Any search for information on the ensemble known as Mars-96 will reveal - at once - a claim from its virtually anonymous members that they constitute a "supergroup." No sooner is that immodest announcement made than we start to suspect a little irony. Sure enough, two gentlemen, known only as Sergey and Konstantin, offer some additional details that swiftly incline us to interpret that brief, extraordinarily confident PR as self-mockery.
Most important among those contextual facts and figures is the professional link between Mars-96 and Saint Petersburg's Dada Club. Any assumptions we might have about the overtly commercial goals of a "supergroup" seem to be overshadowed by the club's long-standing commitment to illogicality and intuitive expression. We know, for example, that our artists work on occasion at that same venue with avant-garde saxophonist Ilya Belorukov. On those days, commonsensical enterprise means less than anarchic performance. And then, of course, there's the fact that Mars-96 like to tag their publications as "no wave" and "noise rock," most of which comes with high levels of distortion.
Improvised noise and electroacoustic sounds
The very idea of a supergroup is, perhaps, tied to some musical excesses of the early 1970s. The subsequent, wantonly amateur clamor of punk was a reaction to various mainstream performers who held themselves to be monumentally wonderful. For Mars-96, however, a related discord and cacophony are perhaps less of a reaction to stifling conservatism than a warning. Put differently, we offer some tracks from the band's "Pre-Apocalyptic" EP. Apparently the worst has yet to come.
As we see below, some of the group's artwork is dedicated to the meaning and mythology of various constellations. That referencing of possible celestial harmony, though, will probably take us again in the direction of dadaist noise or audible collapse. In other words, it's impossible to ignore the stage-name of Mars-96, which must surely refer to the disastrous Russian space project of 1996. The plan behind that expensive adventure was to research the surface of Mars. Instead of reaching the Red Planet, though, Mars-96 fell spectacularly apart and then rained down upon the Pacific Ocean - both on fire and in pieces.
Some Mars-96 artwork and the barely visible constellation of Taurus
Apparently there was was even plutonium onboard, which probably survived the violent reentry but has never been recovered. Nobody seemed bothered enough to look. Given that offhand attitude to human welfare - and the implosion of a national space program amid Yeltsin's laissez-faire policies - one can imagine various "apocalyptic" scenarios to which Mars-96 are referring. Just as dadaism appeared in the wake of WWI - and after years of senseless destruction - so these Saint Petersburg musicians embody a spirit of meaningless, spontaneous performance - in anticipation of some widespread collapse.
Nameless, dirty-sounding compositions
A related use of anonymity and lo-fi bedlam comes from Pole, based in Odessa. That noun in Ukrainian and Russian ("Поле") means "field," in both the literal and abstract sense. The band's music has been described in the Slavic web as "nameless and dirty-sounding." A range of parallels are then drawn with contemporary Russian outfits such as Trud or Utro, whose own aesthetic is based heavily on a resonant, Mancunian sort of dolor. Other comparisons are added, too, going back to some kingpins of late Soviet protest, such as Viktor Tsoi. Apparently this is a sound for the ages. Sadness endures.
The band's frontman Vitya Konstantinov has offered a little more explanation. "Pole as a group represents minimalism... A stage-name like that makes it hard to find us online, but that's nothing terrible. To start with, we wanted to make some parodies of post-punk songwriting..." Over time, though, the humor faded. Melancholy proved more influential or important than wit. "Nowadays there's a lot less joking in what we do." Laughter at the expense of post-punk misery appears to have become its opposite. Despondency has been recognized.
The sound, too, has grown less satirical and more ominous: "There's reverb, loud guitars, and noisy drums - all of which produce a generally crazy effect, plus a real sense of scale."
Noise levels increase, in order to match a sense of civic disappointment. "I don't think that independent music in Ukraine has grown to the point where you can speak of a 'scene.' Here in Odessa there are hardly any bands: nobody wants to actually develop a local scene. I've been told that clubs really only want groups to play cover versions of well-known hit songs."
Against that backdrop, the general demise of language might be expected - and the ascendance of styles such as screamo. That strident mode is, by its very nature, fueled with volume, not verbosity. It's a loud act, in several senses of the word. Take, for example, Moscow's Axis Motion, whose career is bound closely to a mighty resonance, rather than to rhetoric or debate. A Formspring account, created by the musicians late last year, generated only one question: "Are you Happy?" The band answered in the positive, since they were very busy in the studio.
Paralyzed, abandoned, hopeless, useless, helpless...
The next uploaded comment by an inquiring fan abandoned all interrogatives in favor of a single, noisy call to arms: "Metal!!!!" The members of Axis Motion responded likewise - in upper-case characters: "HELL, YEAH!!!" Seven exclamation marks in total helped to show the essential need for volume, over and above debate. As we're starting to see, a creeping - or universal, even - disappointment with the outside world requires a thunderous, equally insistent response.
Fans recently asked to see the lyrics of Axis Motion online, since they're in English and usually yelled in ways that turn concrete phrasing into growing feedback. When the poetry was uploaded, it offered little hope of consolation: "Paralyzed, abandoned, hopeless, useless, helpless - [it's] all my fault..." The passing of the years offers scant comfort: "I wish I could turn back time,/ And live my life the way that i should./ [I wish I could] Be proud of what I am.../ But now I'm through."
Axis Motion (Moscow)
Private experience moves from hopes and dreams to the realization of some awful irrationality: "Somebody tell me - what's this game for?" As a result of these snowballing dilemmas, the very idea of a "protest" song fades away, since progress, consequential change, and self-determination are vague, at best. "No space behind for a step back./ So take a deep breath and prepare yourself to face things/ As they are - right in front of you."
Bravery emerges not as resistance - but as acceptance of reality's unnerving nature. "Protest songs" instead advocate the courage needed to face a terrible truth.
Prepare yourself to face things/ As they are - right in front of you
And how does the public respond to this grim realization? The reaction is broadly positive. "This is the kind of music we need! Make an album soon - I'll listen to it with pleasure!" Once again those two comments come with seven exclamation marks. Themes of some active, concrete social agenda are replaced with existential anxiety - and numerous "verities" that most members of the public would rather avoid.
Related issues lead us to the trio known as Jack Wood. Unwilling at first to name their hometown, they have eventually admitted - over time - to residing somewhere near Tomsk, Siberia. These performers have voiced a generally dark view of local existence before. "The world is totally f***ed up. We're all dumped upon by a ton of information that we confuse with knowledge. We cannot distinguish between sufficiency and excess. Nor can we separate wealth from happiness." The failed ability to distinguish greed from satisfaction is a verbal one. Language, with its need to designate or categorize - and thus establish some gap between itself and actuality's plenitude - is a poor tool with which to consider social betterment.
Axis Motion: various gestures with which to meet the future
Surely nothing blurs the lines between speech and sentiment, lyrics and yearning, better than the slow, feral enunciation of the blues or garage rock. That same sound, rather than the discussion of discontent, gives rise to a related intonation of commiseration, solidarity, and therefore improvement... maybe. The sadder the song, the more inclusive it might be. As Janis Joplin famously once said: "Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable." It makes them a little happier.
We play this way because we cannot do otherwise
This state of affairs leads us back to a summertime interview given by Jack Wood to Afisha; since that time, the band has managed to produce an album. In the Moscow conversation, the three artists admitted their style emerges more from intuition than from planning: "We play this way because we cannot do otherwise. It's simply a matter of one of us starting - then another jumps in and the vocalist starts, too. A general kind of 'wave' forms. That's basically how our lifestyle comes together, too."
Where can this simple, spontaneous life best be experienced, if Tomsk proves dissatisfying? "We'd like to record in Prague - and make some lo-fi, non-nonsense garage rock. Prague's a great city. You can live cheaply, have a good 'punk' lifestyle, and not get hung up on anything... But we can't just travel back and forth, for [obvious] financial reasons. So the move to Prague is on hold for the moment..."
Ideals - and their meaningful expression - are shackled by material issues: an inability to travel or the ongoing/impending collapse of one's social sphere. If civic "progress" suggests for Mars-96 the rapid, smoking descent of a massive rocket, it's understandable that one's gaze might be lowered.
And the volume increased.