Yekaterinburg in winter
Yekaterinburg is a major industrial town in the Urals, the mountain range that is often said to mark the end of European territory. Beyond those same mountains, the Russian landscape rolls on endlessly... all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, during the Second World War, many industries and cultural treasures were evacuated to this region, as if access to the flat, boundless steppe was synonymous with a sense of freedom (or possible escape - even further into the wilderness).
One could argue that this inspirational and/or romantic location of Yekaterinburg - known in previous decades as Sverdlovsk - was also important for the history of the local music scene. In the last years of the Soviet Union, the Urals produced some of the most important names in rock. In fact, several historians of Soviet underground culture would contend that "freely" created rock music was audible in the area as early as the mid-70s, when amateur, semi-secret gigs were played to small, select groups of fans - who could be trusted.
A sense of liberty was tentatively exercised as people surrendered degrees of security and control to others. Music became a realm of willful acquiescence.
Recognition by the Soviet authorities of popular music's importance led - in 1986 - to the creation of a Sverdlovsk Rock Club. Cynics would say that this officially sanctioned venue simply helped to keep the subversives in one place, but whatever the reason for permitting young people to gather, local talent benefited as a result. Whenever this music travelled to the cultural center of Soviet rock - Leningrad - the specific "sound of the Urals" was defined as something "perfectly styled, with elements of a long-forgotten romanticism and rich literary allusions."
In a word, Sverdlovsk music saw itself as the intellectually impressive product of a confident collective. There was no sense of provincial self-consciousness. Local, mutually trusting musicians worked to the benefit of each other, making any feeling of isolation or insecurity unlikely. Almost annually, from 1986 to the end of the USSR, the Sverdlovsk Rock Club was home to a celebration/festival of regional bands, despite any obstacles thrown up by city authorities.
For all these reasons, the emergence of a local techno label is intriguing: the severity of industrial dance music grows amid old-school songwriting that was once designed to flee an industrialized culture. We have in mind the label known as Motorlab, which we first visited a couple of years ago. Now, as then, the label's website offers almost no text. No web-based support is presented with regard to the project's history; all we know is that Motorlab was founded in 2008 and - to this day - operates with Creative Commons media. With that, all information comes to a swift end.
If such linguistic support might be considered minimal, then the label's visual branding is even more dramatic, as we see here. Motorlab's web resources are swathed in trademark blackness, with only occasional relief from some grey hues across the EPs' cover work, usually depicting an heavily industrial or sci-fi setting.
Early Detroit techno, as we might imagine, reflected the place in which it was conceived... hence the name. Times were good for the automotive industry and local DJs sampled a lot of the metallic beats and mechanical noises one might associate with a car factory. The harmony of the dancefloor was helped by the productive, profitable world outside the clubs. Techno reflected a sense of local pride - which fed directly into the shape of the music. Its bold rhythmic consistency was a sign of confidence.
That significance does not transfer to Russia.
A stark view of autonomy from Phoboz
Rhythmic insistence moves in different ways for Motorlab, being more suggestive of a grim drive. That same pushiness, come what may, is well summed up by the local figure of Phoboz. Unhappy to offer his name, he leaves us only with a handful of comments on Soundcloud and other minimalist sites. Admirers at those venues interpret his music not as the soundtrack to bold construction, but instead as a form of escape. Some of those comments read: "Sublime stuff!"; "Very hypnotic track"; "Excellent dub. I love the strong beat and infinite depth of your beautiful chords. Bravo!"
I've already listened to your published stuff a hundred times...
That only leads to requests - for more of the same. The comforting ability to count - and therefore structure - experience continues. "Give us some new mixes! I've already listened to your published stuff a hundred times..."
A tad more context is offered by the figure of Natty_Chaos (underscore and all). Based in the city of Kursk - and willing to offer his Christian name of Yuri - this musician peppers some social networks with personal observations. One of them concerns his "recommendation that people regularly doubt whatever strikes them as obvious." This air of doubt finds graphic expression, too, in that the newest recordings may be titled "Submerge" and imply some happy or trusting immersion, but instead they show a submarine floundering on the sea floor.
It appears more sunken than submerged.
That same combination of industry and anxiety appears elsewhere. This artist on another venue lists his political views as "socialist," but declares "beauty and art" to be his greatest concerns. That gentle streak, no doubt abused in the outside world, is also shown by way of Natty_Chaos' most treasured virtues: "Kindness and honesty." Apparently both are frequently lacking in social experience. Hence, perhaps, his additional enthusiasm for science fiction: cherished ideals are removed to distant planets, where they're more likely to be respected.
One Soundcloud listener has praised Yuri for "interweaving techno and ambient" threads. Industry and quiet introspection work together.
Babylon is a state of mind (Boris Grebenshchikov, unexpectedly)
As crowning proof of a closet romanticism, Yuri's favorite quote comes from Boris Grebenshchikov, who with "Eastern" wisdom declares: "Babylon is a state of mind." These are hardly the views one would associate with Detroit techno; they look instead back to the rock traditions shared by Sverdlovsk and Leningrad.
The use of a "factory" style to avoid mechanized experience continues with other Motorlab projects. We might turn to the figure of Jon'smu, again from Yekaterinburg. Shunning all textual tools, he currently occupies an account on Soundcloud, but does not use it to explain his background. His Soundcloud avatar (shown here) is currently made of a soft, white cloud on an azure background. Smokestacks are nowhere to be seen. Likewise, the artwork to his new EP - below - may depict considerable activity, but it looks far from constructive. In fact, even the track titles are dedicated to the "reception," "hall," and "room" of a capitalized "Hotel." A pushy style is used to speak of stasis and inanimacy.
The most extreme departure from classic techno - and its established topics - comes in the work of Gliese, a figure who operates somewhere between Ukraine and Yekaterinburg: different sites give different addresses. A barren Twitter account and unused PromoDJ page leave us only with the abstract geometry of his artwork and a smattering of activity on Facebook. That final venue is, somewhat surprisingly, decorated with lo-fi images of solar flares and eclipses; that same natural or "astral" drama informs Gliese's work for Motorlab, too. His most recent release was entitled "Cosmic Breeze": a single made from the title track and the (even) more evocative number, "To Neptune."
The world of Detroit's assembly lines is nowhere to be seen. A musical style born of proud manufacturing has turned to other forms of industry and "output" - light years from home. For all that reconsideration and reworking of an electronic genre, however, it seems reasonable to say that some philosophical aspects of Yekaterinburg's rock heritage endure. In other words, this city is famous for its development of songs that required high degrees of trust in an antagonistic society. Tales of social change could only be given (and performed) to reliable friends and family. By shifting their emphases from industrial to natural or "cosmic" metaphors, the musicians and staff of Motorlab investigate a similarly appealing acquiescence to a better, kinder network.
When society fails, nature and the night sky look more appealing. A "long-forgotten romanticism" endures in Yekaterinburg, just as it did in local rock music three decades ago. This city is often referred to as Russia's "gateway to Siberia and Asia." Some residents look further still.