The Outlook from Home: Jars, IWKC, Theodor Bastard, and Vihrea

The new Jars LP - "No" - and a 1980 monument to Yuri Gagarin

The Moscow hardcore outfit known as Jars has seemingly diminished in size since we last investigated their work. Previously a quartet, the band is now documented on networking sites as a threesome: Anton, Artem, and Sergey. Generically speaking, Jars still define themselves in the most straightforward terms imaginable: "Punk." The predominant theme in the group's DIY promotional materials also remains a dismissal of (or disgust with) primetime media. Very rude observations on modern television, popular music, and radio are common. Despite these local issues, however, Western bloggers have been sympathetic to the group's songwriting and ethos - especially because Jars until recently sang mainly in English. "Every song seems to have a different energy and vibe, weaving in and out of a variety of sounds... Pretty killer stuff. Do yourself a favor and snag this now! Get it a couple of times, why not? Your ears will love you and hate you.”

It's pointless singing in English today

A recent interview in Sadwave raised this same issue of a domestic tongue and code-switching for an international audience. Writing in Russian, it transpires, has never come naturally to Jars. "More often than not, we'll write something in Russian, but the next we'll day reread it - and toss it out in horror! There's a combination of perfectionism and dilettantism in what we do. That really demoralizes us, sometimes. It slows us down, too. How can we express in Russian the things we've traditionally said in English? In ways that don't sound terrible? Something will have to change that'll radically alter our consciousness. Or maybe we'll just have to sit down and write, write, and write... for months. The growing trend nowadays for Russian-language bands is good. You could even say that it's something necessary, considering what's going on around us."

Those observations were made prior to the new Jars album, entitled "No." A monosyllabic declaration suggests how the gap between Russian reality and "local" lyrics would eventually be bridged - by anger. Something negative needed to be said. And indeed, Sadwave spoke again to the band just after the release, in order to see how things have changed. Anton (Obrazina) had some telling observations on Russian society's downward slippage.

"There came a moment when I sat alone at home - and started rewriting all my half-decent lyrics in Russian. Then I began to rewrite them again - and continued doing so... That ongoing process meant I was even changing some words during the recording sessions." And then, after such hard-won gains, we suddenly hear a major change of view from Jars' frontman. 

Slipping out of view. The most commonly used Jars photo of late

"It's pointless singing in English today. It has always felt wrong: everything becomes so superficial, even if you happen to be occupied with profound thoughts. There's nothing inherently wrong in ease and superficiality, of course, but the situation around us [at home] is growing more intense. You can't defend yourself from the outside world using old methods." Western lyrics and daydreaming are no longer a sufficient form of escapism.

These issues inspire a greater level of social activism. Previously, the band would've been happy "doing absolutely nothing for months - sometimes without regaining consciousness, even... But now you're much more likely to find us sober!" Decadence may be a form of civic rejection, but given the socioeconomic breakdown of recent times, Jars hold that sobriety and a local audience are likely to achieve a great deal more. Why sing in English when your message is needed at home?

Whenever there's civic instability, then - on an unconscious level - you always seek salvation in your own culture

The St. Petersburg outfit Theodor Bastard (Fedor Svolotch) has traditionally liked to position itself between "world music, trip-hop, and folk." Despite those three flights from modernity, there's plenty in the band's catalog to suggest an ongoing concern with modern civilization. The past is used to interpret and critique the present. TB's vocalist Yana Vena has claimed before to work "under the inspiration of various traditions and faiths, which have represented aboriginal peoples from far-flung corners of the planet... They all live side by side with nature's wilderness, in places where ancient traditions endure. It doesn't matter which culture we're talking about - spiritual traditions just survive in places like that. For some people they might be little more than myth and fairytales, but for others those rituals are as real as our own urban jungle!" 

Landscape - or the sweep thereof - inspires its residents to look beyond material existence. Nature operates far beyond the supposed "permanence" of human planning. Modern society could learn a thing or two.

The band's newest recording - "Vetvi" (Branches) - comes with several new interviews in the Russian press. Journalists have noted that the LP evinces a swift return to Russian folk music and the traditional instruments thereof. "[As we composed the album,] new songs took shape with some absolutely amazing Russian lyrics by Yana. I immediately understood: this is what we need right now." As we'll see, the rationale for this patriotic statement recalls the linguistic logic of Jars.

Theodor Bastard and some local trajectories: "Vetvi" (2015)

The interviewer digs a little deeper and asks why Theodor Bastard has turned "dramatically" towards Russian lyrics and the folkloric heritage of Russia's northern wilderness. The musicians reply: "There's madness all around us today. It's hard to ignore. Whenever there's civic instability, then - on an unconscious level - you always seek salvation in your own culture. Your native language becomes something you can grab onto. And you know what? It really does help."

"Why should we be looking over our shoulder [at Western artists and trends]? We simply do whatever our heart desires. It was [the writer Nikolay] Karamzin [d. 1826] who said that people living in Russia might think and dream about other lands - but their most heartfelt enterprise will always be here, in their homeland. All of us are forever bound to our native land." 

Modern music won't develop without an awareness of folk culture

"No matter how you consider things, [therefore,] Theodor Bastard are a modern band. We've got electronica, [contemporary] instrumentals; plenty of everything! Folk music lies at the root of all that. Modern music won't develop without an awareness of folk culture..." And then, lest the group be accused of escapist and outmoded "new age tendencies of the 1990s," the musicians instead assert their allegiance to "trip-hop, ambient styles, clicks & cuts, industrial modes, and the extremes of our own 'dark scene." Modernity and melancholy suit each other. Anxiety becomes a prime connection between the past and present. 

With the instrumental post-rock outfit I Will Kill Chita (IWKC), northern and natural expanses serve both as an alternative to modern actuality and a realm of bigger, better fantasy. The windswept dimensions of Russia create many opportunities to drop out. The band members continue to produce what the Russian press terms "thoughtful, instrumental rock" that takes its inspiration from unpeopled, unsullied realms that are more abiding than any fleeting human effort. In short, the endless solace of nature itself becomes a vital influence here, offering patterns of endurance - come what may.

"The dynamism of IWKC's compositions passes through all stages of natural growth. They move from some shivering expectation of warmth to the swelling of buds, the wavering flourish of tender blooms, and even the weight of ripening fruit." The worlds of botany and biology offer a symbolism of harmony and diligence, which - against the backdrop of IWKC's urban communities - must seem impressive indeed.

The current I Will Kill Chita (IWKC), with Nick Samarin in focus

"IWKC's music fills all surrounding space with a genuinely vernal sound..." These "inevitable" and returning upswings however, are simultaneously associated with a distant promise. Optimism is neither easily won nor found quickly. Whatever the proximity of spring and all its "flourishing" potential, Russian webzines are just as likely to position romantic promise far across some distant horizon. Happy days are far away; hence the occasional orientalist flourish. "The melodies of IWKC bear something Eastern within them, even if the band's core harmonies are developed within the combined frameworks of space- and pro-rock. They're just as likely to turn an audience's attention back to the Romantic period of classical music."

Hence - in addition - the penchant of the Samarin brothers for both science fiction and the imagined, open seascapes of their recent single, "Oceans," which we published at FFM.

My boyish imagination was inspired by the idea of becoming a pilot

In the same way, these Moscow instrumentalists express joint enthusiasm for a Vkontakte sci-fi group called "Kirov Calling," which purports to offer music captured from outer space. And so we read, in the register of old-school socialist daydreaming: "Aboard one of our aging space stations, somebody has found a box of records. The time has come to reveal its contents." This is pure retro-futurism - a fantasy invested in stories that almost came true. "Here's one of the first [alien] records we managed to play on our equipment. Strange though it may seem, the recording's artwork was also preserved[!]."

These are the adventure stories that IWKC recall reading in their "distant, distant childhood." One tale of polar exploration "left a huge, everlasting impression on me. My boyish imagination was inspired by the idea of becoming a pilot. My heart was filled with a passion for all manner of adventures." The desire to be elsewhere - or desire itself as movement - was soon up and running. For the members of IWKC, aspiration remains at least possible by avoiding any stasis or downward gaze; instead one's hopes are directed outwards, upwards — or perhaps backwards, to a rosier season. Anywhere but here.

IWKC: "Evil Bear Boris" (2015)

Some reviewers attribute these sounds to traditions of "art-rock, ethnic music, a baroque heritage, and even acid rock." And yet the result is deemed to be "something genuinely vivid and human." The desire to escape into wistfulness is tried, tested, and also typical.

The respected composer Vladimir Martynov has spoken highly of IWKC. In fact he's even the author of a very lyrical and subjective interpretation of their music - described at the moment of a first encounter. "I couldn't believe my ears - or my other senses. I got ready to play the CD once more in order to prove myself right or wrong, especially after the first listening. Then, all of a sudden, I said to myself: 'No! I won't do that. I won't listen to it again!' I behaved as I once had done in my own distant childhood. I was admiring the pebbles lying on the bottom of the Moscow River. They looked remarkably beautiful, but as I soon as I removed them from the water, they dried out in my hands. They became colorless and dull. A question arose in my mind: which of these were the real pebbles? The ones lying on the river bed - or those in my hand? I didn't want to repeat that childhood mistake. I don't want to remove the stones from the water today. I don't want to spoil my first impression. I simply hope that I wasn't entirely mistaken. I also hope another person will experience something similar to me - if they take the same CD and play it. Enjoy listening!" 

Which were the real pebbles? The ones on the river bed - or those in my hand?

Private enterprise moves slowly away from civic realms. Personal experience, frequently full of doubt, dare not subject itself to the critique of others; even Martynov's insecurity and indecision threaten to spoil a fragile fantasy. If the music of IWKC marks a growing unwillingness to adopt an activist stance - in the face of evident misery - then the same passage continues with Vihrea (Вихрия), aka Rita Popova, who was known previously on stage as Chaos in Heathrow.

She speaks first of how her career began. One of the earliest markers of Vihrea's voluntary "smallness" was on YouTube, where Popova has archived several videos of herself playing a ukulele. She had, in the recent past, found a guitar too difficult - and big. "The ukulele has only four strings and, I reckon, a more feminine sound, too. I began writing songs that way and sticking them online. People started asking me why I didn't launch a proper musical project." Thus some private sounds gradually became more public. 

Some other aspects of Vihrea's hesitant stagecraft have been equally telling. Rita Popova likes to work with samplers - and thus vary the soundscape from show to show. Put differently, she takes a shifting collection of randomly borrowed and profoundly private noises into a public realm. They help to lessen the anxiety of singing in front of strangers.

Vihrea: "Compass" (2015)

"It's only recently that I've started to get any real pleasure from concerts. This [sampled] music leaves completely different impressions on me, compared to what I used to feel playing on the piano. I soon as I press the buttons on a sampler, I know that I'm 'no longer here.' I disappear completely into myself. The sampler produces music that's more honest and natural, too." The soundscape to subjectivity is miniature. She speaks in praise of solitude - even when it comes to working in a band. Friendship lessens the awkwardness of professional interaction.

To some degree, a microphone is a form of evil!

Solitude, however, trumps even time spent with one's nearest and dearest. "I've played before with musicians I know well. But a kind of magic was always absent. I felt it [the problem] from the outset; over time we merely became a group like any other. Sometimes I reckon that my best performances come from within me; I simply capture that sensation and turn it into song. Plus, of course, I have a precise sense of how I should sound!" Other opinions are not requested.

Instead, quoting one of her own songs as Vihrea, Popova currently declares at the top of her social networking account: "I believe in St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Tretyakov Gallery" - where one can happily be alone. These tendencies were clear even in her earliest interviews. Long before Vihrea was conceived, she remarked to the Russian press: "I always used to travel to my shows alone. And then, one day, I realized that a kind of 'musical solitude' was taking shape." 

These same concerns fed into an early dislike of pushy, noisy amplification at Chaos in Heathrow shows. "I'm very fond of playing live, especially when there aren't any mics. To some degree, a microphone is a form of evil! You use it, together with [rowdy] amplifiers, to make people listen to you. That [persistence, however,] simply raises a barrier." The idea of an insistent monolog, demanding audience attention, is reminiscent of certain sociopolitical shortcomings today. As the members of Jars would probably agree, there are a few choice expressions already in the Russian language to curtail that pushy behavior. A local failing requires a local response. 

The happy solitude of Rita Popova and Vihrea

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