Were a shortlist to be drawn up of "quintessentially" Russian words, one strong candidate for inclusion would be "matushka" (матушка). As a diminutive of the word for mother, this noun has been shouldered with all manner of connotations, cliches, and ideological stereotypes over the last two centuries. During Romanticism, for example, it might perhaps have evoked some pre-urban, familial sense of community. Under the Soviets, the same metaphors of homely care and inclusion were then subjected to considerable "democratic" nonsense, as an empire tried to describe itself as a family. In today's instance, however, things are very different.
Synesthesia, mantric arrangements, and hypnosis
Put differently, we're dealing with two important deviations from any traditional meaning. Firstly, "matushka" in this case is the abbreviated name of a band from Saint Petersburg, Matushka-Gusynya (Матушка-Гусыня) or "Mother Goose." We move immediately from folksy custom or ethnography to the world of children's stories. Secondly, this instrumental outfit defines itself on one portal with English tags such as "acid rock, heavy [metal], and psychedelic." Somewhere, it seems, within pre-adult fantasy lie greater dreams than whatever kitschy patriotism attempted in the past.
The group is a threesome: Timofey Goryashin, Konstantin Kotov and Maxim Zhuravlev. The local press has framed Matushka as "an outfit dedicated to improvisational formats. They're practically a jam band." The planning needed to master something professional, yet improvised began in 2010 when guitarist Goryashin and drummer Kotov first met in Saint Petersburg's University of Culture and Arts. Initially, the two men had somewhat different musical tastes, with Goryashin a fan of local punk ensembles, and Kotov expressing a rather anachronistic enthusiasm for glam. The slow, concerted effort they both invested in finding common ground would one day be likened to "chewing through granite." Imagination and fantasy had trouble shedding the rigid forms of daily life.
The musicians went - romantically - in search of several other qualities lacking in quotidian experience. In their own words, the goals included "greater profundity" and "our own, special perception of actuality." The path to greater insight or verity lay in "a [growing] connection with ancient rituals. We studied the same rituals that once unified the world. In a word, we mean the heritage of what's often called 'psychedelia.'" Synesthesia, mantric arrangements, and hypnosis - not to mention a range of psychoactive substances - might help to unify a seemingly fractured or frustrating world.
Matushka: (L-R) M. Zhuravlev, T. Goryashin, and K. Kotov
Pills, potions, and tabs aside, the members of Matushka also find release from drudgery in literature and classical music. They admit to a long-standing admiration for the Impressionist or Symbolist canon of Maurice Ravel, for whom the inherent qualities of musical sound per se were held above any formal constraints. Abstractions were more telling than commonsensical habit. It is useful to then place Matushka's view of Ravel beside the band's other, literary touchstone, Charles Perrault - who authored the "Mother Goose Tales" in 1697. Underlying Perrault's stories is a certain elitism, designed at the time to celebrate upper-class morals. It seems possible to find in Matushka's wide-ranging references to ancient shamans, French Symbolism, and didactic fairy tales an overarching emphasis upon individual superiority. Only a chosen few are blessed with a unifying or synthesizing insight.
Shamanistic rites emerge against а backdrop of the Northern Lights
The members of Matushka outline their highbrow aesthetic in clearer terms elsewhere: "We hope to take our listeners beyond the limits of surrounding reality. This becomes possible [in our recordings] thanks to various acoustic effects and the overall [classic] atmosphere of psychedelic rock, which is designed to create a trance-like state. Your consciousness is thus led towards alternative worlds, where tropical rain soon becomes audible. Shamanistic rites likewise emerge against а backdrop of the Northern Lights; alien landscapes transpire, covered with giant phosphorescent mushrooms and wild, multicolored foliage."
Such is the potential wonder of these imagined places that the musicians tend to opt for "reticence, which allows the music to speak for itself." They say little and dream of plenty.
The curative properties of obscure noise were also discussed - or simply declared - during our first visit to the band Vmgnovenijah (i.e., "In Moments") from the city of Tver'. Foreshadowing the sonic emphases of Matushka, the group members called themselves a "noise-rock trio" and were happy to cultivate bonds with what they term the "first wave" of emo. A little digging around revealed that the performers had in mind the work of The Cure circa "Pornography" (1982).
Vmgnovenijah: preparing a new and limited cassette release
The musicians speak of "Pornography," with its now-legendary wall of desolate sound, as having "stepped beyond time and space." That emphasis would then reappear in a few paraphrased notions: the band claimed to be aiming for "something indefinite... like the flight of thoughts through time and space." Yet again, release was sought from the limitations of concrete space(s) and difficult distance(s). A merger of cacophonous styles and textual influences worked towards this goal, touching in the process - and knowingly - upon the catalogs of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the UK's Banshees. Despite this lengthening list, however, the anchoring point of "Pornography" remained most important.
The flight of thoughts through time and space
Since that time, the press coverage regarding Vmgnovenijah has been infrequent, yet very positive. One webzine finds "neither wanton heaviness or aggression in their songs, but instead a soft and melodic sound. Even your mother would like this." The band are grateful for these rare assessments, since they've had trouble spreading the word about their only and "long-suffering album of 2013." For that reason, its one-year anniversary last month was marked with a cassette re-edition of "Gifts for the God of Speed"- in a small print run.
Whatever these fiscal hassles or challenges, the fact that Vmgnovenijah's members have long been friends makes life easier. In actuality, the personal connections between Sasha Stroganov, Slava Vershinin, and Andrey Makurin are strong enough to fuel creative endeavors with or without a profit. In one recent interview, the musicians politely declined to tell the full story of their friendship, since it would take too long. "It would be awful to tell you everything! Let's just say that we're very good friends." The bonds of amity are strong and complex. In the same way, when asked to document the local rock scene in Tver' today, the artists speak more of colleagues and close neighbors than of strictly professional relationships.
In a tough market, ravaged by piracy, the commercial or critical risk of opaque experimentation is made easier in an environment of good-natured support. Levels of trust - and therefore creative adventure - are high.
In the same way, a frequent journalistic question regarding the band's influences produces a lengthy, almost unmanageable list. "Each of us in Vmgnovenijah could list different influences. Our music is the consequence of many different connections. You could say we're inspired by The Cure, Fugazi, Explosions in the Sky, MC5, At the Drive-In, My Bloody Valentine, Hood, Death, The Stooges, Nirvana, Beast Coast, and Cap'n Jazz... In essence, we love rock music and anything associated with it, going right back to its roots."
Vmgnovenijah captured live and locally, late in 2014
Just as Matushka are inspired by "ancient rituals that once unified the world," so Vmgnovenijah hope an accepting inclusion of other people or influences will prove a successful response to narrow, commonplace tastes - and related forms of intolerance. Hence the final words of thanks for the band's re-release of "Gifts for the God of Speed": "Thank you to everybody who - one way or another - has been interested in our work."
The influence of 'ancient rituals that once unified the world'
Precisely the same financial issues, of course, surround countless other bands, but one telling parallel exists this month with the work of Ukraine's (The) Anderson - the definite article is not always employed. The band was formed a full eight years ago, yet even now its members are not keen to invoke any sense of purposeful history when discussing their career. This offhand attitude is evident in explanations of their name: "Anderson is simply a beautiful word," understood in wholly impressionistic terms. "It's painted in green upon white. To this day we're not sure how to 'play' its meaning... but the attempts continue."
The band's last album - entitled "Life" - was immediately released to the public for free downloading. All pretense towards profit was abandoned from the outset. "Let's be honest," said Anderson to the press: "Almost nobody buys CDs nowadays." The group hoped instead to rely upon "an active fan base that simply downloads our material from the web." When it came to taking the same songs on tour, the artists made an equally forthright admission that avoidance of financial loss was reason enough for celebration. To tour and not lose money was victory in and of itself...
Matushka, Vmgnovenijah, and Anderson are all projects that speak of "networked," rather than progressive creativity. In other words, their invocations of '70s psychedelia, timeless serendipity, or today's "post-commercial," online fan-bases are all informed by non-linear, even baroque relationships. Creativity is seen (and celebrated) as interaction, rather than as linear advancement.
Of late, these motifs of collective agency have taken on a sociopolitical importance. Some of the concerts by Anderson around Ukraine, for example in the southern city of Mikolaiv, were recently viewed by locals as a chance to hear relevant or rarely broadcast protest songs from the capital. Kindred spirits came together and sang of solidarity. To enhance that atmosphere and announce a new album called "Heartbeat" (Серцебиття), the band went on stage in Mikolaiv waving flags and banging steel drums, while vocalist Ruslan Kirilenko screamed "Cocktail" from time to time. The figure of Molotov loomed in the background.
The tales of a [Ukrainian] man living through great social change
Founded in the summer of 2003, Anderson have never lacked energy, whatever their wage may be. "Since the day we first came together, we've managed to play a few festivals, perform in some clubs, and always had a great time on stage. We've ruined plenty of guitar strings, broken lots of drum sticks, and we constantly chew up our microphones... In fact, we've destroyed all kinds of sh*t." This incendiary attitude goes hand in hand, for example, with а nod towards Ray Bradbury's dystopian story of book-burning in 1953, "Fahrenheit 451." The band remains extremely critical of related, politicized scheming - on either side of the barricades. Grim events of late mean that Anderson's hopes for post-Soviet democracy sometimes lapse into worries about "a [creeping] system of social control. Political authority nowadays is poorly delegated; decision-making [even at the highest level] rarely benefits the nation."
All the songs included on "Heartbeat" are interwoven by "tales of a man living through great social change. We began writing the LP in a time of peace - and ended the work in wartime." The simultaneous "collapse of Ukrainian democracy" is felt on both "emotional and spiritual planes." A fractured society - today - is both mourned and pondered in terms of a future, arguably romantic unity. Dreams begin of a kinder, superior social network. The heartfelt celebrations of civic inclusiveness from Matushka and Vmgnovenijah return again. That precious, elusive membership lies beyond wordy debate: it belongs more to faith or feeling. It may never happen.
Ukraine's Anderson and an impromptu line of defense
As the future looks determined by (or mired in) the "depths of the past," we encounter the worldview of bands like Parc Hotel from Smolensk. The group is a quartet: Andrey Bordilovsky, Denis Mustafaev, Vlad Malashchenkov, and Yevgeny Glebov. That lineup overlaps with the team-sheet of Mineguide from the same city. In the past Mineguide had said of themselves: "Our stage-name came into being purely by chance, during a phone conversation with one of our friends. We really liked the various interpretations that it invites, such as 'scouting for raw materials' or 'guidance through a minefield.'" Precious ideals and stargazing dreamers can so easily fall foul of ostensible actuality.
There's minimum textual information, somewhat 'frigid' artwork, and an absence of vocals
Now virtually defunct, Mineguide has spawned Parc Hotel, but these Smolensk performers are still keen to cast a glance away from earthbound discomfort. They continue tagging their music as post- or space rock and frame their craft in terms of expansive, centrifugal gestures, far from home. "The one common interest between all of our members is the desire to explore a vast expanse of sound." Daily existence either fosters or forces a quixotic outlook that can sometimes slip from desire into drive - if not desperation.
The band declare on one of their social networking profiles that their newer moniker came from a rainy photo on their studio wall, showing an elegant, though melancholy hotel building. That sense of desolateness is only increased by some of the band's song titles, such as "Broen," referring presumably to the recent Scandinavian drama. In fact some elements of "Nordic noir" overall could apply to Parc Hotel. Take this description of "Broen" (otherwise known as "The Bridge") in the US press.
"'The Bridge' - about the cross-cultural conflict between the Danish and Swedish police forces who must work together to stop a maniacal killer who poses a woman’s body on a bridge between the two countries - becomes not just a murder mystery, but rather an exploration about connections both literal and figurative... The show parses connections between a personal guilt and societal complicity, between the past and the present, the bridges between countries, cultures, and individuals."
Put differently, selfhood and self-determination are both entangled in history or social habit. The pressures placed upon a wistful craft in an unforgiving world have long been just as clear in the promotional materials surrounding both Mineguide and Parc Hotel. Domestic journalists have, by way of illustration, suggested parallels with introspective US outfits like Lake Trout or Minus the Bear. "In other words, Parc Hotel represent a form of independent rock music in which there's a greater degree of 'independence' than [mere] 'rock' itself." Other, equally approving publications have since referred to a "sultry atmosphere, with broken beats and warm reverb from the keyboards." Elitism has wide appeal.
I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams...
Elsewhere metaphors of cold may predominate, but the sense of philosophical benefit endures. Parc Hotel, allegedly, represent a specific worldview or outlook. Talk of some "calm, northern coolness" emerges because distance and well-being gradually become synonymous. Even the band's fondness for "vintage" instruments and old hardware (far from the present day) plays into the general atmosphere of wise decision-making.
Movement away from the here and now brings much benefit, yet any hopeful narratives of individual flight are discussed in terms of delicacy and fragility. Matters of the heart often succumb to quotidian crudity; private dreams get crushed by the public. Hence the description of Parc Hotel's sound as "an instrumental soundtrack [to modern Russian life]. You'll find gentle guitar passages, a backdrop of audio samples or field recordings, and some anxious-sounding percussion... There's minimum textual information, somewhat 'frigid' artwork, and an absence of vocals. Taken together, it all forms something more than a concept, perhaps; it's a modus operandi."
If there's one Russian band with which Parc Hotel's tight-lipped and wide-eyed space rock has been compared, it's Moscow's In a Nutshell. Those residents of the capital bring us full circle, directly back to Matushka-Gusynya and shamanistic culture. In a Nutshell happily tag themselves as a "psychedelic prog-rock" ensemble, and have recently used the values and visuals of Native American rites to criticize the spiritual failings of urban existence.
The group, importantly for us, takes its peculiar name from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." More specifically, the phrase in question arises when Hamlet curses the stubborn disconnect between dreams and reality. For both the Prince of Denmark and these four Slavic outfits, that same gap remains worryingly large: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."