On occasion, Slavic musical projects appear online with such little information that one wonders whether failure is being deliberately courted. After all, audio files, gathered for public display, usually involve a connection to some future material output or activity: they're bound, for example, to an upcoming concert or growing discography. Why, one might ask, would a performing artist publish material that's stripped of biographical, geographic, and professional data? It's possible to imagine a scenario in which high-quality, anonymous (or even shocking) compositions might benefit from a certain mystique, but even in those cases, activity in the present suggests the existence of a desired, future result.
Bearing that in mind, we have before us a new EP by the faceless - yet intriguing - collective Neo Disco Machine. To give an idea of how little information is available, we have chosen as NDM's avatar one of the unrelated images that popped up when we conducted a lengthy photographic search. Levels of irrelevance are high indeed.
The ensemble's name is redolent of both early '80s disco in the West - as it morphed into synth pop - and some kind of hedonism redux, located between Giorgio Moroder, Arthur Baker, and "Blue Monday." The prefix "neo" speaks simultaneously to a willful lack of originality - before we've even begun. Irony thus joins the spirit of deliberate obsolescence.
NDM's act of publication indicates a social purpose: the project's anonymity, semi-serious designation, and DIY retro-sound, however, all undermine that goal. And so we're left with nothing more than a monochrome banner and antique, "neon" font taken from prior decades. Even the EP's title - "Break the Ice" evokes a(n initial) move of growing social confidence, whereas the dark humor inherent in these instrumentals is born, surely, of social retreat.
The music lampoons its own steps, combining diligence (the act of recording or publishing) with self-deprecation (mockery of the same act).
Vintage synth-fueled electronic dancefloor sauce
Since the recording has not been discussed on Russian sites, a brief overview is required of some Western blogs. Here we encounter phrasing such as "vintage synth-fueled electronic dancefloor sauce." Ingredients include "relentless arpeggios, a little disco, and some space-age synth leads." Lots of fun is intertwined with existing elements of dancefloor culture and related sonic tricks - many of which have long since fallen into the realm of parody.
The line between love and laughter is deliberately blurred.
A related game is played in the new recordings from Miiisha (aka Moscow's Larik Surapov). As we mentioned on our last visit to his deliberately amateurish yet fascinating efforts, his lyrics are very often drained of all emotional content or elegance. Seriousness is extremely unlikely. By way of illustration, some earlier "international" works by this young man, as he adopted the pose of a burgeoning wunderkind, had been written in wantonly and/or fantastically bad English.
That communicative inability often has a direct and counterproductive effect. Some of Miiisha's debut songs were designed as invitations onto the dancefloor - by a young individual who lacked the linguistic skills to operate in that milieu. He may want to participate in mass activity, but evidently cannot.
Everything's too mixed up in today's music... I'm no longer sure what's pop - and what's not
What we encounter, therefore, is the voice of a little outsider, in several senses. Even his stage name - "Miiisha" - evokes with its drawn-out, sentimental vowel the plaintive call of a parent, summoning him home... away from a world where's he clearly ill-equipped to survive. Modern society is best faced with more robust tools than a badminton racket.
Photo: Ira Ineshina.
This asocial, virtually autistic pose was well captured in a recent Twitter "interview" given by Miiisha to a few interested parties. Here he claimed to be totally divorced from the physically able, well-educated realm of high technology, insisting that his only access to the web is only over a dial-up modem. He used neither ICQ nor Skype.
Wondering if this pre-adult Luddite, scribbling away at home, is perhaps an offspring of the antisocial geniuses of Russian literature, one fan had inquired whether Miiisha/Surapov likes the futurist poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov: "I think he's cool, but the poetry's complete sh*t." The idea of social isolation appeals; the idea of penning ornate texts for public judgment does not.
Miiisha now has a fully-fledged album available for free download, entitled "22." The cover art plays this same awkward game of social push-and-pull. Although promotional graphics, by their very nature, are typically designed to appeal, the cover for "22" must qualify as the most shockingly ugly example this year. It openly mocks a range of social pretensions: these include gaudy patriotism and alleged proximity to the faces of international stardom. And yet, with equal zeal, it also subverts and eventually spoils itself.
In the same paradoxical manner, the overt subject of these new songs may be romance, but their implied attitude towards the world of love and charity is increasingly antagonistic. Social concerns - at the age of twenty-two - gradually morph into (mock?) forms of revenge. Even here it becomes difficult to say whether humor, hubris, or the spirit of vengeance is uppermost, though. Nothing is taken that seriously, neither sentiment nor anger.
This dovetailing of creativity and collapse starts to adopt formal or generic patterns. Miiisha recently said to Moscow's Afisha magazine: "I like it when music suddenly gets smashed to smithereens - and then, over the next few beats, comes back together as a totally new groove. I like when the arrangement goes through huge changes over the course of a single song. Or [conversely] it doesn't change at all!"
Contrariness and contradiction rise above all, bringing both pleasure and endless disorientation.
'22' is a reflection of myself. It mirrors who I am, my moods, tastes, and view of music
In a related interview, Miiisha spoke of how he has dallied with elements of mainstream pop production. Auto-tune, for example, was used on occasion for "22" both as "a nod to modern styles" and (for less positive reasons) "because it keeps my screeching vocals within the limits of tolerable harmony..." He then, a few seconds later, talked of his desire to write some broadly popular material for mainstream, patriotic pop stars.. whilst dismissing that notion in the very same sentence (lest he actually be refused permission). "If [politician Valentina] Matvienko or somebody else wants me to compose a hit song - along the lines of [Beyonce's] 'Run the World' - then they can write to me. But, personally speaking, I'll not go chasing after them. I've got enough to do as it is..."
The lips of skeptics are gently pursed.
Red Samara Automobile Club with Felix Bondarev (left)
If more examples or greater extremes are required as proof of this strange stance, one might look towards the project known as Red Samara Automobile Club, with professional connections to Tallinn, St Petersburg, and - more recently - New York. On one venue the musicians' output is tagged as "electro / pop / thrash," whilst on another that final noun becomes "trash." This relationship between effort and subversion, goals and aimlessness will only continue.
Another Russian site, compiled by the musicians themselves (or, more accurately, by Felix Bondareff) includes a number of very negative quotes. If they do not relate to RSAC, the musicians make no attempt to hide from the abuse. And so we find the following: "Why should I listen to you? I don't want to"; "Cr*p. Really. Especially when playing live"; "No f***king fun whatsoever"... and so forth.
Cr*p... Really. No f***king fun whatsoever
As with Miiisha, the songs of RSAC are dedicated to the realia of city life, yet their use of rap vocals, for example, never attains the self-assured swagger of urban artists in the West. Irony, as ever, remains very much foregrounded. Consider the way that Red Samara Automobile Club tag their output, including their more dramatic experiments with genuinely scary witch-house: "Cult," "Top 40," "Gothic Rock," "Power Ballad(!)," "Oldies," and so on.
Miiisha, it's worth noting, prefers the designation "Terror Pop."
An online chat with Mr. Bondareff held out the possibility of some seriousness - perhaps. Here are some of the questions, followed by his answers: "When did you last fall in love?" Yesterday. "Do you have a girl in each town?" "In every nation - and in every town, too. (Seriousness is already under strain...) "Do you answer all the questions you're asked online?" No, I don't.
A couple of these quick-fire responses, however, seemed a little less influenced by self-mockery. One came after the following query: "What style of music should people play now, in order that folks will go crazy for them in a year's time?" Mr. Bondareff answered: "I don't know, otherwise I would have played that same style twelve months ago... so people would go crazy for me now." Hence we run up against the first semi-serious mention of - or desire for - social acceptance.
And then Bondareff is asked: "In what areas would you like to achieve success? Love, career, spiritual peace, creative self-realization... or something else?" His answer: I insist on success in all those areas... except love. "Why not love? Are you afraid to fall in love?" Bondareff responds, with increasing gravitas: "Love is not a form of 'success.' It's a state of being, something more natural than birth or death, even."
That final statement allows us to draw a few conclusions. All the drama and humor of these songs comes from issues of social risk. Neo Disco Machine, Miiisha, and Red Samara Automobile Club all make recourse, at least partially, to the sounds of simple, artless synth-pop of the 1980s. In the Russian context, those noises are associated with a period of massive social change. Civic existence and the music thereof were passing through a risky, challenging decade. And now we're presented with three musical endeavors that draw upon the same soundtrack in order to frame stories of personal challenge. The leaden disco-thump of perestroika has parallels in one's private awkwardness.
Love is a state of being, something more natural than birth or death, even
Likewise (and crucially), these three projects work in the realm of dancefloor culture - in a sphere of social abandon, where goal-oriented behavior is hopefully forgotten, at least for three minutes. All of these recordings, full of nervousness and irony, are linked to social jeopardy en route to a happy, rare, yet "natural" state. Beyond the self-mockery, the self-deprecation, and even sarcasm, therefore, we sense the vaguest hint of a genuine, even touching lyricism.
One might argue that the theme of love and/or comfort is, ultimately, so important that our performers barely think themselves worthy. And yet modern music-making, with worryingly "mixed-up" genres or commercial formats, offers the artists little hope of honest, spontaneous self-expression. The only way in which to sing of romance is, sadly, with a tub-thumping love song - which is a woefully inadequate vehicle.
Speaking of which...