On occasion, lines from Soviet pop songs will remain in common parlance. Needless to say, they're not always treated respectfully. One of the better-known and more optimistic couplets reads: "There's no need to be sad; your entire life is ahead." With the smallest of grammatical changes, that can become: "There's no need to be sad; have hope and wait!" Confidence becomes anxious anticipation. And again, we might change that to a third version, which suggests we "Get undressed and wait..."
Gallows humor lasts longer than optimism. Sadness outlasts a sunny disposition.
Four recent ambient and/or industrial releases from across Russia invite comparison in their approaches to melancholy. One might suspect that the very mention of "Slavic electronica" would lead to talk of some widespread, inherent misery - and indeed that may be true. The reasons for that sadness within these recordings, however, are both locally specific and move far beyond any banal cliches.
It's all a matter of broadening one's horizons.
A good place to start this investigation would be in Moscow, where we find Aleksandr Saikov, aka Koalips, who spent his youth in the company of post-rock recordings before heading off to make electronic sounds - primarily under the influence of Autechre. Having passed initially through D&B, psy-trance, and dark ambient experiments, he is currently working with what he calls a more "melodic, calmer sound."
The cover to an early EP, shown above, would suggest that a more mature, objective standpoint led to that increased sense of calm. And yet there's something slightly off-center about the image, a failed attempt at a third dimension. This same issue of disconnectedness is palpable elsewhere.
The one photo session conducted by Saikov (below) places him firmly in an urban setting, and yet his work is focused upon the spaces beyond urban confines - upon those "far horizons." He, in rather grand terms, hopes to reveal - in sonic forms - the "deep, boundless" aspects of space. Not of any given or enclosed environment, but of space per se. Thankfully, that rather operatic and impressionistic phrasing is grounded in specific, even acdemic experience, for Saikov is an advanced student of chemistry at a local university department of micro- and nanotechnology.
Saikov's metaphors of expanding space are developed not in terms of individual travel, but through talk of evaporation and/or dispersal; only the breakdown of a singular body allows for increased movement across a broader playing field. Related themes of dissipation within intricate, almost invisible networks pervade his music. They also find expression in several reviews.
Koalips' sounds, we're told, "capture the life and death of stars, as seen from a lonely stellar probe. We skim above each heavenly body, yet never linger. Only the briefest kiss of electrons marks our passing." Appearing from nowhere, we briefly cohere - and then, following our demise, continue to move once more within a fluid, far-reaching system. This may sound like a molecular interpretation of spirituality - yet in Saikov's case, faith offers little comfort from chemsitry's impartiality.
On one web venue, when asked for his religious views, he answers only with a question mark. And even today, on his page at Vkontakte he posts: "...god is here god is nowhere god is here god is nowhere..."
Over and over.
The tracks we offer come from his new recording, "Defeat," which both graphically and verbally wavers between issues of peace and/or panic. They all result from a loss of some erstwhile security. The tracklisting underscores this uncertainty: "Ascetic Mind"; "Escape"; "Hollow Point"; "Looking Back"; "Numb Boy"; "Fragily [sic] Hope"...
Related issues of a worried transition - perhaps into defeat - come to us even more dramatically from the Siberian city of Omsk. Here we find the project Ainoma, headed by the two thespian figures of Lex Rif and Johnny Ross. Their new release, "The Stone Room," positions various thoughts of metamorphosis in a specifically industrial context. For Ainoma, drama is synonymous with demise, i.e., with manufacturing decline. The swan song of national labor is conjured with "dark, martial percussion and broken guitar rhythms." These ominous structures are then swathed in "melancholy, abrasive noises."
...dark, martial percussion and broken guitar rhythms
The overarching existential nervousness of "The Stone Room" is channeled directly into a "critique of consumer society. People may be equipped with ultra-technical tools, but they're still subject to primordial instincts." Taken to an extreme, implicitly within Russian history, that dangerous gap between reason and lust has led to the "murderous implantation of iron into living tissue. The mechanization of flesh."
Such is Ainoma's view of Russia's recent past.
Time, it seems, to leave the urban, ideologically zealous workings of the Big City; especially because the difference between welders and morticians has vanished. (Those stains on the ceiling do not bode well, either...)
A flight from asphalt and concrete, however, will bring little respite. The problems listed thus far may well be endemic. From another Siberian location, Barnaul, we have the work of painter, photographer, and musician Aleksei Biriukov (or "Biryukoff," as he prefers). Here the assumed purity of nature - almost 2,000 miles from Moscow - has also been sullied by the intrusions of heavy industry: any civic romance within steel and concrete has long since petered out. Demise, decline, and anxiety prevail.
The peaceful, consoling option of defeat - or blissful acquiescence - raised by Saikov is robbed of any validity. There is no higher or charitable power to which one might surrender.
Biriukov's forlorn experiments with drone textures, performed under the stage name of Muhmood, are a somber mix of faltering nature and industrial waste. "This music is inspired by the foggy mornings in the forests and swamps; by the windy blasts that blow hot sand across the deserts; by the sound of creaking engines in the factories - and by roaring electricity along the huge power lines. The result is a form of emotion, ranging from anger and sorrow to love and joy."
This music is inspired by roaring electricity along the huge power lines
The Siberian landscape we see below lies behind that affective uncertainty: pristine forests have been replaced by railways - themselves abandoned. Consequently, Biriukov's smile is no proof of levity.
Quite the opposite.
More than any other noise, that insisent buzz of distant power lines epitomizes Muhmood's recordings: it is the audible shape of force - transported across great distances - in order to fuel a failing system. The strict, though lumbering rhythms of Ainoma here fade away, leaving little more than white noise. The result, perhaps, is mere power with no object.
The sound of aimless force.
And, indeed, if we turn in closing to a famous industrial center, Togliatti, a new recording from Mikhail Lezin's project Tekeningen considers today's relationships between elements of a collapsed system. It ponders the presence of force and the absence of structure.
This brand-new EP is entitled "Similarities Between" and is - quite frankly - a wave of unending tumult.
If the members of Ainoma were concerned that decades of ugly, industrial "progress" had led to nothing more than the "mechanization of flesh," then the quintet of Tekeningen packages those body parts in the crudest, cruellest form imaginable. They're dispatched on a factory conveyer with no distinction between "production" and "parasitism." In other words, even the EP's four track-titles delberately confuse creation and consumption, benefit and bestial behavior: "Rodent," "Drunk Squirrel," "Beet Noodles / Canned Meat," and "Horse Manure."
We include the shortest of the instrumentals here; the longest of them runs to more than twenty-one minutes. Together they form the aural equivalent of an abattoir. Demise and decline have been followed by the kind of behavioral norms that would drive even scavenging squirrels to the bottle.
The humor here is dark indeed.
Ironically, many of these nightmarish sounds were made using an old "Alisa" (i.e., "Alice") synthesizer of the 1980s, shown below. Named after the princess of metamorphosis, this instrument is being used instead to orchestrate an accelerating tailspin into carnage.
In fact, the very choice of Alice as a figurehead for "progressive" music must have seemed odd from the outset; her story, after all, is full of backwards movement. Where logic fails, her problems begin.
And as for that progress, it's worth recalling the following exchange ~
Alice: "In our country, you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing." The Queen: "A slow sort of country! Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
All the effort in the world and what happens? Judging by these recordings, we end up where we started: in defeat. Given the awful problems unearthed in the here and now by Koalips, Ainoma, Muhmood, and Tekeningen, one wonders whether it's worth staring intently at a "far horizon." This recent snapshot of the Togliatti skyline promises more worry than wistfulness.
"God is here god is nowhere god is here god is nowhere..." Over and over.