The catalog of Estonia's legendary shoegaze ensemble Pia Fraus on the Seksound label continues to show signs of life. In 2013 a retrospective album called Silmi Island looked back over twenty-three recordings from the period 1998-2008. And then, after a substantial absence, a small EP emerged unexpectedly three months ago with the title "Autumn Winds," only to be followed by a split single with Oregon's Rocketship: "Cloudy Eyes/ Outer Otherness." It's worth noting that the discography of Rocketship also stretches back to the mid-1990s––and the heyday of shoegazing reverie.
With these ongoing reissues, used by Seksound to fill some lengthy silences, Pia Fraus have also seen their back catalog employed for video soundtracks––in Baltic lands and Asian nations alike. Fans remain industrious while the group ponders its existence. Some older Pia Fraus albums have been given a promotional boost by new publishers or distributors, but these two recent singles are something qualitatively different. They help to explain how and why the outfit vanished altogether.
Bands shouldn't go to music fairs waving an Estonian flag (Rein Fuks)
Some of that difference between retrospection and any future hope has been contextualized by founding member Rein Fuks. He admits that the band indeed did very little throughout the 2000s to further or promote its position within European pop/rock music. Introspection and solitude had more allure than public renown. "It has never been that important for us to break through internationally. Seksound is a 100% hobby label––and there's nothing more we can do [to change that]. I really don't think that bands should go to music fairs, waving an Estonian flag. I really don't like that at all."
Instead of any confrontational or overtly political stance, Rein Fuks instead continues his commitment to restrained elegance––to a noiseless or visual charm. "I've always liked records that are [i.e., both look and sound] beautiful. So I'm very grateful for my talented friends, be they designers or musicians, studio owners or sound engineers. Together they make everything so much easier for Pia Fraus." Romance deserves more attention than ugly reality.
Some related concepts run through the newest songs from Kusto in Saint Petersburg (as opposed to the Estonian project of the same name in Tallinn). The Russian Kusto is/are a quartet, formed in 2013: Alexander Bolshakov (vocals), Egor Ubel (guitar), Alexander Zhukov (drums), and Pavel Proskurkin (bass). Joking about their modest origins, the musicians claim in 2017 to write "stadium rock for fifty people." Equally knowing is their quip that: "we're the best band in Russia... but nobody knows it yet!"
The foursome's newest album is called "Yablochko," which translates literally as "Little Apple," yet is more commonly used to mean "Bullseye." In this case, though, there's a third significance at play: it refers to a famous dance, associated for generations with the Russian navy. Against the backdrop of naval discipline or choreography, how pragmatic are Bolshakov, Ubel, Zhukov, and Proskurkin? Not very.
Kusto's members declare the hardest part of the creative process to be "our decision to even write anything! That's because we knew making an album would be incredibly hard. We won't get into details, but composing an LP is always challenging... We've never met another musician who's totally satisfied with his work––with how things work out. To be honest, we'd happy redo everything on 'Yablochko' if it would allow us to spend two quiet weeks in the forest!"
Making private experiences into something public is neither easy nor satisfying; lyrical tales of fantasy are trampled en route.
We play stadium rock for fifty people (Kusto)
Here the group's origins or creative roots again lie in the 1990s, with fond memories of cheap cassettes by Nirvana, Radiohead, Muse, Coldplay––and Gorky Park, the first Russian outfit to play on MTV. (At the moment, Gorky Park are embroiled in very protracted and unpleasant legal disputes.) Meanwhile, the future members of Kusto would "grab badminton rackets and pretend to be live on stage." As MTV reached Russia in September 1998, bedroom fantasy with a badminton racket was infinitely more entertaining than public fact.
This escapist spirit is just as evident in 2017: "An ideal evening nowadays would mean lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling, and sipping some red wine. Oh––and knowing that nobody will call." With precisely the same mood, "Yablochko" is deemed "an album that's better suited to being alone. It's not meant for your parties––at all!"
The theme of happy isolation is audible elsewhere. Lead singer Alexander Bolshakov even says he plans to retire on "some distant island, where I'll start looking after a lighthouse." That romantic maritime imagery is an important part of Kusto's raison d'être, if only because their chosen moniker is the Russian spelling of "Cousteau." Likewise, the musicians openly admit the influence of Petersburg's Baltic seascape upon their songwriting; these four men can often be seen on stage in striped sailors' shirts. Bolshakov and his colleagues are originally from Siberia, so the attraction of Petersburg's faraway, foggy romance would have been great.
As with Pia Fraus, so Kusto have struggled with waning energy from time to time. Romance rarely fares well in the daily push and shove. "[One day] we just reached a point where we all decided to disband––and do something very different. Stuff had just stopped progressing. But then we all gathered to mark the band's death––we came together to bury Kusto. We got through a bottle together and [to our amazement]... decided to regroup and make another album, even though we hadn't released anything for ages. We were rarely mentioned in the press, too."
And so naive aspirations decided, almost despite themselves, to make a tentative comeback. Kusto began a job they felt was (probably) destined to falter. "We'd really like music to be the only thing we do in life. We'd rather not think about anything else. Music is something essential to us all; it's constantly playing in our heads. Personally, I don't even need an iPod to hear music on the street––tunes are always playing inside my head!"
Also from these misty, sometimes metaphysical streets of Saint Petersburg are Siberian Tsars, last seen on FFM in 2013: Jura Titov, Alex Tape, and Iggy Pokrovski. Members of the same nostalgic and wistful generation as Kusto and Pia Fraus, the Siberian Tsars have only managed to release two singles since 2013: "Movies" and "Summer." On the (distant) heels of those two songs there now comes a new album, mysteriously called "2K12." The title, it soon transpires, refers to the year 2012––in other words, to the last full year before Russian actuality forced some young romantics to lay down their instruments.
Songs about friendship, first loves... and a first loss, too (Siberian Tsars)
Several years ago, Siberian Tsars were described in the local press as follows: "These guys write and perform psychedelic noise-pop under the influence of music from the '70s and '90s in particular. They play electric guitars swathed in overloaded drums and bass. To that you can add a couple of strong voices, some drum machines, and a ton of antique stuff in the background." Again, stargazers from the 1990s gradually lost ground to quotidian drudgery.
In earlier years––of much greater optimism––Siberian Tsars trumpeted their laissez faire approach to time's passage. "Timelines don't matter to us. [If you're asking our future plans, then] we can only say there will be more melody, drive, and psychedelia." Both drive and a sense of one's demise; thus began a combination of hopeful progression and hopeless retrospection, with the latter eventually prevailing.
"2K12"––as a love letter to the recent past––is designed to gather some lost and/or half-forgotten sounds. "Times go by and they are a-changin. This album is about what happened to us as teenagers. It's about friendship, first loves... and a first loss, too. It's about 2012 and all the accompanying emotions."
Tellingly enough, a dwindling sense of progression in Siberian Tsars' career was last discussed in an Anglo-Russian article dedicated to the tape/cassette labels of Saint Petersburg. That timely material documents the fuzzy sounds of northern daydreaming, themselves captured on a plastic medium with the briefest of lifespans. Nothing will last for long. Hence, perhaps, the artwork below.
This new Siberian Tsars album is published and promoted by Saint Brooklynsburg, one such tape label in the world's most northerly metropolis. One of the projects' founders recalls: “We decided to make a cassette label, simply because we spent our whole childhood listening to cassettes!" Childhood wishes were made on fragile tapes.
In that same article, Jura Titov recreates a tape aesthetic in visual forms. Nothing is stable, all is fleeting. “In 2012 we started to grow up––but it was always a time of great loss, too. I broke up with my girlfriend––and the band started both to live and perform in the attic of St. Isaac's Cathedral, right in the centre of Saint Petersburg. It was a crazy, sad, yet equally happy time. A bittersweet time, I guess, and that's what you can hear in the record.”
Lyrical abstractions are both loved and lost simultaneously. This overlapping of (private) desire and (public) likelihood recalls a well-known turn of phrase from Nabokov: "Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual." Objects of desire slip away, leaving very little in their wake.
Where there is beauty there is pity, for the simple reason that beauty must die (Nabokov)
This growing dissatisfaction, if not outright anger, with material existence could certainly lead us to younger bands such as Moscow's Kruzhok (tr: "Circle" or "The Club"). From the outset we hear an odd tension between four Muscovites: they openly celebrate a punk tradition, yet their banal stage-name is very hard to search online. Seemingly there's little faith in the ability of confrontational songs to actually do anything. Should rebellious protest songs hide?
The musicians refer––very much in jest––to their style as "punk chanson," as if unbridled noise could ever find expression within Russia's most conservative and rhythmically woeful pop songs. In the same self-deprecating manner, they admit to the influence of late Soviet art in Kruzhok's visuals (below); they're inspired by a time when Russian rock was slipping into irrelevant memory, as the chaos of post–Soviet democracy dwarfed any hope of orderly transition. Protest songs had served their purpose and were soon obsolete.
Speaking with the magazine Afisha last week, some members of Kruzhok offered a little more (and most valuable) context, specifically in answer to a direct query: "Why do this?" The question had, perhaps, an economic subtext, but it also refers to hope, time's passage, and tedious normality. Why, in other words, spend so much time on something that fades so quickly? Especially when your stage-name is wantonly humdrum.
Drummer Aleksandr Vasev answers by making punk and truth synonymous: "The truth is an aggressive thing. It's always hard to work with. But it's also easier for me to respect myself whenever I'm involved in 'hard labor." Vocalist Misha Pitersky then broadens the same notion and likens Kruzhok's loud, garage style to "relief from all the dirt around us. From all the encrusted, callous crap [in society]. Music is how I cleanse myself." Frustrated or failed dreamers turn instead to woeful civic norms––and rage against them. The uninspiring, "untruthful" workings of suffocating typicality are loudly abused.
The only true reason why we do this... is because we like it (Kruzhok)
Vocalist Serafima Piterskaya calls Kruzhok's tumult a "search for my own voice. It engages direct feelings and thoughts––on the grandest possible scale––and then embeds them in my life." Or, as guitarist Denis Divakov notes: "The only true reason why we do this... is because we like it." Desires are what normality kills. Hope––as a private narrative spun from those desires––is snuffed out by modern tedium, most notably in the case of Siberian Tsars. The nostalgic yearning of Pia Fraus or Kusto is not always so kindly or "bittersweet," as we heard above. Melancholics will sometimes lose their temper.
For that reason, it's fascinating to hear how Kruzhok in another recent interview quote John Lennon, specifically his words regarding the song "God" from 1970. An acerbic portrait of lost opportunity within The Beatles, Lennon's track turns a frustrated dream into an angry search for other worldview. The lines quoted by Kruzhok begin: "I had the idea that 'God is a concept by which we measure our pain', so that when you have a word like that, you just sit down... and the tune is simple, because I like that kind of music––and then I just rolled into it. It was just going on in my head––and I got by the first three or four [lines, then] the rest just came out. Whatever came out."
Truth, based on that Moscow quotation and on the worldviews of Kruzhok, Pia Fraus, Kusto, and Siberian Tsars, is spontaneity––it is the audible expression of anything. Life has other more tedious and restrictive plans, of course, so when fantasy and whim are curtailed, it's only a matter of time before bittersweet flashbacks becomes forward-looking aggression. They become an unbridled, confrontational, and ultimately self-destructive recourse to "whatever comes out."
Kruzhok: impassioned, noisy truths from an uncaring city