Both of these new recordings come from Moscow performers, but one of them begins far from the Russian capital––in fact outside of Russia altogether. Gleb Martinovich, better known as Clonki, was born in the Belarusian town of Glusk. It currently claims a population of some 7,000, but was founded in 1360, so the rate of growth has been slow, to say the least. Despite being positioned in the middle of Belarus, Glusk seems to have been bypassed by the more productive forces of modernity, instead suffering awful losses to German troops during WWII––and the ensuing decimation of Jewish districts.
Gleb subsequently moved to Russia, but would still be far from Moscow, because his family settled in the Siberian city of Omsk. It was here that we encountered his work for the first time, both as a solo artist and collaborator with various neighbors and promising colleagues, like Aleph (aka Ivan Erofeev). Gleb remains in close contact with the Dopefish label, which was also founded in Omsk and is now responsible for an entire generation of important Siberian lo-fi recordings.
A Clonki/ Dopefish joint publication of 2014 came to light with a couple of telling lines in English: "It's a beautiful day; well, it seems as such./ Beautiful thoughts mean I dream too much." Those words were––and remain––attributable to Massive Attack. Bristolian trip-hop seemed a suitably grim soundtrack for modern Siberia. In this way, the shared fantasy of Clonki and Dopefish worked very hard to imagine somewhere else––and eventually all the people mentioned thus far would leave Central Russia for either Saint Petersburg or Moscow.
As these locations have changed over time, a few constants have nonetheless remained. One of them would be Gleb's ongoing enthusiasm for Stones Throw Records––and its Californian interpretation(s) of a hip-hop tradition. The ability of Stones Throw to take a Black heritage and scribe a productive detour was once celebrated by The Guardian: "A thriving record label is an increasingly rare commodity. In a polarizing market of monolithic majors who gorge themselves on new artists, and the niche independents driven by people with passion and tiny budgets, there are few labels that truly reach iconic status. But Stones Throw Records is one of them...[and] has become the buzzword for hip-hop that is far left of centre."
The label's initial recordings overlapped with some equally iconic shows on television, questioning the form and content of primetime storytelling––such as "Twin Peaks" or "X-Files." Many Russian lo-fi and abstract hip-hop performers like to sample songs and TV series from that same period, often doing so with media of the time, like C90 audio– or VHS video tapes. Just as childhood memories fade, so the sounds of one's youth are perhaps best expressed on the same delicate formats, now full of white noise, hiss, and flutter. Clonki himself published this season some Polaroid snaps of the "X-Files" actors from the mid-1990s. He also uploaded news about the continuation of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," which first ran at the start of the same decade.
For these young men from Siberia, the sight and sounds of things desired are often far away. The need to move is evident––in several senses of the verb.
I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange (Twin Peaks)
But what is left behind? Clonki writes occasionally of life back in Omsk, with both a lyrical and lightly humorous touch. For example, not long ago we read: "The Omsk police department has held a local resident in custody for stealing two boxes of ice cream from a local kiosk. As became clear, this man intended to sell the ice cream to a local merchant, but the latter refused the goods. As a result, the accused distributed the ice cream among his friends. The crime took place at night, but both hand- and footprints were found at the scene. The thief was apprehended thanks to information gathered by the police, specifically after the attempted sale of goods. The kiosk owner claims to have lost more than 10,000 rubles [roughly $150]. A criminal case has been initiated."
This discrepancy between an article's dry tone, the legal drama, and a childlike need for ice cream cannot be taken seriously. And yet the author of the brief material above adds a footnote, stating––to his own surprise––that "a Google search shows that ice cream is often stolen in Omsk," specifically from one or two locations, close to major parks. Sure enough, regional Siberian newspapers contain multiple tales of people "attempting to hide ice-cream bars under their clothes." One thief, apprehended with a rucksack of frozen treats, is threatened with up to five years in prison. All of a sudden a Siberian audience stops smiling; a petty crime should not be punished in a major fashion. Surely there are more important matters?
Clonki moves on from an impending disaster––so to speak
"Five years for ice cream? What kind of appetite must you have in order to risk something so silly?"; "These guys probably wanted to surprise their girlfriends with that much ice cream, but they ended up surprising the cops! What a shame they're looking at a serious sentence..." Clonki has also published what appears to be a tiny article from a local newspaper, claiming that "rave music," played at 180bpm, is enough to destroy the brains of rats. Tales from a hometown prove themselves to be provincial––in both good and bad ways.
The newest Clonki recordings combine these strains near and far, home and away. The LP is called "Anya," the diminutive form of a girl's name. Those touching personal notes––of maximum proximity––are interwoven with samples from a faraway US canon. A kind of homespun hip-hop takes shape, maybe, yet it is equally rich in lo-fi psychedelia. Tape hiss, flutter, and scratched soundbites all suggest broken Soviet equipment, while the same noises envelop brief snippets of a Hollywood screenplay or New Orleans trumpet solo. The tensions between a dream and local likelihood emerge, just as they were felt between Omsk and Moscow.
An authentic atmosphere, cheap prices, and a wide musical range (Klub Dich)
One of the longest acquaintances on FFM has been with the multiple projects of Moscow's Dmitry Peitsch, who––one year ago––wrote to us regarding their standing at the time. Although all of his outfits remained active (Motherfathers, UDAR, Iad, and Ninja Glam), the situation with live shows was increasingly complex. "In one sense, things are a little better [in 2015], because many clubs that ignored independent music have now shown some interest in younger outfits. It seems like a generational change has taken place, and young faces have replaced the old art directors." But then the financial crisis happened. Russia's involvement in Ukraine was followed by international sanctions and the collapse of the ruble. Charity now becomes more important than business plans.
Mr. Peitsch has just posted a request on behalf of the post-rock outfit Silence Kit. Their drummer––Sergei Bolotin––is currently very ill and asking for help with hospital costs, despite playing simultaneously in other bands, such as JARS and S3P. Other kinds of demise are evident. One of the most recent Ninja Glam shows was in a self-proclaimed "dive bar" in the capital––Klub Dich. It boasts "an authentic atmosphere, cheap prices, and a wide musical range." Authenticity has moved towards austerity; this club has even declared itself dead in the past, only to return with little funds and much effort. Tellingly, Dich has sometimes referred to itself as Moscow's CBGB, thus plugging into a punk heritage from distant shores. Hard financial times are likely to inspire another generation of protest songs or––at the very least––an embrace of noise, pure and simple.
Here lies the connection between Clonki and Ninja Glam, both geographically and philosophically. Gleb Martinovich's trajectory has taken him from provincial Belarus to Siberia and then to Moscow, by way of at least two other Russian cities. Satisfaction remains elusive. Ninja Glam, as a Moscow outfit, born and bred, expresses not only dissatisfaction with the capital; it also swaps Clonki's hypnagogic psychedelia for discord. Here a punk heritage has moved far beyond three chords, using instead the electronic DIY traditions that enabled Soviet performers even in the late 1980s to soundtrack a crumbling empire. Sure enough, Peitsch has appeared on stage several times with Aleksei Borisov, one of the most important improvisational electronic artists of the preceding generation.
If anybody feels like leaving Moscow in the middle of the work week––to enjoy a paper on Russian anarchism...
That passing reference to punk traditions and their anarchist lineage is not coincidental. Peitch also has a burgeoning career as a young academic. His speciality is the role of anarchy in Russia's revolutionary period. In fact, he just gave a conference paper on the enduring importance of Prince Petr Kropotkin (1842-1921). Our speaker was very modest in advertising his talk. "I understand how absurd this must sound, but if anybody feels like leaving Moscow in the middle of the work week––to enjoy a paper on Russian anarchism, then here's an interesting option for you!"
Kropotkin had a wide range of professional skills, leading to a multifaceted career in geography, philosophy, zoology––and politics. Despite his princely title, Kropotkin wanted to liberate the Russian people from all forms of centralized government. The state would be replaced by freely-chosen linkages between workers. This decentralized romance looked entirely feasible to Kropotkin, as long as the working class could swap its lowly civic position for systems of mutual aid. A leap of faith was needed.
Some parallels between this pre-Revolutionary social ideal and Mr. Peitsch's online activity are significant. Russian reality seems to invite similar responses to similar conundrums, even in 2016. Kropotkin hoped that a charitable spirit would be able to raise collaboration and cooperation above any Darwinian imperative to survive––at the expense of others. In 1902, he wrote the following––with a key, concluding quote:
"In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense––not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavorable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay."
Unsociable species are doomed to decay (Prince Petr Kropotkin, 1902)
The fact that Russian society continues to be unsociable leads both to the winding path of Clonki across the national landscape and to the harsh noise of Ninja Glam, itself rooted to the streets of Moscow. Prior reviews of Peitsch's work in the Western press, say, have noted this angry clamor from the outset. "What a weird f***ing album. It goes all over the place: a Dadaist mashup of low-fi industrial scum, Amphetamine Reptile influenced noise rock, Acid Mothers-style psychedelia, Krautrock (LOTS of Krautrock), Gothy post-punk, weirdo jazz/noise improvisation..."
The intended effect of these experiments is immediately noticable in the names of Peitsch's other projects, such as Iad (Poison) or UDAR (Impact/Punch), a propagandistic term used in the extreme by Stalinist ideology. It reflected the radical expansion of Soviet industry, informed both by Leninist romance and––later on––by the awful violence that transpired after Lenin's death. The word "udar" invokes the very best and worst of the Soviet dream––both construction and destruction. And it bears mentioning that Ninja Glam itself was conceived during another transitional period in Russian history, when (yet) another civic ideal turned sour. In all cases, prior limits and constraints are torn down.
Maxim Elizarov, live in Moscow last summer
"When we first started writing the texts for Ninja Glam [in 2011], there was a widespread sense of [professional] 'isolation,' due to the social concerns of our lyrics. We were rather taken aback by the sudden and total politicization of Russian society [as national elections approached]. Until recently, those things really didn't bother young people much... so when they appeared from nowhere it all seemed an additional burden [in our lives]." Different sounds were needed in order to express alternative outlooks. As civic viewpoints became more strident, specifically in the anarchist traditions of Bakunin and/or Kropotkin, they would require a different form.
We read Kropotkin together with Machiavelli (Felix Bondarev)
A different, yet equally dramatic angry and dramatic use of Kropotkin's thought came recently from Felix Bondarev in Saint Petersburg, whose solo endeavors have also been multiple, including AETC, RSAC, and a longstanding professional connection to Sansara in Yekaterinburg. Overseas, he has also collaborated with The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Despite all of these efforts, he dismisses all talk of professionalism, ladder-climbing, and increasingly self-confident performers; he even rejects most of his own catalog as substandard.
Some recordings were put together last autumn with the punk outfit "И Силовые Машины," which everybody then translated as "And Power Machines." Likewise, Bondarev just collaborated with the gifted rapper Maxim Moiseev, aka "Он Юн" (On Yun). Both residents of Saint Petersburg, they advertise their joint efforts as "minimalist, post-punk bass music, together with spiteful, provocative lyrics on love, sex, and drugs." Three nouns with which to avoid social assumptions regarding stability and success.
In fact the duo go further still: "We don't believe in anarchy at eighteen; we've actually no faith in people... at all. We consider the primary values of civilization to be girls, music, booze, and having a good time. We defend the rights of boys and girls to get hammered, ***k, go clubbing, play sports, fight in the streets, study in college, wear short skirts (or hipster shorts), and read Kropotkin together with Machiavelli. We're fighting for freedom. We defend everything we hold dear. Our music is a sonic form of liberty. And don't you dare think we're joking..."
The longer the current situation endures, the less humorous it looks––and the more noise will be on display.