Over the last couple of years, for reasons political, financial, or simply creative, a discernible number of English-language bands in Russia have returned to their native tongue. They have begun to sing of local matters––in a local register. A similar move towards domestic emphases has been evident in springtime recordings from the Izhevsk /Moscow duo known as Volchok ("Wolf Cub"), at least thematically.
The essential duo within Volchok consists of Larisa Timerkaeva and Ilya Udovenko; together they have just announced a new single, called "Yeya" (Ея). That brief and exotic noun refers to a river in southern Russia. It frequently dries up in the summer, yet is fueled in the spring by huge amounts of frozen snow. It symbolizes either a noiseless, natural cyclicality or some timeless "industry" that outdoes less consistent forms of human history. As we'll see, Volchok use that same native river to address some pressing domestic concerns.
The girls from a farm gather willow herb (Volchok)
Volchok lost one of their founding members a couple of years ago to suicide. The looping seasons of Russian nature overshadow for Timerkaeva and Udovenko the often tragic unpredictability of human life; they seem considerably more stable. Hence, perhaps, the prior use of a quote from Remarque by Timerkaeva on the pages on social network Vkontakte:
"You're smiling. And you're so calm. Why aren't you crying out?"––"I am [crying out]," comes the answer: "You just don't hear me." Any likelihood of creative social interaction seems equally weak in an apparent self-quotation from the musicians themselves: "Freedom is the opportunity to do what you want, where you want, and with whom you want." That same freedom, however, is often unrealized at home. Dissatisfaction becomes sadness––and then despair. Happiness, by implication, might be found at some marked distance from other people––along the banks of a southern river, perhaps.
And so the new single from Volchok turns to some more positive aspects of domestic experience, embodied by a blissfully empty landscape. Russian life both looks and sounds better when considered on the shores of the Yeya River––where there's no-one to be found. The musicians say their new song "summons something both Slavic and forgotten. Jazz and folk motifs interweave... they carry you far away from [the world of] idiots, away to the realm of bears. A trumpet summons your rebellious youth." An allegedly Russian theme transpires in a song of escape.
The words of "Yeya" might be translated as follows: "Farewell, the fog of twisting meadows./ Farewell, bitter aroma of slender stalks./ A crane flies across the Dnieper River––alone./ Willows weep all along the banks./ Bathe me, dear Yeya./ A dead horse pulls a cart downhill./ Embrace that horse, Yeya,/ Bathe me.../ An ataman was killed by sly grenades./ The reeds will then grow where he lay./ A hut collapsed to one side./ The roof is overgrown with hemp./ A fox dances among the prickly acacias./ May is defined by dry winds./ A tiny quail––and the undergrowth rustles/ While the girls from a farm gather willow herb."
Human activity is colored by discord and death; only the hushed––and essentially feminine––activity of farm work persists. Nature teaches calm continuity. That, in essence, is felt to be a truly "Russian" theme. It has been lost to ideology, conflict, and tragically interrupted lifelines.
We didn't want to make any kind of statement with the EP (Say My Name)
Something similar transpires with the Saint Petersburg quartet Say My Name. The group sings in English––as shown on their new EP, "Explicit." That title may be somewhat ironic, given the band's penchant for imprecision, at least in interviews. Put differently, the quintessentially Russian world celebrated by Volchok is felt to be nameless; it belongs to intuitive, natural action––not to the precise, wordy debates of war and urban politics; Say My Name would concur. Take, for example, the journalistic request that these Saint Petersburg performers explain their stage-name:
"Sure, our moniker might sound good, but at least it's not pompous. Or perhaps it could be, if we were drawing upon any parallels with that famous phrase––from the equally famous TV series ['Breaking Bad']. In actual fact, there's no connection there at all [between our songs and American television]. When we needed a stage-name, we also needed something to identify us in the middle of a colossal musical world. A world of insane competition. We wanted something that was both simple and easy to remember. We also had to respect everybody's wishes in the band. But nothing came to mind––until one of us remarked 'Say my name!' in the sense that somebody [finally] had to utter a stage-name. And so the phrase stuck."
Put differently, Say My Name give the journalist an explanation that explains nothing––and deliberately so. Specificity is keenly avoided. The same approach is used regarding discussions of style. Predictably enough, the group is asked to define itself, from a generic point of view. The response is very evasive:
"There are millions of different styles today! Of course, they're needed in order to make some sense of music, but we don't need to get too extreme! That's the reason we don't want to affiliate ourselves with any one movement. Something might be popular today, but it won't be tomorrow. That's the case in fields other than music, too. At the present time, it's probably difficult to define our aesthetic. Each listener should simply decide for themselves." Again, saying nothing is more appealing than confident clarity.
When asked to be somewhat more explicit about the new EP, given its title(!), Say My Name are purposefully not so. "The new recording contains six compositions. They all sound very different to us. You might hear elements of a rock sound here and there, whereas other tracks are completely electronic. Basically speaking, we're satisfied with the result." Direct parallels with American media are shunned, and what makes a recording "more local" in tone is constant recourse to imprecision––to that which has no name.
The rewards of a collective unconsciousness (Weary Eyes)
The entire raison d'être of Say My Name is removed from anything concrete. Creative actions speak infinitely louder than words: "We didn't want to make any kind of statement with the EP at all. It merely expresses our desire to show something. Even if this sounds a little grand, we only wanted to show that Russia can produce a band worthy of any Western peers..."
So what about possible recipes for success and/or failure? Perhaps Say My Name might offer a formula for effective action? Yet again, vagueness is underscored: "All bands have equal chances [in today's marketplace]. Some plans work out; others don't, so there's no point in treating everything like a race. The main thing is to do whatever you love. Don't stop working––and then success will come, for sure." The musicians repeat their assertion that: "These ideas aren't just true in music." Persistence makes considerably more sense at home than bold planning.
And so, as a consequence, the most recent interview with Say My Name bears no real fruit, save the belief that effort trumps eloquence. Labor is preferable to verbiage; it is better to gather willow herb on a farm––year after fruitful year––than dodge "crafty grenades" or fall to a watery grave on the banks of the Yeya. The primary marker of national or locally relevant enterprise is endurance, pure and simple. Surrounding life will throw up plenty of obstacles––leading to sadness and even suicide.
Weary Eyes: (Moscow)
Such assertions, one might argue, often lie behind the longstanding popularity in Russia of instrumental post-rock; cherished values gain little from verbal expression. And that brings us to the Moscow quartet Weary Eyes. In the past their wordless catalog has been called (by local webzines) "a soundtrack to liminal states––somewhere between love and hate, good and evil, life and death. There are no compromises here; you'll find nothing but adrenalin and concentrated, goal-driven expressions of enthusiasm!" Liminality has no name and is therefore worthy of protracted celebration, lying somewhere between specific tags, pigeonholes, and labels.
One of Weary Eyes' members, Nikita Martyushov, has the following to say about the band's newest recording, entitled "How to Leave Places." As the title suggests, the EP is a love letter to various departures from the status quo. "The band is certainly reaping the rewards of our collective unconsciousness." Something within shared action allows for an escape from specific, conscious debate. "Our instrumental music includes an impressive mix of styles––and moods. There's math rock and blues, post hardcore and even bossanova! You'll find sounds both aggressive and gentle. It's all bound to a vital, living form of musical speech." Not language, but something much more intuitive––and therefore universally recognized.
Our social need to complete the same movements––over and over (Petlia Pristrastiia)
As with Volchok and Weary Eyes, that promise is found a long way from modern society. "The artwork for 'How to Leave Places' [shown above] contains the general concept of the whole album. It expresses the idea of personal freedom, self-expression, and an escape from total control. It speaks to a merging of mankind with nature. That concept will always be relevant––especially in our own strange times!" Volchok's folkloric farm laborers, working in harmony (or "merging") with Russia's southern seasons, remain a moral benchmark in 2016. They simply do what they know to be right. It takes little effort to track these same romantic concepts through canonical Russian literature.
Such crisscrossing patterns of "natural" existence, spontaneity, and a dismissal of longwinded debate all come together in the newest release from the Belarusian outfit, Petlia Pristrastiia. This deservedly recognized outfit, whose name might translate as "Pleasure Loop," is fronted by vocalist Il'ia Cherepko-Samokhvalov. He consistently tries to avoid the kind of grand, dramatic, or socially engaged vocabulary one would associate with the traditions of early Russian rock: "Blood, love, war, God, spirit, heart, soul… etc."
In true Slavic fashion, however, Cherepko-Samokhvalov also explains that Petlia Pristrastiia songs involve a lyrical hero who's passing through the early stages of some "post-alcoholic horror." Philosophical sobriety can be a frightening experience. Reality is very unpleasant. Put differently, when the drinking stops, "you start feeling the fragile fabric of human existence... You hear the sound of a taught string that can snap at any moment..."
Colleague Ivan Selishchev says in an interview that the newest Petlia Pristrastiia compositions, gathered on this month's "Fashion and Clouds" LP, concern "the total stupefaction of our feelings." Something awful has happened to wordless intuition––to the romanticized farm girls of Volchok or the natural "merging" of Weary Eyes' heroes. Instead the typical residents of modernity are captured in songs "about our social need to complete the same movements––over and over. That's how most people exist, or how they're obliged to exist. Especially those people caught in the everyday aspects of existence." Quotidian life leaves no room for unpredictability, as the artwork above clearly shows.
Hence the band's pleasure in discerning random, atypical social connections at their concerts. "We always like to see really diverse people at our shows. All the way from classic skinheads to fans of classic Russian rock, wearing their striped [i.e, Navy issue] shirts. They all manage to coexist somehow––and everybody feels really good. That's the most important thing of all: making sure your music can get through to absolutely anyone. That's probably the finest goal of all." At the risk of courting a banality, one might say that harmony outpaces various forms of segregation.
At the end of the day, the sun shines here, too (Petlia Pristrastiia)
Cherepko-Samokhvalov further explains this elusive spontaneity––the willingness to shut up and "do" interaction. "At some point I find myself thinking that we truly live in a very strange country. Strange things here are considered normal. I don't mean our political processes––although politics and society are connected, all the same. The whole affair suggests a snake biting its own tail; it's hard to say if people nowadays are a victim of their civic situation or whether, perhaps, folks are guilty of creating their own status quo. I've just noticed that people here [in Belarus] are really, really uptight. They wear ugly clothes, move in ugly ways, and speak in ugly forms. Put simply, they don't do anything attractive. The happier our people are, the worse things tend to be for everybody else. The general situation is miserable––and that can produce miserable songs."
Petlia Pristrastiia, however, refuse to accept what they call a wholly "black and white" view of the world; there is considerable promise in between rigid binarisms. Hope lies beyond crude categories––in liminality. The band's fellow citizens in Minsk are neither entirely victims nor villains. In a related spirit, Petlia Pristrastiia reject any fixed or clear connection between songwriting and an angry, assertive message. They joke that their fan base is sometimes presumed to consist of "fashionable snobs––and alcoholics." Instead a promising vagueness, away from anything strident, is said to continue––once again––in nature, which in turn is described as a realm of spontaneous, ineffable sentiment. Both private and public promise may be found in places of silence and sympathy––and those places are romanticized in natural shapes.
Hence Cherepko-Samokhvalov's glance skywards and the mere feeling that nature unifies that which modern society tears apart: "At the end of the day, the sun shines here [in Minsk], too. Things here are sometimes good." They're best of all in places where skinheads and sailors say nothing––and just feel a great deal more. As they used to, once upon a time––on some distant southern fields.
Petlia Pristrastiia and evident kinship, far from a capital city