Happiness and horror - the world of Harotnica (Гаротнiца)
The Belarusian ensemble known as Harotnica (Гаротнiца) describes itself in an intriguing manner. The band's promotional materials use a phrase that could be translated as "destructive fire orchestra"; it might be understood in terms of that same fire being created - or extinguished. Disaster is either caused or curtailed: anything might happen. Fittingly enough for this atmosphere of potential chaos, Harotnica's lineup includes eight permanent members: Andrus Takindang, Valeriya Volod'ko, Sasha Funt, Vitalik Karabukhin, Ivan Kavretskii, Sasha Yaskel'chik, Leonid Basharkevich, and Vadim Kucheiko. At the hands of these many colleagues, "lyricism, sarcasm, and joy" are to be expected simultaneously.
Dance, play the fool, or maybe feel a little sadness
Straddling the considerable distances between ska, anti-folk, jazz, and some genuine Balkan traditions, Harotnica continue to sing the praises of breakdown - with all the aesthetic benefits thereof. "Our unique line-up of instruments with horns and dombras, for example, leads - in turn - to unusual song structures and lengthy improvisational passages." They both allow audience members the opportunity to "dance, play the fool - like any good punk - or maybe feel a little sadness... purely by accident."
This celebration of disorder has been ongoing since 2007, when the Harotnica project was born in Minsk. Despite that fairly lengthy timeline and a willingness to celebrate randomness, things have not always been easy. Some recent Harotnica recordings appeared only after a five-year wait to get into a studio. Finding the time and opportunity to get eight people on tour - simultaneously - only adds to the problems. In fact, when that studio time was finally booked, Harotnica said their primary aim was to maintain a spirit of "live, sloppy" performance. Spontaneity was more important than polish.
Not long ago, Andrus Takindang admitted to the Belarusian press: "It was always a dream of mine to create a band around the theme of 'destruction.'" Equal emphasis, he hoped, would be placed upon "pleasure, entertainment, grief, and sadness."
One early moniker considered for the project was "Singing Prostitutes," in the sense of audible joy from within a grim setting. Not surprisingly, an alternative stage-name was soon needed... And yet we still find subjects such as suicide, directly addressed in a new Harotnica single, "On the Edge."
These "polar opposites of death and joie de vivre continue to get people dancing," as if equal attention paid to both happiness and horror helps to create a sense of objectivity and even relief. Neither is celebrated in ignorance or avoidance of the other. Dostoyevsky is name-checked in several interviews, so it seems reasonable here to speak of a philosophical dialog between those same polar opposites. Happiness cannot be understood without a full, equally impassioned consideration of misery. Everybody gets their say - all the time... in the name of truth.
No single, arrogant viewpoint survives for very long in the face of a "destructive fire orchestra."
The polar opposites of death and joie de vivre
For many other bands, of course, breakdown is a little closer to home; it's something evident in their immediate and physical surroundings. Take, for example, Minsk neighbors Railkid Station. This duo - Dmitry Fander and Denis Dovgalev - describe themselves as "just two f**ks making tunes." There's not even any pretense to proud originality: "We play all the good stuff you know." Despite their fatalism or immediate acquiescence to the status quo, a debut album is now on show: "Tramps Are Handsome. We're the Jugglers." According to that phrasing, the jugglers are not especially good-looking. "The result sounds as if [1980s'] glam rockers Ratt tried investing all their energy in English indie-rock... and everything went wrong."
As with Harotnica, so Railkid Station prefer to record everything live, warts and all. In doing so, they use a famous brand of Soviet synthesizer, barely held together with Scotch tape. In the light of these principles and practices, it's hard to know whether the duo are considering a long-term future: Railkid Station was only formed in early 2013. The local press has at least been kind: "The band's recordings contain so much energy because these guys don't like any one style [in isolation]." Both vigor and a resulting appeal come from deconstruction: "They take grunge, punk, rock, British indie stuff, surf... and mix it all up."
When one of the Railkid Station members celebrated a birthday not long ago, his friend listed the main qualities or virtues that should endure in life - and always be treasured. "I hope you continue playing like a god - and singing like Pavarotti. I also hope I keep making jokes... I hope we always p*ss ourselves laughing. Please stay the way you are: brave, a little rude, and full of kindness." Failure is laughed off - as part of the same indivisible whole that's lauded in Harotnica's catalog. Gain and loss; dreams and failure - they always walk side by side. Somewhere in between those extremes lie empathy and friendship. As the members of Railkid Station declare: "Thanks so much to everybody who has participated in this project - and will continue to be part of our big family."
Please stay the way you are: brave, a little rude, and full of kindness
Amid both victories and misfortune, friends and families last the longest.
The fickle, exhausting nature of local life has always been part of the darkly humorous songs written by Saint Petersburg outfit Electroforez (Электрофорез). Claiming the direct influence of Psychic TV and Einsturzende Neubauten, not to mention European politics of the same period, these musicians require a brief introduction. Thankfully, a Russian publication has already done a nice job.
"The story behind Electroforez is no more than a year old. The frenzied vocals of Svyatozar Chernousov, together with some energetic dance music and striking texts, have done their job well. The band may only have played a few concerts in their hometown of Saint Petersburg, but the city's young and fashionable people are already impressed.... After they'd released a controversial debut single - 'Satan, Go Away!' - Chernousov and his colleague Vitaly Toporov then unveiled some other plans. They joined forces with [drummer] Danila Holodkov from Slow Suicide and together formed the secret record label 'SOBOR.'"
Electroforez performances often show the visual influence of a Russian avant-garde tradition, yet they draw upon that strident heritage with both irony and caution, given the manner in which such "revolutionary" gestures often come to nothing at home. And so a related tension endures between the resurrected sounds or views of '80s post-punk, as they were in Russia, and the sneaking suspicion that any such earnest romance is risible from the outset. Maximalism rarely ends well...
What happened once before will surely repeat itself, and a sense of well-entrenched doubt frequently tends Electroforez towards self-mockery - before destiny makes a fool of noisy, self-assured innovators all over again.
The soundtrack to a 'disco for decadents'
The newest Electroforez EP has just been published... logically titled "EP #2." One Russian webzine has already discerned material that's well suited to a "disco for decadents and romantics." These are songs to accompany a gothic descent or collapse, perhaps. That same publication then distills the essence of Electroforez as two worldviews in endless dialog. The first can be expressed thus: "Dance as you can or want, for the world will end while you suffer." The other is: "We'll do whatever we want - and right now we want to dance." Fatalism and free will intertwine. In a society where both seem equally possible or feasible (for a while...), there's plenty of room for "deconstructed" seriousness, as no viewpoint is valid forever. Arrogance is impossible; confident people are often brought to their knees.
Another Russian periodical online blames Saint Petersburg itself for this infernal uncertainty. "Electroforez might want to sing about love and apple pie, but since they're frozen stiff on the Griboyedov Canal, something else happens. The band must instead prepare listeners for the invasion of a[nother] Mongol horde, lengthy terms of exile, and a grim, dark force that [always] operates across the city. This isn't music; it's the reading of a verdict."
The philosophy of our two Minsk bands can be mirrored with another Saint Petersburg collective, Obshezhitie, whose lineup is built around the core trio of Yury Vysokov, Sergey Razvodov, and Vasily Filitov. Those men first came together in 2008 and - to this day - their textual statements are peppered with doubt. Optimism is a tall order. "It's hard to change the world, but it can be done. One thing, however, that you'll never change is unrequited love."
The musicians then recall a gruesome series of Russian murders in November 2012, in which a young lawyer killed five people after being spurned. "Not only did that man suffer from a sense of the inescapable. There was also an unflagging spirit of emptiness within him." Any considerations of lyrical self-expression in today's society conjure both an air of nothingness and a desire to save oneself from woe. Back in 2010, an interview for the Sreda Gorbacheva concerts in Moscow brought similar thoughts from Yury Vysokov. "Russian rock has long since discredited itself - first and foremost with a tendency to moralize [in a grand fashion]. I reckon that all that endless finger-wagging was destined to end badly..."
One thing, though, that you'll never change is unrequited love
This fatalism has now led to new recordings, called "Begstvo" (Escape/Flight) and debuted on the pages of Afisha. Grander, timeless notions lie just beyond daily experience, apparently. The band, in other words, speaks of some verities that put individual self-promotion to shame. "Our songs touch upon extreme or liminal states [within daily life], but they're only a means of breaking through to something eternal. I'd be inclined to place our songs somewhere in between [Symbolist poet Aleksandr] Blok and [Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky]. Those are our two opposing poles."
Neither poet takes precedence; neither the representative of humbling mysticism nor bold innovation. This endless vacillation between decisions and destiny has become, in the mind of Obshezhitie, the sine qua non of Russian rock. Rather than avoid its resulting penchant for sage, resigned melancholy, "musicians should instead dive as deep as possible [into that heritage]. He who dives deepest wins. I've always felt a kinship for the saying that 'soldiers fight not for medals, but for death.' If you've stepped out on a road, then keep going."
A full engagement of these dialogic notions from Harotnica, Railkid Station, and Electroforez might lead to a philosophic "victory," but the smiles will be few and far between. All of these bands ask their listeners to pay equal heed to both joy and misery, since both occur with equal frequency. That may make happiness a tall order, but it's also a fine defense against arrogance. Truth is no laughing matter, it seems.
Obshezhitie: big smiles, set against a humbling backdrop