As the socioeconomic situation in Russia becomes more complex, one would expect certain––more strident––genres to increase in prominence or relevance. To some degree that's true, especially if we consider bands such as the punk or post-hardcore outfit WLVS from Samara. In the past WLVS have tended to define themselves with a single adjective: "loud." The line-up has been equally straightforward: Aleksandr, Kirill, and Max. Surnames are irrelevant. There's no time for details amid high tempos and ear-splitting clamor. For all that onstage zeal, however, civic disappointment remains a disconcerting norm. Songs fall victim to social blight. And so fans of WLVS find messages like the following in their newsfeed: "We've some very bad news. Our tour was cancelled because our visas were denied. We tried three times to make things happen, but every time we failed. We did everything we could to make our dream come true. Nonetheless, everything fell apart for reasons beyond our control."
One Russian text on another social network is even more expressive. "I don't even know where to start. Sometimes in life––no matter how much you work or invest [time and energy] in your dreams––life will turn its back on you. Everything goes out the window, for completely inexplicable reasons." After more expressions of upset and offense, a brief note of optimism from WLVS sounds at the close: "Everything will undoubtedly come true... just a little bit later. F**k the borders." After fleeting anger, a little hope endures––including dreams of interaction with or without a passport.
That same growing ire is, in some cases, directed towards the limitations of life in Samara––over 1,000 km inland from Moscow. Lead singer Max (aka "Mokis") has admitted that fifty people is a solid audience figure for bands in Samara. "Unfortunately you won't get more people attending a rock show in this town... Each new venue will open up using the same people who closed down whatever came before it! That new location will survive a year, at most, and then get boarded up." In another interview, Max defines the regional situation in even darker tones. "There's simply nowhere to play here. There's even a club in Samara that moves once a year––and then changes its name, too." Permanence is nowhere to be seen.
Restrictions at home and on tour are again compared. The world refuses to play fair: "When we wanted to tour Europe, Kirill only got his papers on the day of departure––and then told us he wouldn't be able to cross the border... I won't go into all the details, but let's just say it's yet another example of Russian life––our own version of [melodramatic] 'Santa Barbara.' So I'm left there, f***ing stunned and in a cold sweat, trying to find a drummer. If we could locate somebody suitable, he'd have to learn ten songs over the course of a month, have a multi-entry visa in hand, and not be constrained by his college studies, job, or something else––and he'd have to be a decent guy, too. Basically, the odds were one in a million that I'd find somebody. The situation with drummers in Samara is at least seven times worse than you imagine! And so I started to look immediately around other towns..."
The answers to pressing concerns are not found at home.
What's especially interesting is that WLVS frontman Max lists some of his favorite tracks in another conversation, including Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave"––itself a Gospel classic of the South, dating back to an early recording of 1934. The English lyrics state, in no uncertain terms, that insecurity and transience in the physical world are only a reminder of how matters will improve after death. Inconvenience and pain have a purpose; they should be suffered in the name of a loftier goal. The material world is both crude and imperfect.
In more specific and relevant terms, "Ain't No Grave" interprets the life of a hapless drifter in a most romantic light. To move––constantly––is to rise above the dead weight of ostensible reality. Homelessness implies a proximity to things divine. "When I hear that trumpet sound/ I'm gonna rise right out of the ground./ Ain't no grave/ Can hold my body down./ Well, look way down the river/ And what do you think I see:/ I see a band of angels/ And they're coming after me..." Angels will soothe and save life's downtrodden souls.
I see a band of angels/ And they're coming after me... (Johnny Cash)
These hopeful gazes upwards perhaps take grandest form in the work of Moscow's Mooncake. During a recent crowdsourcing campaign, the artists introduced themselves with a sunny "Hello!" and the simple self-definition of a "Russian instrumental space-rock band." Then, as we've noted on a prior occasion, that nationally specific adjective is singled out for attention: "In many parts of the world, post-rock is either dead, dying, or unnoticed. Not so in Russia, however, where the scene is flourishing...." Elsewhere we read: "Throughout its development [in Slavic cultures], post-rock has often received harsh feedback from critics about its lack of creativity, and the tendency of one band to mirror another." Something among these observations would imply that the need to hide from typicality is greater in Eastern climes; a style of "deliberate" or insistent fantasy lasts longer.
This same topic of determined reverie has been increasingly important to Mooncake over the last couple of years. Not only do they now refer to themselves as an "orchestra of new symphonic music"; Mooncake have also developed a series of thematically focused live shows or installations for planetariums around Russia. Promoters speak of "a melodic, genuinely powerful orchestra. The music is combined with a kaleidoscopic flood of emotions and some suitably cosmic video art." Whatever that commercial phrasing, it remains clear that an ability to stare at the night sky and forget will hold increasing appeal.
Very recently––and by way of straightforward example––Mooncake just celebrated the fifty-fifth anniversary of Yury Gagarin's flight into space (12 April 1961) at Moscow's Central Planetarium, using both sound and light to take hopeful audiences on a "journey across the expanse of our universe!" Any lyrical introspection from Mooncake's earlier recordings now aspires to the dimensions of a "Cosmic Odyssey." Dreams leave likelihood far behind.
The Planetarium shows are less a celebration of Soviet science than a bittersweet consideration of family histories. In other words, some members of Mooncake have direct family connections to men and women who worked on the USSR space program. The grandfather of bassist Anton Marchenko was an engineer at a construction plant for Soviet space hardware. Initially an airplane factory, it turned after 1961 towards vehicles designed for considerably more distant locations. Road travel was insufficient for post-war dreamers.
My grandfather made planes, space ships, and an orbiting station
During WWII, of course, both production quotas and noise levels had been raised. The patriotic grandfather in question lost his hearing––yet shouldered his pain in the name of an ideal. "He never thought about [that discomfort or damage]. He just wanted our army to get quality hardware––and for everything to be delivered on time, too... He avoided the fate of so many bombing victims. His factory was actively targeted––in fact, over the course of World War Two more than ninety workers perished there."
Marchenko then concludes: "My grandfather truly loved his work. He just stayed silent and dedicated himself to the honorable task of making planes, space ships, and an orbiting station. I reckon that's where my love for the cosmos came from." Nobody drops bombs in outer space.
Mooncake founding member Pavel Smirnov feels the same way about local history and the values it once espoused. Smirnov also has a close relative who taught mathematics––in the town of Kaluga. "He was known as rather eccentric and would, for example, enjoy ice skating with an umbrella in hand." His career overlapped with that of the groundbreaking rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (d. 1935); the two men even resided in the same house at different times. In their stargazing tales of distant galaxies and astrophysics, the members of Mooncake discern a noiseless network that, just like the dignified corners of Soviet society, is today nowhere to be seen.
These two extremes, perhaps, of screamo (WLVS) and post-rock (Mooncake) come together in the surprising new release from St Petersburg's Show Me a Dinosaur. The band's last album, entitled "Dust," contained some telling imagery. It spoke of a growing disconnect with the here and now:
"Our goal was to design a simple cover [for 'Dust'], using paper that looked like packing cardboard. The image on the front shows the LP's core theme. There's a maid sweeping away some garbage and dust. There's a human heart in all that dust, too. It's forgotten and no longer needed... just like all our human values." Daily life fails in a major way; better dreams and ideals will be required.
And yet––in the closing minutes of "Dust"––one English-language blogger noticed something of a "coda. Everything changes a gear into a major key––and the [overall] feeling changes, too. It’s redemptive, akin to the sun coming out after a cloudy day. Then the [rare] vocals kick back in, but with a major key instead of a minor framing them... The album is allowed space, happiness, and an upbeat finish." Two juxtaposed outlooks found expression in a single recording; the new and eponymous LP from Show Me a Dinosaur brings those opposites even closer together, through interwoven hardcore and post-rock influences. Yelling and whispers are equally important.
Don't look at tags or labels. Just listen to the music (Show Me a Dinosaur)
In a very recent interview, the band members complain about the gradual transformation of Russian post-rock into "nothing more than 'instrumental dance-rock' with a load of cliches thrown in... Our own sound, however, has altered a lot since our debut recording. Things will probably change further still, too.... So don't look at the tags or labels. Just listen to the music." Difference is a guarantor of surprise and therefore of movement––away from home and habit.
This impassioned call from Show Me a Dinosaur for constant novelty or productive shocks––and therefore for an inclusionary worldview––even emerged in (yet another) discussion of the band's peculiar moniker. Every third interview, perhaps, drags up the same query; the answers vary. Objective fact becomes indistinguishable from private fiction: "The basic story is that 'Show Me a Dinosaur' comes from something creationists like shouting at proponents of evolution. It's as if somebody says––'Your dinosaurs never existed. God created everything... You also say that mankind came from the apes. So why don't monkeys turn into people?' We don't intend our stage name to be a protest against religion. Let people believe whatever they want, if it makes them happy or helps them to find answers in life. Just don't be stupid––and don't stop others doing what they want."
Objective experience is so miserable or frustrating that a host of private, even contradictory truths is better than the imposition of some dull, material norm.
It does not take much effort to guess why songs of dreaming and disappointment would overlap so much at the present in Russia. And that troubled status quo brings us to the tongue-in-cheek garage rock of Moscow's Glintshake. This critically acclaimed ensemble includes some well-known figures from around the capital's music scene. Drawing upon the recognized talents of Evgenii Gorbunov (NRKTK/Stoned Boys) and vocalist Katya Shilonosova (aka NV), the group also involves Dima Midborn (ex-Tesla Boy) and––on some occasions––drummer Sergei Ledovski, who's in the process of emigrating to the US. That list could easily grow, since the biographies of all involved also lead us to the team-sheets of Trud and MAKE. The result, allegedly, is "driving punk in a '90s style." There's a general desire to make noise.
Russian constructivism––for guitars (Glintshake)
Not long ago Gorbunov and Shilonosova offered a few insightful observations to the Russian music press, regarding a suitable register with which to mirror civic reality. How much noise does the public want? Gorbunov begins: "Katya and I have been waiting for some kind of rock revival. I mean something that sounds both powerful and grungy––but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe guitar music has been too inward-looking, and doesn't yet have the power to turn teenagers' heads."
Hence the returning themes of ineffectiveness and a resulting irony. "You could call Glintshake's songs senseless. The basic goal of our music is getting the atmosphere right. People need an opportunity to switch their head off... Lots of folks play in guitar bands today, but we get the feeling they're kinda embarrassed to share their energy with the public. It's as if they're scared to let rip––but we're not." Cathartic chaos is rarely encountered, perhaps because of its uneasy proximity to themes of surrender. It's hard to market pointlessness; self-affirmation sells better.
Glintshake have decided to label their style as "Russian Constructivism––for Guitars." Gorbunov has dismissed the entire phrase as a "silly joke, of course." Nonetheless, the band's turn towards Russian issues overall is more serious. In a conversation this month, Gorbunov pondered the consequences of performing in a local language instead of English: "Having switched tongues, we've noticed there's more 'space' in our songs... I mean that whenever we start writing in Russian, our ideas will get transmitted even if we cannot find the precise phrasing. In other words, you start to feel the song... Everything gets livlier and the song starts to breathe more, too."
The unconscious finds expression in audible forms; it's both closer to home and a repository of troubled feeling.
Evgenii Gorbunov and Katya Shilonosova of Moscow's Glintshake
What, according to the same logic, Glintshake do not want is this new severe and "constructivist" sound to become a massed movement. "All the bands nowadays [that sing in Russian, not English] tend to have the same gloomy style. It all boils down to the same f•••ing nonsense. Whenever you fall under the influence of any musical fashion, then eventually you'll all end up looking––and sounding––the same. When all the fuss dies down and everything stops being new or interesting––that's when it becomes nothing more than a superficial phenomenon." Difference needs to be cultivated––endlessly––and direct, crude sloganeering never helps.
Despite admitting to the hassles of local life, WLVS, Mooncake, and Glintshake are loathe to put their faith in political movements, which by their very nature require broad consensus. They need sameness.
You simply must do whatever interests you! You must do it right now (Glintshake)
Hence Glintshake's growing concern whenever a writer speaks of some new, regional fashion or movement. "Of course if feels really cool to be part of a movement; you're doing something together with everybody else... But then you start realizing you're an individual––and that you have your own vision. You've got your own views of music and creativity overall. So you simply must do whatever interests you! You must do it right now; everything else has to be ignored." That includes state policy.
"This wave of new and aggressive propaganda from the state [on national media] has actually started a reverse process––of healthy [i.e., not jingoistic] patriotism. So few people today genuinely love their homeland; instead they see Russia in terms of its military power or its president––and at home they'll walk around waving a little flag." Gorbunov advocates for the right to choose a language, a view of home, or an ideal. In essence, he rejects the value of permanent convictions. Having just dismissed all movements, parties, and modish attitudes, he then hopes that local music will, perhaps, be grounded in difference. Bands might be linked by nothing at all.
"It's great that so many young Russian outfits have started to develop ideas [of their own]. We used to copy the West endlessly, but nowadays it seems we've fixed that. Certain common characteristics are evident [in Moscow's rock scene], some shared ideas. Everybody's trying to leave their own mark. In time, I hope, that they'll come together as something really cool."
A common platform will perhaps be built on a lack of commonalities. Everybody will agree to disagree. Both musicians and municipalities will be able to "f**k the borders," as WLVS eloquently put it. Potential collectives will place aside all "tags or labels" and instead embody Glintshake's deepest dislike for massed enterprise. In a word, these four new recordings are all grounded in a respect for individuality––a mode of existing that has to be diverse, over and over.