The last time we encountered new recordings from Kiev's Dima Shurov, aka Pianoboy, they were part of a New Year's Day compilation. Each contributor was asked to assess the holiday season, both in words and song. Shurov's remarks were less than jolly: "New Year is a time when everybody drinks and celebrates... to a questionable degree! To be honest, the holidays neither get me terribly excited, nor do they particularly bother me. Maybe because that's because I'm a musician––and we're all a little like alcoholics..."
Those sobering thoughts on the need for festive escapism roll into the new Pianoboy album, "Take Off." The LP's artwork (below) shows a high-jumper reaching the peak of an arc––and descending swiftly to earth. Related themes of descent or demise have arisen in new interviews with Shurov, most obviously in those moments when he handles (more) questions about his drinking habits––and whether they need to be "restrained." Social pressures are countered with more liquid––and so Shurov jokes about all manner of excess this season: "I eat meat, drink all kinds of booze, sometimes smoke, and never refuse myself anything. It would be silly to do so... I'm incapable of enjoying birthday parties, too. Even at my own party I'll quickly get drunk and start DJ-ing... until the neighbors call the police."
These private issues are soon given a public consequence, in the following manner.
The world is balanced between truth and falsehood
Shurov's observations of late have been equally pensive, if not melancholy. His Pianoboy project remains one of the finest examples of modern Slavic songwriting––yet part of that modern success comes, perhaps, from its debt to a canonical Ukrainian or Russian sadness. Misery maketh the man. Some of Pianoboy's most popular songs recall what Soviet cinema and music magazines used to call “consoling realism.” A sad, confessional style in prior decades brought much comfort to people in their private difficulties, without necessary reference to a loud and public ethos. It admitted that life is often tough. Tears looked more likely than smiles.
And so we hear from Pianoboy that modern experience is often disappointing. Audiences want consoling songs that admit as much. Shurov himself declares: "The world is balanced between truth and falsehood. And yes... sometimes it's better to lie. Occasionally, even in order to do something good, you have to deceive someone... just a little. For example, if I'm working as a sound producer and I need to get something out of a vocalist, I might shower her with [false] compliments––or criticism––just in order to get what I want."
He then, according to the same logic, suggests that honesty is not always the best policy: "I really shouldn't put every detail of my [true] feelings on display, since they include the kind of horrors that are best hidden! So it can be better to lie. That way everything stays calm..."
The same severity emerges elsewhere: "The world has its own, strange harmony. That's why it includes both rich and poor, both success and sadness. There aren't many people whose life is perfect. Not many people can say their work is their true calling; that they're paid according to their abilities; or that their goals are shared by all members of the family. Most folks spend their entire lives chasing a [perfect] goal––and it can become a real trap. Life flies by while you're looking for something and then, all of a sudden, it comes to a shocking end."
Consolation for Pianoboy comes from Benjamin Hoff's "The Tao of Pooh" (1982), which discerns ancient Chinese wisdom in a British children's classic. Shurov explains: "Winnie the Pooh isn't just a cartoon character of my childhood; he has already become a serious influence in my life. He symbolizes the fact that any situation can get complicated––and that there's nothing inherently negative in the world. There's only our negative attitude towards it. That's a hard lesson to learn."
There aren't many people whose life is perfect
He then states that another character from the stories of A.A. Milne has an adult impact in 2016. "The world has more owls than [wise] bears. Owls are pseudo-intellectual types, who create for themselves the illusion of knowledge, action, and [logical] relations in the world… I, however, feel more like Winnie. He's able to adapt to the world––and that impresses me."
Small bears aside, the new album includes one particular song based upon a different image, that of the sun. In Russian, the noun "sun" (солнце) can be used in the sense of "darling." In a Pianoboy interview, Shurov is asked which woman or muse inspired both the composition and image. He places that person––or object––of desire very far from normality. Perfect happiness is either distant or non-existent. "My 'sun' is the same as yours––or anyone else's. It's both far away and floating in the sky. It hurts to look at it... yet life without the sun is impossible." These level-headed and bittersweet views of the world color all three of the releases below.
The first of them is also from Ukraine. An article in the local press recently painted a very lyrical, abstract picture of new electronic music in Slavic lands––and its social potential. Far from anything discordant or demanding, even, hopes were voiced that local musicians might create the soundtrack to narratives of peace and trust. Consolation and happy endings were needed. "Imagine listening to music in a club with a select number of people. The candles are flickering and your eyes begin to wander... The only thing left is to fly away... into weightlessness."
Our sentimental journalist continues and again imagines taking wing, away from the daily grind: "Listening to these gentle, uncomplicated tracks, you want nothing more than to fly upwards––into the clouds. You feel yourself suspended in the air, far above the material world––and free from all worry... These new compositions will cut right through your heart (in a good way!) and you'll be left with a sense of unadulterated joy. A head full of such thoughts will––at long last––bring something pure to your heart and soul." Positive thoughts could help an ailing soul; fantasy could become fact.
Another publication declared the newest material from Internet Sushi to be a "perfect, even magic elixir for a freezing night––on December 31st or New Year's Day." On both occasions, relief is sought from the passage of time and some insistent unpleasantry in the outside world. This overlapping imagery and call for peace or quiet is tied to the opening motif of a "cut heart," since the new Internet Sushi LP is titled "Katana."
Far above the material world––and free from all worry
That Japanese noun refers to the ancient swords of the Samurai. Over the Twentieth Century, these ceremonial arms have fallen into obsolescence. High costs and fewer craftsmen led to cheap reproductions, even among officers in the Japanese army during World War Two. "Katana" is, therefore, a word that evokes either a fading tradition or a memory of some prior dignity. It symbolizes a lost social potential.
Even though the new Internet Sushi LP includes some soundbites from US detective movies and film noir––plus some related, post-war warnings against drug usage––any sense of impending threat is transferred to dreams of somewhere distant. Flight is a better option that any fight. Japan stands in for a wide range of missing ideals: it is a distant object of desire, something never quite reached.
These philosophical states and affairs first transpired in a 2015 springtime Internet Sushi release on Saint Petersburg's Subwise. The label's staff spoke of the mini-album as follows: "The Tokyo night begins amid countless aromas and airborne, elusive sounds. They all emerge as if from some bottomless expanse. [Stable] dimensions soon dissolve and everything seems heightened: [rose] thorns scratch us more than usual. Even leaves grow sharper..."
Surrounded by incomprehensible turns of phrase, a citizen of the Twenty-First Century imagines himself in a distant neon cloud, where reliable "dimensions dissolve." In the same way, Volkov's VK page has spoken on one occasion of Internet Sushi's audience as "the collective farmers [колхозники] of modern media." Soviet notions of elbow grease and self-determination are shifted to the web, where workplace dictates, physical dimensions, and private desires are either multiplied or endlessly vague. Something becomes nothing (specific)––and that's cause for celebration.
Dive into a state of numbness
The Nizhnii Novgorod duo Crimson Butterfly are also promoting a new album, entitled "MMXV." Positioning itself somewhere "in between indie pop and witch house," the LP also has a Japanese subtext. The recording ends with a sixteen-minute composition, "Eri Eri Rema Sabakutani." That complex phrase, which translates as "My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?" comes from a 2005 Japanese feature film directed by Shinji Aoyama. The action takes place in 2015, when a virus has infected countless people worldwide. Known as the Lemming Syndrome, the disease leads the sick to commit suicide. The only hope for salvation appears to come from a couple of young, though recently retired musicians. "Mizui and Asuhara live quietly, surrounded by piles of musical instruments." Sound is used to fight the sickness––and two outsiders come to the rescue of normality.
Japan is not the only international reference point for Crimson Butterfly. "MMXV" also includes a Swedish tale about "monsters' [huge] eyes and dead pirates on the Baltic Sea." Further still from home is a track dedicated to the Oort Cloud, a theoretical ring of icy particles surrounding the Sun.
As social and existential alternatives to daily reality are pondered, there is increasing recourse to what the band calls "a dream-ambient reverb. It summons us to dive into a state of numbness." These two musicians (Seryozha Yunikorn and Elena Orlova) then declare the "gentlest, most tender" track on the new album to be "Painkiller." Put differently, the ideal state is one of less pain; the ideal location is far away. References to Japanese cinema––and to the power of sound over physical matter––begin that medicated flight from home.
Yunikorn and Orlova explain their fondness for exotica. "The album is very cosmopolitan, from a linguistic point of view. We include materials in Swedish, Czech, Russian, Japanese, and English. Yet we still insist that 'MMXV' be seen as a work of Russian electronica. Modern Russian music is becoming a counterweight to the nation's isolationist policies." As a government shuts itself off from the world, these Nizhnii Novgorod performers find themselves dreaming of anywhere else.
The most direct calls to escapism among these four recordings come from Moscow's Thy Lankasters. Promotional materials of late have promised "strobe lights, dancing crowds, people kissing, and a lead singer who'll dance with the audience until the end credits." It is then suggested, in pragmatic terms, that alcohol would help to forget normality, since "it's hardly possible to let rip when you're sober."
More specifically, the band's aesthetic is fashioned in fond remembrance of "a time when indie guitar bands sounded like rave outfits––somewhere in the mid-2000s." That reference backwards in time––to a happier, simpler experience––is important because the group's catalog and mixtapes invite other flights into the past.
There's almost nothing online in terms of interviews or programatic statements, so Thy Lankasters' significance is shaped mainly through the words of others. The most important of those tangential quotations is arguably cinematic. One pithy online publication frames the band's music by way of a quotation from the British feature of 1999, "Human Traffic" (dir. Justin Kerrigan). This, in a word, is a film about retrospection and consolation.
We wanna go somewhere else. We're not threatened by people anymore ('Human Traffic,' 1999)
The movie concerns five friends who, in order to escape the misery of their normal lives, come together over a range of social drugs. Their goal is to "live for the weekend"––because anything longer is impossible. They get high and dream of what was.
The lines taken from Kerrigan's screenplay in order to explain Thy Lankasters reads as follows. The hopes of some nostalgic Brits are applied to a group of retrospective Slavs. "We wanna go somewhere else. We're not threatened by people anymore. All our insecurities have evaporated. We're in the clouds now. We're wide open. We're spacemen orbiting the earth. The world looks beautiful from here, man. We're nympholeptics, desiring for the unobtainable. We risk sanity for moments of temporary enlightenment. So many ideas. So little memory. The last thought killed by anticipation of the next. We embrace an overwhelming feeling of love. We flow in unison. We're together. I wish this was real. We want a universal level of togetherness, where we're comfortable with everyone. We're in rhythm. Part of a movement. A movement to escape. We wave goodbye. Ultimately, we just want to be happy. Heh, yeah, hang on, what the f*** was I just talking about?"
Escape does not last long––nor does self-delusion. Like Dima Shurov's high-jumper, a rapid ascent is quickly followed by a fall from grace.
This romance, born of worldly dissatisfaction, is nicely matched by Thy Lankasters' programatic use of William Blake's famous poem of 1794, wondering how a God of endless mercy could also create violence or evil. "Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" Blake's lines express confusion. The world is made in ways that seem illogical and unfair. As Dima Shurov noted: "The world has its own, strange harmony." Sad songs are occasionally needed, therefore, since they build better, more empathetic communities.
Thy Lankasters (Moscow)