St. Petersburg's Kapkan Records remains a leading light in the fields of nu- and alt-metal; currently staff are assessing the year's achievements, and - as a result - the changing face of Russian rock music as a whole. A quick look at some of the releases from 2010 will show that shifting landscape, reflected both in the songwriting and ways in which it's presented to the public.
One of Kapkan's figurehead ensembles remains Psikheia (aka Psyche [above]). Now associated with the same city as their label, the band was initially formed in the distant Siberian town of Kurgan. The musicians speak today with noticeable pride of how they broke out of a rather narrow-minded environment: "We fought hard for a place in the sun - among all the Siberian rockers or fans of death- and heavy metal. In other words, we worked hard to get away from all that music of a prior century..."
We worked hard to get away from all that music of a prior century...
In retrospect, Psikheia say they've always endeavored to update the rock canon with variations on a wall of "noise that's made from both guitars and computers." They stress that digital aspect since, in their mind, the Siberian scene has no tolerance for anyone who swaps guitar strings for a mouse and keyboard.
These efforts to slip the constraints of convention began long ago - in 1996. Since that time the group has slowly inched its way from Kurgan across the Urals and out to both St Petersburg and Moscow. The artists now take pride in the fact that - en route - they've performed with some of the great names in Russia's first generation of rock musicians.
And yet, despite those links to the past, they continue to place greater faith in innovation.
In their own words: "'Psyche' refers not just to a mythological figure. It also refers to six musicians who've now become one of the most popular alternative bands in Russia.... They've managed to reject all the labels used to create [narrow] musical styles - and instead define themselves as 'cybercore.'"
They continue: "It would be easy to define the band's music as aggressive or even antisocial. Nonetheless, Psyche have nothing to do with the musical fantasies of fifteen-year old boys in baggy pants. The group has evolved through considerable live work into a mature musical project."
Training and effort reap rewards.
A similar dalliance with innovation can be seen in the younger outfit Bad Jah, also from St Petersburg. Formed only in 2005, these musicians have a shorter biography that - logically enough - also reflects more recent trends.
The early line-up included young artists with experience as both studio engineers and MCs. That link to West Indian patterns of toasting and rap can obviously be heard in their name, yet - by their own admission - nothing in Russia will ever happen "as easily or effortlessly as it does on the distant, sunny shores of Jamaica!" They liken their creative and legal struggles thus far to trials by fire, water - and even a good beating with metal pipes.
Nothing in Russia will ever happen as easily or effortlessly as it does on the distant, sunny shores of Jamaica!
The members of Bad Jah now conceptualize their sound as something spun - initially - from elements of death metal or industrial noise. It is all combined or unified in the form of another neologism: rasta rap-core. That designation speaks to a tricky marriage of laid-back Jamaican genres and the desperate levels of effort required to fight at home for either peace or quiet. Residents of St Petersburg dream of an easy life; the city won't play along.
It is, perhaps, this admission that Russian music will almost always involve grim struggle that leads to the wittier catalogs of My Rockets Up and Skafandr, two more Kapkan projects. We wrote just recently about new work from the former ensemble, noting that they, too, have worked hard to avoid the pressures of rockist conservatism, specifically through a funkier aesthetic that would hopefully appeal to lots of generations. Remaining relevant means remaining popular - and vice versa. Offering some precious fun helps, too.
"The age of our audience members has never been important to us. We enjoy playing for anybody, but I must say I first want my dad to like our music! I also enjoy it when entire generations come to the shows. In other words, when grandfathers, fathers, and sons are all there..."
Skafandr operate in similar ways, leaning at times upon the often-humorous rap of Vasia Vasin from local trio Kirpichi ("Bricks"). The band's stable line-up, without that outside assistance, is Evgenii Rybnikov (guitar), Yuri Vitel (bass), and Kirill Soloviev (drums). More than any of the other groups in this Kapkan overview, perhaps, Skafandr speak of their search for novelty in rather complex terms.
Their onstage operations don't look very straightforward, either.
"The sound of Skafandr is a combination of various twisted elements. Together they function as a kind of mosaic, alternating psychedelic patterns of both futurism and realism. This instrumental trio blends aspects of dub and metal, but they ask that the resulting tag of 'dub-metal' not be taken literally... In this particular case, 'dub' means 'doubling,' i.e., a constant repetition of elements, often through digital loops. The term 'metal' also takes on a slightly different connotation..."
The sound of Skafandr functions as a kind of mosaic, alternating psychedelic patterns of both futurism and realism
That desired, hard-won sense of difference carries us a long way from any view of rock as social protest, especially because Skafandr speak about the enduring influence of Willam S. Burroughs on their music. In fact they directly quote the famous line from his 1964 "Nova Express" that allegedly brought the term "heavy metal" into the English language:
"With their diseases and orgasm-drugs and their sexless parasite life forms—Heavy Metal People of Uranus wrapped in cool blue mist of vaporized bank notes—And The Insect People of Minraud with metal music..."
It's this same bold escapism that we found in one more of Kapkan's combos, namely Top Display (above). When we recently looked at their work, we noted with interest that the outfit - despite their screamo aesthetic - is not keen to endorse any platform of loud social protest.
From time to time, though, despite that overarching air of restraint, vague hints of negativity can rise to the surface - in mild-mannered forms, of course.
"I'm fond of people... but not everybody... I've started to noticing that as time passes, I become increasingly cranky. I love to play on the guitar and piano." The juxtaposition of those last two sentences is dramatic, as if the stresses mentioned in the former are overcome by the activities in the latter.
Songwriting, in other words, is not used to fight society, but to escape and ignore it. Everybody runs for the woods.
It's this unexpected or dramatic twist in the philosophy of Kapkan that invites investigation. After all, many of the label's outfits are heard with frequency on the airwaves of Nashe Radio - the one station that shows the greatest respect or reverence for the traditions of Russia's earliest, activist rock heritage.
In other words, Kapkan - an enterprise once associated with straightforward, hard-hitting alt-metal - is now opening its arms not only to funk, rap, and reggae traditions; it's also moving towards the kind of introvert post-rock style of groups such as Everything Is Made In China (shown above). Their recent inclusion in the Kapkan stable is a genuine surprise.
Raised with a British penchant for post-rock introspection - and themselves singing in English - EIMIC have long represented a promising alternative or complement to the domestic, morally confident traditions of the Russian canon. Founded on an activist agenda, that homepsun backdrop is countered by EIMIC in ways that turn battle cries into mumbled contemplation. Such alternatives have long existed, of course, but what's both promising and exciting is that one label is now bridging the substantial divide between barricades, dancefloors, and bedroom meditation.
Given, as mentioned, the constant flow of Kapkan bands onto the nation's airwaves, we'll hopefully see the same diversity on the radio, too.
It's an idea that already meets with approval.