Ptitsu Em: Nine Provincial Sketches of Humor and Horror

A few matters beg clarification before we even start: Ptitsu Em ("I'm Eating a Bird") are, in fact, a duo normally associated with the ever-disturbing quartet from Ekaterinburg, 4 Pozicii Bruno ("The Four Positions of Bruno"). That duo, to be more specific, consists of Aleksandr Sitnikov and Nikolai Babak, shown below. They have just released a fantastic debut LP with the title of "Ptitsu Sem" - "I Will Eat a Bird."

Even in these first few sentences we can sense that the line between logic and semantic collapse is very thin.

These games with illogicality can be traced back to the work of 4 Pozicii Bruno, about whom we've written on several occasions. What makes the band's drone/dub compositions so unnerving is that they're often dedicated to the theme of hidden dangers, lurking in quotidian experience. On top of monotone washes of sound, the ensemble often places spoken, prosaic monologues that come from field recordings: ordinary people are recorded talking about ordinary matters. And yet any sensation of normalcy is erased by the hellish electronic sounds in the background. 

Similar tricks are played with nursery rhymes, TV advertisements, sampled pop songs or other noises related to peace, calm, and happiness. In essence, the works of 4 Pozicii Bruno are an insight into the illusionary nature of security in Russian daily life: anything can happen, and when it does, it's usually really bad...

That grim conclusion brings us to the nine new recordings by Ptitsu Em; we need only look at the album's cover work (at the top of this post) to get a sense of where we're heading. The picture shows an act of kindness, as a middle-aged man prepares to share a meal with a bird. As, however, the album's title suggests, this gesture of comradeship will soon turn into a savage attack - upon the bird. What looks like the security of home is really the beginning of a bloodbath. Close behind friendship sits frenzy.

Below we see the ritual of "provody" in Ekaterinburg, designed to recognize the souls of the departed. These, judging by the songs of Sitnikov and Babak, are people who were hit by cars, beaten by neighbors, or fell from ladders. When they least expected anything to happen.

The album is built, as mentioned, upon a foundation of nine works, most of which tell a story of average folks on the dusty streets of Ekaterinburg and beyond - in places where the supposed law and order of city life become the laws of nature, which are much less forgiving. These yarns come primarily from social environments: they're set in childrens' camps, school classrooms, the workplace, and smaller family settings. None of them are happy, yet they often bear a touch of bitter-sweet (perhaps even gallows) humor.

These are the soundtrack to shrugged shoulders and private tears, amid people who are barely holding it together.

In houses that reflect similar states of repair.

Brief snippets in the Russian press suggest that we categorize these provincial figures as "teenagers, petty criminals, and gays." Overly simplistic though that list may be, it does bring to the fore a major theme of entrance into various social norms, in terms of age or behavior - and whether it's even worth the effort to mature. That which masquerades as normalcy is often much darker, as we begin to feel with the band's use of samples. Not only do we hear the kind of synthesized, insanely jolly pop of Russia in the late '80s, but Soviet childrens' songs are also subjected to the same heartless (mis)treatment.

The easy-going flow of a preschool ditty, for example, is transformed into an slurred, looping mess of decelerated notes, unable to progress due to their constant repetition and internal spasms. Fluid movement and progress are inhibited, over and over. Nobody's going anywhere.

Fluid movement and progress are inhibited, over and over. Nobody's going anywhere.

The concert poster below suggests that "Teenagers' Liver" will be on sale. Such is the savagery of local life, it seems.

Even the back catalog of some dignified members of Russia's rock canon, such as Splin and Kino, is sampled in ways that show that grand posturing has no place in Ekaterinburg. That inability to be cocky and self-contained in an unforgiving social sphere leads to the kind of language we hear in the very first seconds of "Ptitsu Sem." These first lines, as with most of the LP, are full of major swearing. A dead-end existence is narrated with terms from the dead-end of language.

A dead-end existence is narrated with terms from the dead-end of language.

The lo-fi dialog that opens the album could be translated as: "F**king hell! The idea of a 'Russian Rapper' is a complete f**king joke, of course! I'd hate to earn the title of 'Russian Rapper.'" And then Sitnikov and Babak spend the next 40 minutes doing precisely that: rapping. The stories they tell about "street life" in Ekaterinburg lack anything akin to macho bravado. They make vicious fun of their poetic form before they even start.

Rather than the tight-knit streets of American urban legend, social places in this Russian town are small, often spiteful spheres - hugged tightly by the tedium of emptiness. The dirt visible on the cars below shows how quickly Ekaterinburg fades into endless mud and fields. A sense of one's insignificance is assured.

In fact the track that begins with our verbal onslaught then goes on to tell the story of a young boy who is sent off to a youth camp. Rather than enjoy himself, his one desire is to get the hell out. A later number plays the same narrative game with some nasty tales about (frighteningly) typical days in typical Russian schools. The main refrain that holds the song together can be translated with three simple words: "Don't Go There."

In both cases, the young male narrators tell their elders that happy memories of school and/or youth camp from prior generations mean nothing nowadays. Trajectories of personal development in 2010 can so easily spiral into worrying decline. For no apparent reason.

These nine compositions might, of course, be tagged as hip-hop, yet they work endlessly to rob us of any desire to enter the social sphere of a dancefloor. "Ptitsu Sem" suggests that nobody can be trusted, especially in towns of a bona fide Slavic heritage. The grim, electro-drone heritage of 4 Pozicii Bruno is more prevalent than the "f**king" comedy of a "Russian rapper." Arrogance and swagger will be swiftly brought to heal by disorder and an enduring social malice.  

Even the local ducks stop to ponder some disconcerting forces.

The Moscow press has - somewhat surprisingly - called several of these songs, which shun all pretence towards a polished aesthetic, as "jolly, confident, and indecent." That "confidence" is only a miserable assurance that there's precious little of lasting worth outside the front door. As a result, one might as well lapse into self-deprecating humor - and the kind of endless obscenities that suggest "normality" is so bizarre and disturbing, it remains indescribable.  

In one interview with 4 Pozicii Bruno, Babak explained briefly how the stories of Ptitsu Em come into being. "We create them freestyle. That differs from the way we'd compose a written text." The narratives of this album are, in other words, a spontaneous project. That same spontaneity, relatively free from self-censorship and other forms of moderation, has produced one of the most painfully honest albums in a long time. The Russian Tourist Board will not be happy.

Welcome to the end of the line.


Ptitsu Em – Catharsis
Ptitsu Em – Friends No More
Ptitsu Em – Hello, Stranger
Ptitsu Em – Labor Ed.
Ptitsu Em – Slavka Milokhin

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