The Oat Oaks project is closely tied to another band we've showcased before, OPAL. They are linked both through a shared location––the town of Volzhsky––and overlapping members, in particular the figure of Vadim Zolotukhin. These "hypnagogic, dungeon" sounds come from an initially quiet location. Situated on the banks of the Volga River, Volzhsky was not even registered as a "settlement" by mapmakers until the 1950s. The Soviets then established a hydroelectric dam near the Volga; life quickly changed. Considerably more housing was now needed for workers and their families, not to mention all manner of related services, and so the grey homogenous apartments of socialist design appeared as if from nowhere. Volzhsky still bears the marks of Soviet architectural taste, even in 2016. It looks like a singular plan, one that was swiftly executed.
Another connection between Oat Oaks and OPAL is their tongue-in-cheek generic self-description. It consists of one long, boldly capitalized neologism: "SYNTHPOPHAVINGSEXWITHBLACKMETAL." To this day, the only other text of any size concerning this purportedly "black metal" music is an interview published in Moscow's Afisha, dedicated to life in Volzhsky––and the question of whether it has a decent rock scene. What, in a word, is Russian provincial rock music?
Vadim Zolotukhin offers a succinct answer: "Plenty of people understand that music is the primary force of [cultural] movement here. It's a [social] exchange of energy and self-expression, too. It's the best thing imaginable." And yet Zolotukhin worries that complete satisfaction or jollity on the streets of Volzhsky would, paradoxically, lead to tedium. Better to yearn or dream endlessly:
"Many locals complain about our life here and want more [to happen], but that's true of any town. You'll never satisfy everybody. I've come to see the imperfections in our life as something ideal. I know it would be silly to expect everything you want to appear––all at once. The mere fact I'm here––and even exist!––is good enough for me." The provinces stop dreams coming true––or getting spoiled. Better, perhaps, to steer clear of satisfaction.
Not everybody agrees. Many of Zolotukhin's neighbors, he says, will never accept the failings of Volzhsky as good reason to develop a lively, contrary form of artistic expression. Instead they'll just acquiesce to the status quo. "It's something of a shame that so few people need good music around here. Things may not always be perfect in our town, but I really don't know where life would be better. For that reason, let's assume that our existence here is actually good."
So what of the new project, Oat Oaks? The name comes, apparently, from Zolotukhin's fondness for the work of Italian black metal ensemble Opera IX. The same project also claims to have played in an Italian village––and upon the decks of a floating strip club. The last two facts are open to debate. Difficulties at home are more likely than any Italian adventures.
Zolotukhin admits that any live performances away from home would be impossible without the assistance of friends. He writes all the Oat Oaks material himself in an orderly fashion; crowdsourced concerts, however, are unavoidably unpredictable. "We never have a plan set completely in stone––just a list of agreed songs, the material we all know well. That [familiarity] allows us a discernible level of freedom." He then declares that "everybody who lives in Volzhsky is an experimenter." Provincial life breeds a degree of improvisation, if not direct experimentation. Tedium leads to risk-taking.
Even further from Moscow (more than 5,000 miles) are the trio Alla Dmitrievna, based in Komsomol'sk na Amure. Living close to Russia's Pacific coastline, these three musicians appear––in ways similar to Oat Oaks––to have developed a flair for drama that's a consequence of "provincial" distances from the Big City. Grand emotions or frustrations are summoned by an equally grand emptiness. These performers, by way of quick illustration, have previously used the heady verse of Baudelaire in their songs:
"O fleecy hair, falling in curls to the shoulders!/ O black locks! O perfume laden with nonchalance!/ Ecstasy! To people the dark alcove tonight/ With memories sleeping in that thick head of hair./ I would like to shake it in the air like a scarf!/ Sweltering Africa and languorous Asia,/ A whole far-away world, absent, almost defunct,/ Dwells in your depths, aromatic forest!/ While other spirits glide on the wings of music,/ Mine, O my love! floats upon your perfume." Understatement is not likely.
The equally melodramatic poetry of Sergei Esenin has also found new expression in the songs of Alla Dmitrievna, who have previously defined their output as "synth baroque." In the same romantically florid manner, the band members say their stage name represents or embodies their imagined female inspiration, whom they also envision as Euterpe, the ancient muse of music. A tension slowly grows between these blossoming dreams and reality in Komsomol'sk na Amure, between longstanding desires and whatever is actually doable. The ensemble once informed Moscow's Volna magazine: "We tried playing funk, but the level of skill and sound quality were both extremely bad." Fantasy sometimes outstrips fact.
Confidence––and superior skills––were gradually developed through web-based collaborations and discussions with the Siberian Echotourist organization. The landscape of Central Russia produced a philosophy and shoegazing aesthetic that sounded familiar to Alla Dmitrievna. Of special value or importance in Siberia were the projects Dyad and FPRF. The Pacific musicians recall, with gratitude: "It was good that we were able to experiment [increasingly] in the realm of electronica––because there's no competition here in Komsomol'sk na Amure!" As with Oat Oaks, a sleepy hometown prompts a sense of daring. There's literally nothing to lose. "Living here can make it hard to develop [artistically], so we constantly stay in good shape and make sure we improve. We make our live shows increasingly complex."
We believe in ghosts, in the magical ether...We believe that time does not exist (Australian Kiss)
A lack of competition leads to greater effort. Nothing produces something.
Looking maximally far from home are the Saint Petersburg duo Australian Kiss: Inna Liss and Ivan Darov. They "fantasize on the theme of an abstract, distant Australia"––a land they have never visited. A related swapping of styles has also occurred, once again linking distance to experimentation. Both travel a long way from home and/or familiarity. These musicians not only toy with themes of faraway places; they are also from an isolated Russian location themselves. Before moving north to Saint Petersburg, they lived in the ancient town of Azov, on the nation's southern edge. The couple first recorded an electronic album in the Rostov State Conservatory, with Russian lyrics. They then switched to an acoustic format and began singing in English. Further metamorphoses are likely.
And so audiences in 2016 are told to expect "post-disco, mixed with R&B and the mystical vocals of Inna Liss. Existential texts make each gig different from the last." For all the standard PR rhetoric at work here, the central theme of difference or constant deviation is important.
It comes to a head in a fascinating post by Liss on a social networking account, in which she expresses her passionate desire to somehow be or embody everything in the world––and therefore belong to nothing in particular. "Superficiality, obscenity, rap, glamour, 'internal emigration,' Moscow kitsch, and attachment to any one nation or gender. All of that belongs to the prior century. Proponents of those [narrow] ideas have no place in our new world. Paranoid, snobbish postmodernism is replaced by our own age––the meta-modern age. We believe in ghosts, in the magical ether, and in the mysticism of antiquities all around us… We believe that time does not exist."
Everything is possible and impossible simultaneously (Inna Liss)
The text concludes on an even loftier note: "Aphrodite ignites a chalice of love. We study ten sciences and [mystical] practices; we wander around the forest, reading Francis Bacon at dinner. We burn our fashionable clothes. We dress ourselves anew, with both freshness and simplicity... Everything is possible and impossible simultaneously." Life in Azov prompts a remarkably baroque statement or manifesto, even, calling for the end of all hierarchical categories, including the haughty, central importance of Moscow. Distance is erased––and everybody benefits.
The same city brings additional news. Pinkshinyultrablast from Saint Petersburg have published a new album, not long after a temporary move to Los Angeles. Vocalist Lyubov Soloveva praises the city's "evident diversity... being less polished, more playful, and a little less tense than New York." The US press has noted both "grandeur and more experimentation" in the dream- or noise pop recording, entitled "Grandfeathered"; British journalists speak of an "ethereal and unshackled" clamor. Soloveva responds: "We had a little more time with recording and mixing it. We had more room and the ability to work with the sound palette in post-production. There was more space to experiment with our keyboards and samples, adding multiple layers to the existing material." (All of these quotations from Pinkshinyultrablast are in the original English, offered to US and UK publications.)
Away from home in London or Los Angeles, the group notices that Slavic geography fades considerably as a topic of debate or concern. One writer asks whether the band's address is important. "Not at all. I mean we don't have tons of bands playing over in Saint Petersburg, but as long as you can find people who've enjoyed the same music––people to play with you––that’s all that matters. It’s about matching yourselves [with a kindred spirit] and understanding one another. It’s not about where you’re from or what you’re doing."
Nonetheless, in another interview––as with the bands above––Soloveva has spoken of the connection between negative surroundings at home and the need for a positive response: "Whenever a scene is vibrant, [then paradoxically] there is just so much crap out there [also]... and out of that crap emerges––once in a while––something great. I just think for us [in Saint Petersburg], maybe there's not enough crappy stuff going on! [Instead] there are so many bands trying to copy others [from the West]––and sometimes trying to do new things––but they’re just not very interesting to us... Speaking objectively, there is just not as much stuff going on [in our hometown], so that would probably make it boring." A complicated series of sentences reaches a simple conclusion; tedium at home inspired a positive gesture. Nothing happening in one, fixed location eventually caused something to occur.
We didn’t want the voice to stick out––ever (Pinkshinyultrablast)
And yet, as soon as one embarks on a musical career, audiences will append all manner of generic tags. Freedom from a concrete address is replaced with the constraints of pigeonholing. And so, as with Australian Kiss, the dream of making oneself "absent" emerges––the removal of all specificity (all places, associations, and stylistic tags). By way of simple example: one salient aspect of Pinkshinyultrablast's recordings has always been the deliberate burial of Soloveva's vocals deep in the mix; her lyrics are in fact completely incomprehensible––and productively so:
"We didn’t want the voice to stick out––ever. In part, that's because certain types of singing have always rubbed us the wrong way. [We mean those recordings] where the voice is what you're actually [i.e., exclusively] listening to––and the lyrics are full of 'meaning' and death––all that kind of stuff! We wanted [instead] to create the sort of mix where the voice is just as much a part of the whole. It's [only] as important as everything else." The sound of complete and utter cohesion, to the point where nothing is prevalent––no binarisms of "here" or "there." Instead, everything is ushered in.
For these Saint Petersburg performers, any clumsily evident or strident lyrics are associated with protest songs––and therefore with one's fixed place inside an unpleasant social structure. Another binarism emerges, as individual songs are defined by public reality. They need something to oppose. Soloveva has even spoken of the "commercialization of tragedy," in other words the transformation of Pussy Riot's protest into a brand of complaint; that which opposes the Kremlin actually needs it (in order to rant)––and then commercializes a gesture of rebellion. Pinkshinyultrablast admit that, as a Russian band, they will always be "inscribed into the whole political situation [of Moscow when traveling outside of Russia], even though we're working outside of it."
That preposition is key: outside. Oat Oaks, OPAL, Alla Dmitrievna, Australian Kiss, and Pinkshinyultrablast all credit their positive efforts to a negative context. Something is done in response to nothing. In some cases, the finest response to woeful reality is not to oppose it––with protest songs––but to ignore it altogether. To fly from all parties, places, and related labels. The challenges to categorization we see from these bands involve physical space, geography, and genres, to name but three. They lead to a fervent and contrary romantic spirit, declaring both time and space to be irrelevant! And, in the same way, Pinkshinyultrablast put considerable effort into erasing language, at least in terms of coherent sentences. Linguistic categories are turned into pure harmony. In a land of angry political rant––and the civic damage it does––humming probably sounds a lot more pleasant.