello! This community is closed... but it probably wouldn't hurt to drop the admin folks a line if you've any requests to be passed on."
Lest chance actually smile upon a seemingly indifferent ensemble, its members take a few seconds to remind the public: "We play punk rock and experiment stylistically. We try to do things according to various 'contrasts': we attempt combinations of screamo with expressive, socially relevant lyrics. That's all mixed with elements of classic post-hardcore... and a positive mood." From the outset, despite an apparent lack of faith in fame and/or fortune, spirits remain surprisingly high. The deаfening aesthetic of screamo is used not to complain about the status quo, but instead to remain upbeat.
That's remarkable when we consider the kind of obstacles facing these musicians. Even physical co-presence can be an impossibility. Building a fan-base across windswept and snow-blown Siberia is no easy matter. As further proof, we might turn to another of these outfits, Kometjakten, whose webpages are equally empty. The only texts of consequence are small, fleeting exchanges between the group and its admirers, all of whom are trying to reach the same destinations - at the same time. One of those organizational chats from earlier this year was designed to help a friend reach Barnaul, 120 miles away. That small distance was prohibitively expensive to cross: "Here's a suggestion... We'll try and scrape some money together for the trip."
Nervous energy - plus a dash of lyricism - together with a yearning for the stars
The cost and slow speed of recording is also admitted - yet shrugged off. Local artists FPRF, mentioned often on this site, introduce themselves as follows: "Hello! We're from Novosibirsk. We soon hope to release our album. We've been working on it for more than two years!" That exclamation mark says a great deal. It also prefaces a brief promotional text of considerable optimism: "We're a Siberian quartet, consisting of Daniil Sharomov, Anton Glebov, and the Gavrilov brothers - Evgenii and Mikhail. We play dramatic music, combining the real sense of drive you'd expect from a rock band with some beautiful flourishes on the synth. It's no less interesting or insistent that stuff you'd hear from the UK! FPRF offer a nervous energy - plus a dash of lyricism - together with a yearning for the stars."
No matter the weather or cost of bus journeys, the band's gaze is directed elsewhere. Upwards.
Some of the further collectives on "Garage or Culture" have also appeared on these pages before, which allows us to say a little more about the background to their stubborn positivity. We might begin with "Poslednie Kanikuly," fronted by Egor Klochikhin who translates that stage-name as Last Holidays. A prior encounter with Klochikhin's work led us to his admission that the project's catalog is full of "experimental works, though they're a bit sentimental... and rather naive, too. Listeners can find a great deal within them, starting with [the development of] some epic instrumental passages. That scale, marked both by depth and variety, morphs into various electronic effects - and includes lots of movie samples, too. It all requires hard work, both for the composer and audience."
Compositions that are a bit sentimental... and rather naive, too
He then likens his melodies to a "strong gust of wind, sweeping everything away. Not in a cruel or aggressive manner - it's just the way things are. I can't do this any differently." Naive romanticism clears the playing field of unnecessary clutter.
Another outfit we've examined before, and who are included on "Garage or Culture," are Mirror Face: Viktor Zavadskii (vocals), Maksim Starovoitov (guitar), and Andrei Terekhov (drums). That first encounter on FFM showed the enduring influence upon these young artists of a UK dream-pop tradition, resulting in a modern-day aesthetic that now "ranges from shoegaze through post-punk to noise pop." The line between harmony and tumult was, we suggested, deliberately made vague in order to overcome any sense of isolation caused by geography. Noisy emotional maximalism became more important than a physical address: the goal was an audible, ubiquitous state, rather than any one place.
Living in the middle of nowhere was no longer a hassle.
Work online and collaboration through netlabels has continued to aid this process, in that the meaning of physical distance begins to fade away. Groups of otherwise unfamiliar individuals find some common ground, so to speak, in their cherished outlook and private preferences. Given that these fragile states of empathy have little to do with language, many of the images used by Mirror Face make fitting recourse to vague, psychedelic forms. Specificity is avoided on a regular basis. These musicians still declare an ongoing commitment to shoegaze and noise-pop.
In that same vein, they published a second EP not long ago, called "Slouse." The recording's title went unexplained, but it logically referred either to a (relatively rare) slang expression or a minor literary character. The former comes from a combination of the nouns "slum" and "house." The later is an overweight, ugly shopkeeper in the novel "Clockwork Orange." He and his wife are physically pummeled within the first few pages.
In both of these possible scenarios, physicality is unappealing. It's a leaden weight. Tangible existence offers little except a slow demise or a good kicking. Absence or psychedelic escapism is therefore attractive - in the sense of not being here. And that leads almost unavoidably to the work of a Novosibirsk instrumentalist already known well to FFM as Speck (aka Nikita Bondarev). By chance - a few days ago - we gathered some listeners' and reviewers' comments on his most recent, ambient instrumentals.
"What is there to say? These are five tiny snippets: taken together they barely last ten minutes. A chance listener will find here the charm of a broken toy: it has neither functional value, nor any clear-cut aesthetic worth... In all these compositions there's a discernible air of incompletion." That same spirit of humbling open-endedness endures in the many landscape photographs uploaded by Bondarev on a regular basis to Vkontakte.
For all these sage philosophical responses to distance and (huge) inconvenience, most outsiders would probably expect some garage rock and whining feedback from deep within a cold, concrete city. Answering those expectations best of all, perhaps is an outfit formed three years ago on the same frozen streets, Dog Drama. The quartet takes its name from an early nineteenth-century melodrama in which a murder victim's dog is allowed "by law" to fight the accused - in the name of justice. That same play would, over time, spawn a considerable number of related stories and silent films, given the dramatic potential of a morally wronged hound.
One might also suggest - perhaps - that this same theatrical reference also operates as a nod towards to the tougher aspects of life in Novosibirsk. In an unforgiving, Darwinian sense.
A discernible air of incompletion
Some of those rigors or threats, even, seem to come from the band's audience, more than from outside society. Several listeners at Vkontakte, asked for their opinions, have expressed admiration for Dog Drama's work, but would like to see more of a narrative structure, both within certain songs and across the track-listing of longer works. In other words, what's lacking is a coherent story or raison d'être in the band's output, one that gives a single significance to multiple tracks and projects. Apparently.
A large number of these "Garage or Culture" ensembles manage to fashion an alternative to local experience - often with amity or escapist reverie. Nonetheless, when it comes to a shared, social narrative that'll drive all these adventures forward in the real world - together - things are harder to define. There's clearly a healthy and happy local scene in Novosibirsk, made from various sounds and multifaceted worldviews; the question is whether they want - or need - to speak of themselves in collective, singular terms.
The members of Dog Drama begin the discussions regarding market recognition, local branding, and other overdue questions of media fairness. At some point a large canine may be involved.