One of the most interesting exponents of recent glo-fi has been Sunday Morning, based in St. Petersburg. The one-man lineup of this project might remain nameless, but his webpages on a social network have gathered hundreds of songs - and thousands of images! - to both represent and remember the audio-visual aesthetic of the '80s. Vague memories outnumber concrete biographies.
Glo-fi enterprise, irrespective of one's address, always looks back with much fondness at the synth-heavy pop music of the early 1980s. Wistful melodies pass slowly through a warm sea of ambient electronica, to the point where vocals are often inaudible. Intonation and emotion are discernible, but distinct lyrics tend to slip away. Many of these characteristics are, of course, part and parcel of chillwave, too, but the term "glo-fi" tends to concern the brighter end of '80s pop, full of drum pads, neon lights, and angular shoulders.
Western journalists have, on occasion, associated both chillwave and glo-fi with today's ailing economy. Practitioners of those styles, goes the argument, reconsider the poor recording technology of their youth with an affection for its affordable simplicity. And, sure enough, all of the Sunday Morning tracks under investigation here replicate the wobbly, fuzzy sound of cassettes or VHS tapes. They recreate a time when technology was simple - and sounded bad.
The newest Sunday Morning release, a "Heatwave EP," plays into all these positive stereotypes. It's branded with the kind of cheap, cheerful imagery that speaks of distant places - in other words, of locations that will probably never be seen. Hence the awkward graphic style of an estranged, unexperienced dreamer. One webpage of Sunday Morning's frontman recently sported a new album of summertime Polaroids to join those already in place; the extra snapshots had been made in Spain with lo-fi equipment. Everybody in the images has long since returned home, willingly or otherwise.
One of those faded landscapes (shown at the top of this page) was seemingly captured on the eve of a return to St. Petersburg and is tagged: "Last day of the dream." Good weather and warm seas were about to become a rapidly fading memory. Paradise is not accessible for long.
Irresistibly groovy disco vibes...
One Western observer has described these wobbly C60 elegies as "submersion into a pool of irresistibly groovy disco vibes... They make a perfect summer jam." That reference to disco helps us to extend the significance of Russian glo-fi into "nu-disco," which to a large degree plays a similar game, historically speaking. It also helps to frame the remaining tracks in this post. Nu-disco grew, after all, from remixes and reconsiderations of '70s and early '80s dancefloor classics.
The difference between old and new disco, between the original and a copy, is arguably twofold in the West: nu-disco has tended to show signs both of hi-end technology (in order to create fuzzy clamor!) and recent chillout styles such as Balearic. It's interesting, in that light, to note that the English-speaking public probably associates nu-disco most of all with Los Angeles and Miami. The symbolic markers of heatwaves, chillout, and past holidays all come together: these are also three objects of (very) distant desire for most snowbound Slavs. The further one is from sunshine, the better it always seems.
Take, for example, the distant city of Naberezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan, roughly 600 miles from Moscow. This is the home of a most productive young man with the stage-name of Serj V. A swift investigation of various social networks then reveals that his real name is Sergei Maltsev, whilst on Soundcloud he's actually listed as a resident of St. Petersburg: two names and two towns are drawn upon, if not more. And so the question automatically poses itself: is there anything in this specific environment that might make nu-disco so appealing?
Naberezhnye Chelny for most Russians probably suggests heavy industry more than anything else. Home to roughly half a million people, the city is frequently associated with the production of long-distance transport. The local Kamaz truck factory was once - and may still be - the largest in the world. The gap between deafening machinery and a Balearic soundtrack could not be greater. Nu-disco harks back to a style that spoke eloquently to Soviet citizens of magical entertainment - in forbidden locations, far from the factory floor. Although classic disco was often apolitical, it nonetheless promised much to the citizens of a woefully political society. Six hundred miles, originating in smoke, can today create the same impression of isolation - and nu-disco still evokes something rare and glossy.
As Giorgio Moroder famously once remarked: "Disco is music for dancing, and people will always want to dance." That desire grows relative to one's distance from neon lights.
It's fine here in Riga...
This same yearning for something that's endlessly absent can be found elsewhere. Of all the stage-names in modern Russia adopted by wistful romantics, perhaps none is more direct (or wittier) than Mars Needs Lovers. This project from the city of Perm is currently announcing a new maxi-single dedicated to the charm of Riga. Although the band members since their debut have jokingly claimed a "connection to some global, even cosmic channel," this single looks no further than neighboring Latvia.
That may be because during the Soviet period the same location stood in for an "overseas" experience. It was different enough to justify a vacation - but still on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The romance here, therefore, is either bitter-sweet or ironic. It's a nu-disco tribute to a place whose charm isn't all that "new."
One might argue that this melancholy joke involving downscaled - and therefore manageable! - dreams also informs a stylistic change that took place within MNL last year. Ivan Startsev (above left) said to the Russian press: "To start with, we always aimed to produce dance music - but then we had something of an epiphany after we finished a remix for Yekaterinburg hipsters Sansara. We suddenly decided to shift from dance-related themes to something more intellectual." Thought replaced action - and dreams of exotic, unreachable beaches were downscaled to talk of the Baltic. Intercontinental flights were replaced with a bus trip.
Funky bass-lines and massive retro synth-sounds
In the same way, thoughts of nu-disco's American club roots once stood in for any use of a passport. Nu-disco becomes the quintessential soundtrack to old fantasies. Nobody, it seems, can take grand reverie too seriously.
Hope is expressed and lamented at the same time. And that brings us to the recent release from Nizhnii Novgorod's Tapeaters - whose name immediately harks back to the fondly remembered entertainment options of the 1980s. Unreliable Soviet tape players, of course, both played and devoured cassettes at the same time. Romance was voiced - and then swallowed up.
The newest recordings from this unassuming duo bear the equally contradictory title of "Remembering Next Summer." Warm days are remembered... before they've even happened! The past is swallowing the future.
Early reviews of this mini-album have drawn quickly upon the hopes - and heritage - of nu-disco. Loud praise has been forthcoming for "funky bass-lines and massive retro synth-sounds. It all plays against dancefloor beats and softly sung vocals... The recording wears its ‘80s influences on its sleeve." The last time we looked at the band's output, we noted how US blogs have been keen to frame Tapeaters' output with lovable cliches such as "vodka, extreme cold, and voluminous works of literature." Cold War stereotypes of the 1980s continue to match those of nu-disco's yearning.
On both sides of the pond, it would appear that disco per se shows its lasting significance in terms of a hankering or hunger for that which will probably never happen. Once again we might turn to Moroder's words (and clunky English): "The disco sound, you must see, is not art or anything so serious." It is, instead, the sound of a light, "unserious" fantasy - one that has proven remarkably stubborn.
Some old tools last a very long time.