American pulp fiction of the 1920s witnessed the rise in popularity of the Cthulhu, a monster invented by H.P. Lovecraft. The troubled dreams of an artist inspired Lovecraft's first descriptions: "[His nightmares] yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature [...] A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings."
Another, later drawing made after a subsequent bad dream "represented a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind." When the monster does indeed reveal itself in Lovecraft's stories, readers are told the "thing cannot be described." Fantasy refuses to abide by the meager rules of actuality; it remains unspeakable.
The Cthulhu cannot be described
The same beast is now invoked by the newest recordings from Ukrainian performer Aleksei Konopen'ko. He lives in Dniprodzerzhynsk, yet his imagination truly blossoms under the stage-name of Mutaforiya Lili. According to a semi-serious biographical sketch made not long ago, Aleksei began to write solo material after a serious accident - and then fell in love. The upsetting disparity between his expansive emotions and physical immobility led to a musical style designed to "entertain, unnerve, and even scare." Lovecraft would have approved.
As with the other performers under consideration today, Konopen'ko's main sources of inspiration are decidedly non-social. "I draw mainly upon my childhood, solitude, and faith. After all, childhood is the most innocent, brilliant, and riskiest period in anybody's life. Children don't need to believe in anything fantastic, because magic awaits them round every corner! I get inspired by dressing up, by insects [and their metamorphoses], by girls in retro-dresses, oppression, insomnia, trolleybuses, cheesecakes, junk stores, phoenixes, Dadaism, all manner of myths and religions, plus the approaching end of the world."
Aleksei Konopen'ko [R] and Lilit Lysa: Mutaforiya Lili
Fatalism crisscrosses with a hope for some splendid transformation - "before things go horribly wrong."
The title of the newest recordings might be translated as "Awake, Cthulhu!" and are best understood, perhaps, in the light of Mutaforiya Lili's lengthy manifesto, which was made public a few months ago. Some passages are remarkable in their defense of fantasy over fact: "We have come to you via the fiery moon, through the cracks of a rotten shell. We have arrived like an idea sucked from somebody's fingertip; like a comet that has tumbled into bovine carcasses, riddled with maggots. We come to you from beneath the tightly closed eyelids of those who avert their gaze... We come from nowhere and head in the direction of airborne snakes. We don't give a damn that our ashes will fall tomorrow upon smirking mummies, which have [already] been copied... and copied again. The main thing is the path we travel, together with the absurdity of any victory it offers. Our paths move towards the valley of life's festivity."
We are like a comet that has tumbled into bovine carcasses, riddled with maggots
On occasion these disparate times, spaces, and narrative formats collapse into one another: "We are [wholly] a reflection, something more fantastic than any whim of virtual reality. We are a reflection upon which Slavoj Zizek kisses the new body of Adolf Hitler - and upon which one of Salvador Dali's paintings ejaculates."
The lengthy, surreal text from Mutaforiya Lili ends thus: "We should become a sponge, absorbing all the charm of ugliness and disaster. Everything becomes an electric mist, in which a bird awakes and a boy perishes. I am the fiery tail of an innocent comet. Follow me and lose all your secrets. Woe is nigh, woe is nigh. We are nothing more than a different tomorrow. We never exist. Long live fiction!" Fantasy and fiction - once again - are free from both laws and likelihood.
Existing on a parallel plane to the Cthulhu, maybe, are Schweinemaschinen. In reality that substantial pseudo-german moniker belongs to a band from Saint Petersburg. On a previous visit to the ensemble, we pointed out that their stage-name could logically be translated as “Pigmachines,” which might suggest a combination of antique, schoolboy adventures from WWII or some ill-conceived science fiction. In actual fact, it comes from the Russian word for "sewing machine," which itself derives from the German. Band members noticed an advertisement on the street and began playing with alternative meanings or pronunciations.
Imaginary potentials won the day.
Moscow's Afisha had the following to say about these odd northern neighbors, a couple of years ago. "This band is completely unknown; they're not really trying to change that state of affairs, either. These guys used to play in jazz, math-core, and other groups - all of which were little known... and then successfully disbanded." Any lack of professionalism or planning, so to speak, has perhaps left room for higher levels of good-natured entertainment. "As proof of their unselfish nature, Schweinemaschinen like to distribute envelopes at their concerts. Each one of them has been decorated by hand - and contains an audio cassette."
A pre-adult ludic spirit endures today, even in the band's "official" timeline. Schweinemaschinen speak of their genesis in ways more silly than sensible. The following paragraph, apparently, describes the world into which the group was born. “In the year 2012, aliens were unable to save the Planet Earth. People turned into vegetables. Some of them, unable to get out of bed, simply fell asleep behind the wheel - and drove headlong into rivers; others grew tired to a life of Big Macs and MacDonalds; young couples clung to each other in movie theaters. People were no longer leaving their workplace... But why?” A bizarre, tenuous line is slowly drawn between strait-laced biographies and gibberish.
Can I ever accept myself for who I really am?
Schweinemaschinen's recordings have been few and far between; in fact, the new eponymous LP is the first substantial publication for four years. The decision to use the band's stage-name as a title likewise implies an activity begun anew - after prolonged inactivity. One rare moment of diligence between the recordings came in the form of a 2014 video, "If I Can Ever Stand Myself." The title refers to an unceasing struggle between social convention and private, healthy subjectivity. "Can I ever accept myself for who I really am? Can I make peace with myself? [When making the song and video,] we wanted to produce several portraits of folks who'd grown tired of their quotidian, routine tasks. The song became a way to look within ourselves; it became an honest dialog with each and every one of us."
This fidelity to introspection and imagination is what leads some Russian webzines to discuss the new LP as "weird rock. Sometimes it seems that the members of Schweinemaschinen themselves never plan anything beyond the next sixty seconds. Audiences might [unexpectedly] be offered a sudden riff, some atonal passages, or a handful of self-assured solos... Listen and be surprised. Schweinemaschinen give you good reason [to stick around]." Unexpectedness and illogicality are valuable options in an otherwise "routine," predictable realm.
If the tag "weird rock" were to be taken seriously - and its genealogy to be established - then Saint Petersburg's Auktsyon might be considered its founding fathers. The band was born in 1978 and matured together with the city's other rock ensembles during perestroika, yet Auktsyon always preferred surrealism to sloganeering. Local reality was viewed as inherently senseless, rather than a system in need of level-headed guidelines. Auktsyon's founder and longstanding vocalist, Leonid Fedorov has now published a new album together with Israel’s Kruzenshtern - specifically with their frontman, Igor Krutogolov. The last time we spoke of the duo, Fedorov was discussing the recent death of local – and widely respected – film director Aleksei Balabanov (1959-2013). Fedorov admired the filmmaker's depictions of local - and increasingly probable - disorder.
If you happen to think the sounds you make are something permanent, well... that's your problem
Put simply, he maintained that Balabanov’s films were always concerned with “the end of our nation. In fact, I also feel that Russia is falling apart. We all know that’s been going on for at least one hundred years. According to various theories of a state’s peak, decline, and collapse, Russia should fall totally apart in 2020… The peak of Russia’s cultural development was way back in the late 19th century."
Now, thanks to Colta, a fresh interview with the two performers is available to mark the appearance of a new recording, "Взрыв цветов" (tr. "A Burst of Blooms"). The musicians begin by explaining their debt on this album to the Russo-Georgian poet Dmitry Avaliani, best known for small texts that revealed different meanings when read from different angles. A turn of the page would lead to new words and new significances; sense was made unstable until his death in 2003.
Another equally recent conversation with Fedorov and Krutogolov suggests how the appeal of unpredictability will continue on stage. Honest depictions of local reality need to be shambolic. Krutogolov insists that "we simply went into the studio and recorded this album. There's was nothing finicky involved." Fedorov immediately concurs: "There's going to be constant improvisation when we get on stage, too. [My friend] Sergey Kurekhin (1954-1996) once said something remarkable. Music is a fleeting presence; it resonates only in the here and now. It's truly alive and you capture it [merely] for a moment. If you happen to think the sounds you're making are something permanent, well... that's your problem."
The importance of reverie and ramshackle structural freedoms for Mutaforiya Lili, Schweinemaschinen, and Leonid Fedorov might lead one to ponder the meaning or raison d'être of independent music making in 2015. What does that adjective even mean today? One useful test case would be the Belarusian garage outfit, The Yankees of Moor, who released their first songs almost five years ago. They still - openly - declare themselves to be an "independent collective."
That adjective may be designed to echo the specific import it had in the UK twenty years ago - aesthetically, financially, and politically. In other words, DIY songwriting and a vigorous, left-leaning agenda would have been foregrounded. The primary ideological statement on show from The Yankees of Moor, however, appears to be that of insistent apoliticism. Live shows are accompanied by the jumping, dreadlocked figure of "Jack" - who helps to insure that any sense of "tedium on society's edge" is forgotten on a hedonistic dancefloor. Cathartic chaos is put to good use.
[In order to release music] we really need somebody who'll offer us financial support
Similarly, the band's stage-name is a long way from anything sensibly political or practical. Despite any apparent connections to American history or the characters of "Othello," it actually comes from Yanka Maur Street in Minsk. Maur, who died in 1971, is still considered the founding figure of Belarusian science fiction, but - in the place of his stargazing - our musicians were "looking for [mundane] work" on a walkway named in his honor. When gainful employment was nowhere to seen, the musicians started playing around with Maur's name.
Given these struggles with labor and a normal livelihood, The Yankees of Moor tend to speak of themselves using Christian names alone. Why try to sound formal when there's so little at stake? And so we encounter Anton (vocals/guitar); Evgeny (rhythm guitar); Anatoly (bass); and Dima (drums). Anton in particular is far from convinced that today's music business is home to any common sense or long-term planning. "[In order to release music] we really need somebody who'll offer us financial support. Without that support, I genuinely don't know if this is worth doing. It's your standard question of 'To Be or Not to Be?' Thus far I really can't tell whether it's worth taking all this seriously or not."
The conversation then turns to more business-like practices, such as the pros and cons of a career in Russia, versus Europe. That instigates a debate on the uses - and abuses - of English-language songs in a Slavic setting. Can one actually carve out a Western career from an Eastern hometown? Will hard work and discipline in any way overcome a widespread sense of insignificance? High levels of self-assertion or confidence are not to be seen; there's an overriding impression that luck comes to those who are, quite simply, lucky.
There's neither rhyme nor reason in the workings of the world.
Love grows where my Rosemary goes/ And nobody knows like me
As if to underscore the primacy of chance, The Yankees of Moor frontman Anton currently showcases a couple of quotes on VK that help to summarize matters. One of them shows scant faith in civic planning and/or social existence. In English the first - and rather prosaic - quotation would translate as: "I like you because I don't know you." The other represents an even greater step away from social norms. Anton quotes - again in Russian - the first line of a 1970 British pop song "Love Grows" by Edison Lighthouse.
The song, now a famous one-hit wonder, celebrates a love affair that makes no sense. Outsiders see neither rhyme nor reason in the couple's relationship, yet their emotions trump everything. Private fantasy wins over public mores: "She ain't got no money/ Her clothes are kinda funny/ Her hair is kinda wild and free/ Oh, but love grows where my Rosemary goes/ And nobody knows like me."
That final line is key. Especially when the affair is soon discussed in terms of both "mystery" and "magic." "There's something about her hand holding mine/ It's a feeling so fine that I just gotta say/ She's really got a magical spell/ And it's working so well that I can't get away." If actuality is dumb and/or demanding, then the appeal of losing to fantasy is considerable. To paraphrase H.P. Lovecraft, it's a happy acquiescence to "something that cannot be described." No matter how monstrous it seems to everybody else.