One Saint Petersburg collective quietly gathering critical acclaim is Abjective, an idm/trip-hop project with a suitably titled release this week: "Not For Everyone." That phrase could refer either to a complicated, inaccessible aesthetic or to deliberate elitism. In either case, a small scale of operations is clear - and then, of course, there's the band's name, hinting at some mysterious tendency to degrade or demoralize.
Nonetheless, for all those dalliances with decadence or wanton obscurity, the band has obviously invested a great deal in these downtempo recordings, currently available through the Minsk label Echomania. "The album took so much effort... All things considered, the recording process was actually dragged out over more than two years." Given that the lineup of Abjective consists merely of two brothers, who enjoy toying with the stage-names of DomainMeta and Kenagenashi, talk then turns to essential sibling support. "My brother and I gave almost everything we had. Even when we'd decided the release date, we could not decide which tracks to include in the final running order... Whatever the case, it's all behind us now. We need to move on and conquer new heights!"
A kind of electronic mantra
The two brothers have been pushing against likelihood in this stubborn manner for three years. That's when they formed the groundwork for Abjective and decided to keep their real names relatively secret. Some time spent digging in the right places, however, reveals that we're dealing with Vadim ("DomainMeta") and Evgenii ("Kenagenashi") Pantin.
Vadim was kind enough to provide Echomania with a long press release, which the label then passed on to us. Fairly soon within that document, Mr. Pantin refers to his output as "a kind of electronic mantra, played on various instruments." There's also a brief hint, in a subsequent paragraph, that some acquaintance with chaos theory would help listeners, too. In other words, audible patterns are both produced - and sought - in ways that could bring meaningful structure to an otherwise disorderly world.
Abjective: looking for structure in wide-open places
For that same reason, no doubt, Vadim refers to his brother's contribution within Abjective as both "meditative and well-considered." He then, in the same breath, speaks of the project's overall worldview as "very ascetic." Reductions in both sound and scale, perhaps, are considered relative to progress: the stricter and/or smaller the sonic function, the better. Even though the stage-name of Abjective suggests a woeful descent into physical or moral laxity, these tiny celebrations of ascetic self-denial imply a very different philosophy. It's as if the musicians mock their own sacrifices; they've invested much time and effort in fashioning these fragile sounds, and immediately anticipate the hurtful criticism of outsiders with a self-deprecating moniker. They don't expect spiritual goals to be treated with respect - at least not by the public.
Better, therefore, to mock oneself first.
A very ascetic outlook
Privately, though, the members of Abjective do view those same sacrifices as positive. Much is given up - on a material level - for something better that's audible, ineffable, or - perhaps - even spiritual in nature. Surely Vadim and Evgenii make their "mantric" references for a reason, even if the former again mocks himself in a related text, referring to his role as Abjective's "ideological and spiritual leader." Cherished ideas are both celebrated and undermined in the same moment. Just in case.
A related "downtempo" and sometimes downhearted worldview can be found in the catalog of Moscow's Juzhin, who have been gradually increasing their fan-base around the capital. Founded in 2009, they just released a debut album this summer, "Coming Down." Given that the band works almost exclusively in instrumental formats, some kind words have already been heard from afar.
Nonetheless, it's the domestic response that means the most - in terms of fueling and furthering live shows. One Russian admirer recently wrote of Juzhin in especially upbeat tones. A somber style met with happy approval: "What a great album and super music! Ten out of ten. It's all really cool: the melodies, the overall sound, and the mood, too. I listened to the whole thing without pressing the 'Forward' button, which is extremely rare for me. I'm keeping a copy of this in my collection - and sticking one on the mp3 player, too! Lots of respect to you guys for such a great gift! You're doing a good job! Here's wishing you creative progress, success, and the best of luck!"
We find plenty of comments online such as: "Great piano melancholia! I like your style a lot." Why such a jolly endorsement of a fundamentally melancholy genre?
Great piano melancholia (Soundcloud)
Again the inherent dolor of trip-hop comes to the fore, in ways that surely invite some parallels between sound, sensibility, and place. Put differently, there seems a justifiable kinship between trip-hop's origins in Bristol - the implicit home of Juzhin's influences - and Abjective's St Petersburg, where we find a tricky dalliance with hope. In these first two recordings, both hope and despair seem equally possible. Two issues thus emerge: what might the meaning be of trip-hop on Russian soil, and why would it be embraced?
Starting with those UK roots, we should state that Bristol became a key locus of trip-hop towards the end of the twentieth century as the result of sociopolitical factors. It has a well-established Black community, being a Western port that was connected to the open ocean in prior times - and to the slave trade. This led to strong West Indian roots in the city after the abolition of slavery and - much later still - the resulting influence of reggae and dub on music. The echoing, dubbier aspects of trip-hop therefore make a great deal of sense in their hometown.
St Petersburg is also a port, although it obviously lacks any historical connection to the same regrettable trade patterns. Positioned on the edge of terra firma, the city's perpetually foggy landscape has been drawn upon endlessly by writers and artists as a metaphor for some kind of illogical state. The role of marijuana, so to speak, is therefore replaced by Mother Nature. In the prose of the nineteenth century, writers such as Gogol' and Dostoevskii would use the miserable, overcast climate to blur the harsh edges of classical architecture and thus set the scene for tales of urban stress and strain. Those mental pressures could so easily turn to madness.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, pre-Revolutionary authors like Andrei Belyi would then depict outlying islands of the city as hidden by mist, making the snowballing political tensions of industrial districts hard to discern. Sooner or later, out from the fog, the threat of social unrest would become a palpable reality.
Our time will come, close to winter. Do you feel the cold?
The secondary issue, of why gloom would find local approval, emerges perhaps in the equally new recordings from Gorean Onnea, also based in Moscow. That project, formed only last year, is the solo endeavor of a certain Maxim Quasi (in Russian, "Kvazi"). His ambient and drone-tinged idm instrumentals are accompanied by a number of downcast poems. One of his most recent versified statements begins with an invocation. In translated prose it might read: "Our time is now. Our time is here. Touch [it] and melt. It'll soon be May. Let's join the ships - and sail the seas..."
That brave embrace of an open expanse, however, appears together with some later invitations to "wrap ourselves in dreams…" The promised time of this vaguely imagined relationship then shifts from spring to a distant, much colder season: "Our time will come, close to winter. Do you feel the cold?"
As the couplets progress, reality looks much less appealing than dreams; in other words, springtime looks less likely than winter. In order to move beyond any creeping fatalism, some grand, risky steps are going to be needed. They're seen in terms of a frightening negation of the present. In order to realize a future potential, the values and comfort of the present must both be spurned. Feasible happiness (later) requires a worrying sacrifice (now). This is especially clear in a long, dubbed quote that Quasi/Kvazi takes from Richard Linklater's 2001 animated feature, "Waking Life."
A systematic questioning of the idea of happiness
The quotation - buried under a loud Russian equivalent - comes from a four-way discussion in the screenplay regarding the sad, yet necessary violence that must be done to present-day norms... in order to realize a better future. "If the world that we are forced to accept is false and nothing is true, then everything is possible. On the way to discovering what we love, we will find everything we hate, everything that blocks our path of what we desire. The comfort will never be comfortable for those who seek what is not on the market. A systematic questioning of the idea of happiness." In the name of an imprecise, future joy - perhaps.
An even darker(!) view of modernity's failings comes from Both Hermetic, again based in Moscow. The project has been impressively assessed by Ohio's Pink Reason, who also act as occasional American collaborators. "Moscow's Both Hermetic make a racket of pagan post-industrial noise... It's a sacred, martial mess of sound, possessed by darkness and light. Believe."
Divine and disastrous potentials co-exist. Unfortunately.
Both Hermetic was originally a one-man enterprise, wholly in the hands of Evgenii Kostkov, but he has since been joined by fellow Muscovite Ivan Shpak. Together they pen "marginal music, accompanied by sullen grunge vocals and lo-fi video. This is all a protest against the standards of today's music industry. It's also a form of self-awareness." The misery of the present needs to be revealed.
In a recent interview for Satellite Voices, Kostkov and Shpak offered a little context: "I've always been interested in destruction, in any form. Specifically I mean the [constant] states of nervousness or stressful conflict into which people are thrust... In terms of musical inspiration, by the way, everybody that I've found interesting has either died - or is painfully slipping away. There's a certain magic in that, of course[!]."
I've always been interested in destruction, in any form
In all of these new, mournful materials from Abjective, Juzhin, Gorean Onnea, and Both Hermetic, there's a constant "situation of conflict." Positive ideals are pondered - or yearned for - and immediately doubted. We then find a strange celebration of "piano melancholy" in the recordings of Juzhin, which - just like Abjective's tracks - overtly admit their debt to a trip-hop heritage. It seems reasonable to say, with a little help from Gorean Onnea, that the same browbeaten air comes from a dual desire for future improvement and a sadness at rejecting the present. Misery offers an odd sense of familiarity - and tomorrow offers little (concrete) hope.
The same doubts over a private or public future, and whether any "ascetic" lifestyle will offer real benefits, bring us to the wholesale nihilism of Both Hermetic. Here we're told that the values or mercantile cultural norms of the present need to be "destroyed." Lest there be nothing better in their place, Kostkov and Shpak admit to a decadent pleasure in the same destruction. A final pleasure is stolen.
The sad outlook of these bands brings the "happiness" of wisdom, but not everybody believes in a better future. Faces turn to the wall.
Dead-end symbolism from Both Hermetic (Moscow)