Distant Storms: Holy Palms, Boris Grim, Pia Fraus & Show Me a Dinosaur

Pia Fraus (Tallinn): "In Solarium"––a vinyl rerelease in 2016

Boxed sets and physical reissues have proven a relatively successful defense by music publishing against digital evolution. Yet even the most luxurious and timely republication is neither free of risk, nor safe from obsolescence. The individual outlay of music fans is falling precipitously, as people prefer a streaming subscription to constant purchases of individual works. The hope remains, nonetheless, that a small number of very expensive box sets will bring equal or better revenue than larger numbers of traditional LPs. Record sales on vinyl may have increased many times over in the last five years, but that's primarily because they began the same period at comically low levels.

Elements of dream-pop peek between the notes! (Pia Fraus)

Any such market data––and the cultural norms behind them––might presumably be part and parcel of European and North American culture, if not further afield. Figures from New York and Los Angeles make equal sense when applied to London, Athens, or Cape Town.

If, however, we turn to Estonia, a slightly different outlook underlies the workplace practice of Pia Fraus. Since their very first live shows in the spring of 1999, Pia Fraus have become one of the Baltics' finest rock/pop ensembles. The last few years on that timeline have been very quiet, however, marked more by remixes and side-projects than by original material, so a brand-new compilation is designed perhaps to remind Estonia of Pia Fraus' ongoing existence.

The band's label Seksound insists that the six core members are intent on future enterprise, more than a decade after they began collaborating as Tallinn art students. The Pia Fraus team-sheet––in its latest form––reads as follows: Eve Komp, Kärt Ojavee (both keyboards), Rein Fuks, Tõnis Kenkmaa (both guitar), Reijo Tagapere (bass), and Margus Voolpriit (drums).

Boris Grim (Boris Burdaev/The Brothers Grim), originally from Samara

One of the band's earliest studio recordings was the album In Solarium in 2002, which––accurately enough––was tagged then as alternative, dream-pop, indiepop, and shoegaze. The Estonian press has this season, with a vinyl rerelease, declared that In Solarium "sounds better now than ever [in 2016]... The album is still clearly infused with shoegaze––and the dream-pop elements peek just as clearly from between the notes.... Pia Fraus have always been a total classic!" In the same vein, other Baltic press outlets consider In Solarium the seminal LP of Estonian shoegaze––a fashion that would then last a very long time.

I hope that we can eventually perceive lyrics as primarily phonetic gestures (Boris Grim)

Even though Pia Fraus took their dual inspiration from American or British bands of the 1990s and an arguably passé fashion, the relevance of introspection for post–Soviet society would indeed be considerable. Whatever the fleeting mode for vinyl and/or expensive reissues, some formats deserve a second visit due to their lasting, local importance. The reasons for a physical rerelease are not always commercial. 

And so to Russia––specifically Samara on the banks of the Volga––and Boris Burdaev, who is better known as Boris Grim. Burdaev, according to the same moniker and logic, also remains one half of the successful duo The Brothers Grim (Bratya Grim), which has fallen into semi-retirement. Between the demise of one project and the ascendance of another, Burdaev has been associated with solo endeavors such as LirrikaOctopus Maiden, and UFOLOGY.

And thus, in something of a looping gesture, Burdaev has readopted his fairytale stage-name (with no double consonant in the Russian), yet continued playing alone. The result is a new solo album, entitled "Starbursts" (Звездопады). The Russian titles maintain the same stellar theme: "Dreamcatcher"; "Peter Pan"; "Tropic of Capricorn"; and so forth. 

These expressions of creative and spatial liberty come after protracted legal problems that led Burdaev or, more accurately, the figure of Boris Grim to publish an open letter to the Russian press. It began: "Things have transpired such that I'm obliged to end my silence of several years––and now shed some light upon a situation directly concerning me."

Boris Grim: "Starbursts" (Звездопады, 2016)

In a word––and without unpleasant details––this concerned loud arguments on the combined issues of copyright abuse, authorial rights, and the right to play on future stages with an old moniker. The same confusion and conflicts have led to interviews dedicating much time to Burdaev's older collective. Journalists tend to ask the same questions, over and over: Does "Bratya Grim" still exist? Will they play new songs in the near future? Will Burdaev acknowledge that original material in his solo shows? Divorcing oneself from prior decades can be extremely difficult, both creatively and commercially. Pia Fraus hope to celebrate their own past; yet Grim cannot avoid it. In fickle digital realms, both affiliations and commitments come and go with dizzying speed. Time and tide wait for no musician, as it were.

Spend less time believing people––and more time trusting yourself

Perhaps as a result of these professional and social instabilities, a certain wariness transpires. A stargazing romantic can become impatient of earthly grandeur; stable values are irritatingly absent. Grim remarks after recent courtroom unpleasantness. "I don't like pompous, self-important, insincere individuals. They're always overcompensating for something else. I find it all really grating." These individual failings are then transferred directly to the realm of Russian showbiz. "Genuine creativity can never be measured in terms of hit-parades and the amount of money you've earned. It's only ever measured in terms of how others love you. Therefore, if the songs you wrote ten years ago are still loved by people, you've probably managed to do something of worth in your life."

The conviction that solitude trumps tawdry society is heard elsewhere. Burdaev tells readers of a Kazakh newspaper last month to "socialize only with workmates, folks who are especially close to you, or perhaps with your family... Don't get wrapped up in ill-advised adventures and don't be naive. Spend less time believing people––and more time trusting yourself." 

The same bittersweet faith in hard-won individuality or idiosyncrasy lies at the heart of Boris Grim's desire to define Starbursts as "both eclectic and psychedelic. There's plenty of wordplay in there... Traditional Russian rock [of prior decades] leans more toward concrete meanings and specificity. [I mean lines such as] 'Table, bottle, fridge!' Nowadays, however, I hope we can move onwards and perceive lyrics as primarily phonetic gestures." Subjective sound is better than objective sense; psychedelia leads the way.

St Petersburg's Show Me a Dinosaur

Difference and deviation from a host of norms together look equally appealing and philosophically sensible. The shoegaze of Pia Fraus and the starbursts of Grim are both audible expressions of flight––in more senses than one. They both emerge from solo aspiration and social isolation. 

Dreaming adopts a loftier, louder register with St Petersburg's Show Me a Dinosaur. In a recent interview, the four band members complain about the gradual transformation of Russian post-rock (i.e., long after that first "traditional" generation critiqued by Grim) into "nothing more than 'instrumental dance-rock' with a load of cliches thrown in... Our own sound, however, has altered a great deal 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 or individual whim is a guarantor of surprise and therefore of movement––away from both home and habit.

We once were younger and more romantic... you know (Show Me a Dinosaur)

Just like Burdaev, so these northern Slavic colleagues debate the challenges of remaining wide-eyed and romantic in 2016. "Our first album was dreamy post-rock. We once were younger and more romantic... you know." 

Show Me a Dinosaur's vocalist Artyom Selyugin was asked not long ago to name his favorite books, which––tellingly––included the dystopias of Huxley and Kafka, together with famous and domestically relevant Soviet satire by Ilf and Petrov (1928/1931). Selyugin's chosen films constituted a no less pessimistic view of social existence, be they more reworkings of Soviet mockery "Heart of a Dog" (1988) or simultaneous big-screen jokes at the expense of Western banality: "The Big Lebowski" (1989) or "Pulp Fiction" (1994).

In place of any scathing deconstruction, however, positive values are eventually needed. They are taken, in part, from the Czech author František Hrubín, who operated within the Soviet regime as a children's writer, yet began to criticize the authorities during the more liberal months of 1956.

Show Me a Dinosaur: "LIVE" (2016)

A brief poem in Russian has been appended to a Dinosaur track called "Ravek," inspired by Hrubín. In prosaic English translation, it reads: "Fall is not yet here! If I suffer the woe of times past––as the fall itself suffers puddles––then I know tomorrow will be better. I delay a thousand plans until tomorrow. It's never too late. My grave still rustles in the forest. It's a tree... that cares for the nests." Consolation comes from noiseless solitude; time's passage is disconnected from social advancement of any sort. A tree offers more refuge than a peopled town

Something of an Arabian or Persian tone (Holy Palms)

Given that the newest Show Me a Dinosaur album is a live affair, it's interesting that the quartet has chosen those tracks which led to a presumed and indeed lasting penchant for natural (unpopulated) grandeur. These are the compositions that laud loneliness, not city life: "Lift Up Your Telescopes"; "Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky"; "Gagarin"; "Vjuga [tr. Whirlwind];" "You Can't Find This Place on Google Maps," and others. Emptiness presents a fuller experience. 

And that leads us to Holy Palms, the solo project of Pavel Eremeev of uSSSy. That second endeavor has long drawn upon unfamiliar sounds from Russia's southern periphery, especially those areas that have suffered either deprivation or military conflict. This passion for radical difference/distance has been longstanding: uSSSy to this day maintain that their recordings frequently give voice to "something of an Arabian or Persian tone... but they always sound 'fateful.' We create a unique mix of Western noise rock and a traditionally [Eastern] folkloric sort of melody." 

If so, then these same "fateful" motifs remain something grounded in imagination, rather than in actual southern––military––experience. Put differently, life at home both creates and colors the impression of what perhaps lies beyond normality. Tedium spawns dubious, driven interests elsewhere. Thoughts of Afghanistan predominate.

Pavel Eremeev of uSSSy, I Am Above on the Left, and Holy Palms

In terms of a domestic audience or showcasing such faraway, alien, and even "subversive" soundscapes, one could look to the Arkhstoyanie festival held annually near Kaluga, which is maybe 100 miles south of Moscow. A large rural territory becomes home to a range of experimental architectural structures, which then are open to performance art, multi-medial installations, creative workshops––and the simple enjoyment of open fields, far from the capital. They act, perhaps, as the tree in František Hrubín's poem.

Built in harmony with both surrounding countryside and farms, these freestanding structures hope subsequently to become "stable ecosystems, themselves representing a new way of living." The idea of somehow protecting cultural preferences from external, material forces is a narrative borrowed by Arkhstoyanie directly from local history. In 1480 the same Kaluga area witnessed an enormous and bloody battle that gradually ended Tatar rule in both Moscow and surrounding territories. 

Post-Soviet society hoped to reverse those violent regional assumptions or stereotypes; the late 1980s and early '90s witnessed attempts by artists and architects to resurrect the area in terms of both houses and churches. Placing socialist failure and market anxieties aside, several designers, performers, and ecologists all walked away from noisy social realms in search of something better––and older––in Kaluga

Against this backdrop of ancient fights and modern flight, "Jungle Judge" showcases Eremeev's quarter-toned guitars as they extend a related search for individual dignity, beyond both Marxist realms and market whims. Holy Palms invite an Eurasian spirit into the house of Anglo-American rock music.

Ecology on an ancient battlefield. One of the Arkhstoyanie structures.

Most recently Eremeev created a movie soundtrack for Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1928 silent epic "Storm over Asia," which is known in Russian as "Genghis Khan's Heir" (1928). Just like Arkhstoyanie, the films tried to make sense of the present by invoking––and then moving beyond––the distant past.

The film, structured dialectically, tells of a Mongol shepherd who is fighting for revolutionary troops during the Russian Civil War, specifically against British soldiers. During the battle scenes it is discovered––thanks to an antique bracelet––that he may be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. The peaks and troughs of the narrative arc(s) have somehow been predetermined by the past. Once again, greater dignity and self-respect are unearthed at maximum distance from urban convention. 

'Storm over Asia' brought great honor to Soviet cinema (1928)

The enduring love of Pia Fraus for introspection and shoegaze is given a more specific setting in other celebrations of distance and dreaming this week. Boris Grim is prompted to reject high or haughty society after some most unpleasant legal battles. His ardent declaration that we "trust people less" is taken up by Show Me a Dinosaur, whose compositions are––like Grim's new LP––informed by distant, even imaginary stars. And the idea that heroism can only flourish far from home brings us to Holy Palms. Considerations of a Central Asian, lyrical, and rural heritage are placed in the context of early Soviet cinema, which itself in 1928 was full of romantic energy.

It dispatched spontaneous heroes far from home, often to discover the spirit of revolution in unfettered nature. The wilderness instigated an equally "wild" and creatively unruly civic force. It was bigger and better than anything urban(e). 

The push beyond convention––or away from others––seems both unrelenting and, ultimately, unrevealing. Revelation is sought extremely often, yet generates no lasting sense of enlightenment. Such are the workings of desire––perhaps irrespective of location. Eastern Europe, nonetheless, is an especially difficult place in which to foster hope. 

Portable and nomadic. Holy Palms (Moscow): "Jungle Judge" (2016)


Boris Grim – Dream Catcher
Pia Fraus – How Fast Can You Love
Holy Palms – Jungle Judge
Pia Fraus – Moon Like a Pearl
Holy Palms – Old Monkey Forest One
Boris Grim – Shooting Stars (feat. Inna Pivars)

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