Much of the independent songwriting and music from Togliatti nowadays seems to have a rather dramatic, if not severe air. It is always tempting to draw parallels between that severity and the town's recent fate - as a troubled center of heavy industry. The local architecture - shown above - doesn't help. Sometimes, thankfully, exceptions to that melancholy will emerge, such as the project known as Nail in Head.
The bold moniker chosen by these artists might lead us to expect some industrial drone - or death metal, even - but once again, surprises lie in store. The project's two members would rather remain anonymous, but we can say for sure they have been in operation since 2007.
Their one-line autobiography underscores the longstanding audience expectations regarding anything that originates in Togliatti, also known as the "iron heart of Russia's automobile industry." Our musicians speak of their creative evolution both briefly and (relatively) concretely: "This duo's first experiments led to a rough, industrial sound, but over time that softened - and turned into an 'airy' kind of idm, replete with ambient shades."
The image below, used by Nail in Head at one of their web venues, suggests a more romantic view of Togliatti's scientific heritage.
A few other symbols or metaphors endure in the promotional materials to reconnect us with the engineering expertise of the artists' hometown. Speaking of their new release, "Qwark," Nail in Head say: "Every rhythmic beat, bump, and click was conceived with mathematical accuracy and strict precision. Close your eyes and sink deep into our musical reverie. You'll hear a mere whisper of your thoughts - it'll make you smile and recall some long-forgotten, inspiring ideas."
"This is the magic of numbers and the embrace of life's ticking sound."
This is the magic of numbers and the embrace of life's ticking sound
On the basis of initial concrete effort, we move elsewhere - from things tangible to vaguer, gentler realms. Per ardua ad astra. Or so the people of Togliatti hope.
"Qwark" comes courtesy of Abracadabra Records, who offer a good home to related concepts from other young performers. Take, by way of illustration, the work of Iaroslav Prokhorov, otherwise known as Orlando15. Based in the town of Dzerzhinsky on Moscow's southern periphery, his penchant for jazz plays a similar role to the ambient leanings of Nail in Head. The rambling motifs of horn players are used to express a certain movement away from ostensible reality - into some kind of promising dreamscape; improvisations and metamorphoses become synonymous.
The cover to his new album would also suggest we're dealing with a happy escape from dull, common sense, too. From specificity into nothing specific.
Explaining his imagery and artwork, Prokhorov says they're supposed to invoke thoughts of some "kid from the provinces who simply rides around town all day on his bike. In the evening he comes home and listens to old jazz records."
But what of the peculiar title, "I'm Build a Bicycle"? The author claims it's a deliberate distortion of grammar: "I'm not trying to say 'I Build a Bicycle!' Here the bicycle 'builds' me. You could say 'I Is a Bike' or some such thing. I'm comparing the bike to the jazz." That complex theory suggests that physical, concrete effort leads - hopefully - to a happy loss of ostensible reality. We work in order to forget our surroundings.
The appeal of our starry-eyed cosmonaut above starts to grow.
This flight from actuality is an increasingly intuitive state, one that Prokhorov's not very keen to formulate any further; "I simply know how to stay silent."
His contented, itinerant silence can be found elsewhere in recent work from around the Russian web, such as a January release from the Siberia/Moscow collective, Electronica, who've recently launched a new version of their site.
The new material comes to us thanks to a figure known as Fiji, aka Evgenii Litke (above) from the city of Orenburg. His earlier records, for labels like Colorado's Cold Busted, were promoted in terms of "warm, instrumental hip-hop" built upon "meandering, carefree beats." An ability to meander, i.e., deviate and act according to one's whim, would purportedly conjure a trusting, even carefree view of one's surroundings: "This music will make you want to hug someone!"
Cold Busted, in developing those upbeat impressions, also spoke of the music's "quixotic sonic landscapes." Again the connection between sound and a more open, easy-going realm was drawn.
Following those American linkages of easy listening and easier existence, the folks at Electronica now offer, together with Fiji, their twenty-fourth net release: the "Grey-Purple EP." Here the composer is joined by Orenburg neighbor and colleague Long Arm plus the established DJ and producer Stepan Chernov, known professionally as Kammerton.
One of the comments left at the Electronica website praises these compositions as a perfect New Year's soundtrack. In other words, they're suited to a time of transitions and hopeful reverie. Such changes, as we know, do not always come easily(!) - and Fiji's new EP is not advertised as a relapse into lazy wistfulness. Several of the tracks speak of troubled aspirations: "Faked, Imaginary Freedom" for example.
This occasional burden of actuality is perfectly visualized in six new compositions by Ukrainian beatmaker Beppe.
He, too, has just published fresh material under the Russian-language title of "Twenty Years in the Wilderness" (or, to be accurate, "twenty years of wilderness"). The connection between actual and metaphorical landscapes is quickly made clear. Traveling from home does not always lead to an increased sense of belonging.
Likewise his cover art makes striking use of some orientalized fonts, a formless skyline, and lacy filigree. Not a straight line in sight.
"Let's go on a journey," says the webzine hosting this release, Drugoy Hip-Hop. "This wilderness is a huge expanse growing inside your head. It's a sense of time having stopped for a while." One Russian reviewer has suggested that the combination of hip-hop and Eastern instrumentation also evokes the sands of northern Africa - as imagined through films like "The English Patient"!
This wilderness is a huge expanse growing inside your head. It's a sense of time having stopped for a while
Whatever the mental landscape, though, Beppe's invocation of twenty days upon a sandy sea - and not forty - leaves him positioned half way between earthbound, leaden existence and the promise of something better.
This is no chill-out or balearic worldview; we're instead given the symbolism of constant, slow steps, but no guarantee of progress.
Beppe's hometown used to offer a more positive assessment of private and public movement.
Today's profoundly private state of limbo is a radical downscaling of these salvationary dreams - or relaxation, even - but nonetheless a fundamental belief in some kind of release remains. An escape from lumpen reality. Metaphors of wandering might, one day, reach the edge of the desert they invoke.
The four quiet, leisurely, and meditative works in this post therefore speak to a related worldview. In their lightly syncopated, deliberately aimless structures, they give voice to a shared sense of escape in equally wayward thought: motion, creative liberty, and selfhood walk together.
Even in the middle of an imagined desert optimism thus endures. What's interesting here, though, is that hope in Beppe's case continues thanks to the audience, more than to the author. Consider the following quote.
"All of Beppe's musical changes, combinations, and interweaving patterns contribute to a story. It's a story that begins on an endless, open realm covered with sand. The same story then leads to thoughts of the past - whilst we look at the setting sun."
That, in and of itself, does not sound terribly positive! Everything seems to be ending. And yet, our listener manages to pull this scenario in the general direction of optimism.
All of Beppe's musical changes, combinations, and interweaving patterns contribute to a story...
One of Beppe's first reviewers simply pressed the "shuffle" button on his CD player; as a result, linear movement vanishes and nothing ever ends. "That musical experiment would kill any sense of pleasure you might get from a lot of commercial releases." In this case, though, it has created a maximally deviant, never-ending text.
Whatever doubts these artists may have about an opportunity for change, transformation, and freedom, their listeners, it seems, are ready to raise the flag of happy aimlessness. All over again.
In the meanwhile, Beppe - away from the keyboards - tends to seek his mental escape elsewhere.