Moving to Titan: Ink Twins, S3P, Empty Field, and The Alex Kelman Band

Alex Kelman Band: "Songs of Fake and Distortion" (2014)

At the time when FFM was launched, one of the very first bands we discovered was PunkTV, a Siberian collective with much love for all things Mancunian. Eventually the ensemble's lineup would come under pressure both from a desire to emigrate and the announcement of side-projects like TonySoprano (written thus). One of the group's Siberian founders was Alex Kelman, whose more recent adventures have been self-defined as "energetic, danceable punk... Something that's not totally devoid of melody!" A recognizable sound, as we'll see, has bridged multiple adventures over the years.

Related phrasing from the same man, specifically with regard to TonySoprano after the demise of PunkTV, would read: "Our new band plays with drive and a degree of [poetic] lyricism. There's a[n enduring] striving for the stars, too" - i.e., a persistent movement away from home, noisy hubris, or any goal-driven pragmatism. For that same reason, the imagery of a kaleidoscope decorating one of TonySoprano's publications made more sense than any linear rhetoric or commonsensical planning. A kaleidoscope was thought to engender new, always-complete designs from the most fragmented structures - over and over again, each time anew. It both approached and departed from cohesion simultaneously. Something was always born of nothing special.

Each of the band members has known both success and failure

And so another side-project now emerges from Kelman, against that wistful backdrop and in another nation. Put simply, his newest - and most clearly tagged - collective is called the Alex Kelman Band. Its members include graduates of other groups celebrated in the earliest days of FFM, such as Hot Zex (Novosibirsk) and Dsh-Dsh (Moscow). A collective spirit will hopefully develop in 2015 across the team-sheet of AKB, since these performers all view themselves as people who've experienced the highs and lows of independent music-making in Russia. As Kelman himself remarked in one video interview this winter: "Each of the band members has known both success and failure. That increases the likelihood of AKB producing something honest and earnest."

According to Kelman's rationale, verity emerges from a process of trial and error. Apparently it's also audible this month as "a mixture of noisy guitars, dance beats, and beautiful loops - added to American-style female vocals reminiscent of the 1960s." The fundamental building blocks of PunkTV remain in place; vigor and volume as a means of canceling out the status quo. People who've experienced loss would rather hear something other than rejection.

Kelman's career has, from the outset in Novosibirsk, been tied either to a lengthy series of anglophile reference points or a direct use of the English language. "English is an international medium - as is any music it produces." Hence his willingness to admit an open and long-standing affection for bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, plus other Western projects working in a shoegazing mode. One's eyes are deliberately cast downward.

Alex Kelman Band (Moscow and New York)

What's interesting, therefore, is to hear Kelman's views on how a so-called "Russian-singing" ensemble might fair at home. In prior interviews, he has been unwilling to speak of any meaningful distinction between mainstream and independent music in Russia. Instead, he discerns an overarching apathy among all homegrown audiences, no matter the language used on stage. Nothing really inspires domestic crowds. More influential than any gap between primetime playlists and experimentation is, perhaps, an "ongoing generational shift." Kelman implies that the Western associations of popular music with private or public change have still not taken root at home. Acquiescence holds sway over any possible epiphany.

One might attribute these low levels of social impact to technology, rather than to anything sociopolitical. Songs, we're informed, tend to be consumed alone by their audience(s) - and lazily. "Music may have become more accessible, but it's also more decentered. It develops in a 'horizontal' manner," rather than in unidirectional ways recognizable to a profit-and-loss graph. There's no discernible sense of progress; instead musicians just hope for increasing "ripples" of impact, away from a lonely or isolated listener to ten, twenty, even one hundred other people further afield. Such are the hopes for "centripetal" development - which is an understandable metaphor in a huge, underpopulated nation.

Music may have become more accessible [in Russia today], but it's also more decentered

For these reasons, perhaps, the debut EP from Alex Kelman Band has been self-tagged as "naive, simple, and yet catchy electronica. This could be the soundtrack to sadness, dancing, or simply strolling through the icy rain of a nocturnal city." Two of those three activities are grounded in distraction, if not disinterest. Only one of them assumes movement beyond the walls of a building.

Against that sobering backdrop or social vector, it's interesting to consider some other debut recordings as 2014 draws to a close, this time from "Russia's equivalent of Detroit" - and The Ink Twins. Here in the city of Togliatti, associated for decades with Russia's automobile industry, we (still) find the insistent drive and determination of classic garage rock, going head to head with the social barriers noted by Alex Kelman. The best responses to civic indifference are, perhaps, noise and unflagging enthusiasm. The Ink Twins, it's worth mentioning from the outset, are currently in the final stages of planning a debut LP entitled "Russian Death." That title already says a great deal.  

This band was formed four years ago, in the hope of merging "melody and immediacy." Inspiration was not found among the sounds of 2014. In other words, if the Alex Kelman Band continue to seek ideal arrangements among recordings of the 1980s and '90s, then The Ink Twins look even further into the past. The current day offers less and less appeal. "The Ink Twins embody a 1970s' attitude towards rock and roll. We mean a sound that's built on steroids and a pumping rhythm section, combined with loud and fuzzy guitars." There's nothing happening in the here and now.

Frontman Nikita Batayev chatted recently with staff at a Togliatti radio station. His own affections, listeners quickly discovered, continue to lean towards LPs fashioned in the UK and/or US. The White Stripes, Queens of the Stone Age, and Foo Fighters were singled out for particular praise.

The Ink Twins (Tolyatti): Aleksandr Nikiforov (L) and Nikita Batayev 

When it comes to domestic ensembles, Batayev prefers Rubl (Рубль), the garage offshoot of Leningrad. Founder of both those outfits, Sergei Shnurov, does much to cultivate an indifference towards mainstream entertainment in his homeland - or hometown of Saint Petersburg, even. There's little to be expected from a music industry at home, so why should he treat it with respect? In Batayev's own words: "I've accepted the fact that money is unlikely to result [from what we do]."

I've accepted the fact that money is unlikely to result [from what we do]

Batayev, then extending the same line of thought, also contends that a resulting fatalism directly informs local rock music, which is often expressed - quite literally - in minor keys. Western - and specifically British or American - collectives are supposedly more likely to employ major keys for more upbeat narratives. Hence Batayev's desire to "move out of Togliatti - or out of Russia altogether. Yet if we then moved to the United States, there would be much more [professional] competition." Both at home and away, these problems are not only qualitative, they're quantitative, too. Domestic audiences, just as we're told by AKB, care little for contemporary music, especially in a world where centralized media are gradually surrendering some ground to individual blogs, private MP3 players, and other tiny bubbles of activity. 

The only escape from minorized consumption or a dismissive attitude towards songwriting is to enter a major playing field. Put differently, emigration sometimes appears the only solution to domestic doldrums. In both cases, though, one is unlikely to be noticed. The Ink Twins' forthcoming and wholly "domestic" LP will be dedicated to themes of encroaching "Russian death." The Alex Kelman Band, operating between Moscow and distant New York, title their own EP with brutal references to some form of (self?) "deception." There is no easy solution to a listenership that's fragmented and/or apathetic.  

Hence the core metaphors of projects such as Saint Petersburg's Empty Field. These artists' contribution to a project at Look at Me not long ago was described as an "ironic consideration of modern man - who worries about the complexities of life." Anxiety is more prevalent than activity, and so - on our first visit to Empty Field - we also heard the related assertion that: "All this chillwave and hypnagogic pop [nowadays] is the perfect style for our boundless nation." The most fitting response to civic and/or physical emptiness is decelerated, faltering, and lo-fi drone.

The Ink Twins: "Apple of My Eye" (2014)

Since that time, Empty Field have published a handful of important tracks dedicated to the Huygens probe of the European Space Agency. It managed to reach a moon of Saturn - and therefore traveled further than any man-made craft - yet could only broadcast for ninety minutes before dying. Great distances were traversed, seemingly at the expense of self-expression, if not self-preservation. Escape proved fatal.

These same northern musicians, when speaking of those "spacey" recordings, borrowed some specific dates and data from a related Wikipedia page in order to give their chosen symbolism objective weight. They quoted a section in which Huygens' data loss was quantified. The probe was expected to send back something like 700 images to Earth; physical demise and systemic failure, however, had other plans. The English equivalent of those lines quoted by Empty Field reads as follows:

"Huygens was programmed to transmit telemetry and scientific data to the Cassini orbiter for relay to Earth using two redundant S-band radio systems, referred to as Channel A and B, or Chain A and B. Channel A was the sole path for an experiment to measure wind speeds by studying tiny frequency changes caused by Huygens's motion. In one other deliberate departure from full redundancy, pictures from the descent imager were split up, with each channel carrying 350 pictures. As it turned out, Cassini never listened to channel A because of an operational commanding error." 

This is the music of methane lakes and the joy of a mechanical object - the only resident of Titan's boundless expanse

How should that fatal error sound to Russian ears? "Our EP includes lots of noise and drone. This is the music of methane lakes and the joy of a mechanical object that [briefly] finds itself the only resident of Titan's boundless expanse." It's hard not to draw parallels with a Russian citizen who, against all odds, finally gets to be heard... for ninety minutes.

The likelihood of constructive, social activity remains low. In the past, for example, when Empty Field have directly referenced Russia's history of socialist construction, seriousness has been a tall order. Nobody believes tales of Five-Year Plans any more. And so Empty Field speak of music designed for "ironic [narratives of] socialist realism," which - once again - ends up sounding like "dirty lo-fi with cloying disco rhythms." Low hopes should be orchestrated to lo-fi arrangments.

Titan looks like a better version of Togliatti and - for precisely these reasons - the vein of sci-fi references in post-Soviet pop has been rich indeed. Anywhere looks better than home. One fine example of this insistent stargazing would be Secrets of the Third Planet (aka "S3P"), a collective well known to this site. As we first stated back in 2008, Secret of the Third Planet (Taina tret’ei planety) is a very famous Soviet cartoon from 1981. This is the starting point for much additional imagery.

Empty Field (Saint Petersburg): "Noise EP" (2014)

The cartoon takes place during a future search across the cosmos to find strange, never-seen, or unknown beasts for the Moscow Zoo. In one of the film’s famous quotes, these animal collectors declare: “We’re not bandits! We’re noble pirates!” They’re grateful for whatever cosmic nature lets them take home. That quote and its cartoon origins are both fondly remembered even today, because the grandness of verbose, epic science fiction is constantly being downscaled here and then kept small by much gentle irony. In other words, the cartoon is lacking in any of the cocky, conquering spirit that one might expect from the middle of the Cold War or Space Race. It's an example of maudlin, ironic sci-fi.

Voices, texts, and logic all take second place relative to an ethereal atmosphere

That same downsizing is often evident in the music of S3P, too, since several of the band's spiraling tracks lean heavily on an ambient aesthetic designed to evoke enduring atmospheres, rather than forward-looking arrogance. Evgenii Frankevich and his self-deprecating colleagues are happy, just as their famous film, to place themselves inside discernible sonic networks or humbling states. The music of S3P has always evoked a realm much grander than the people therein - a busy, broad domain for which people feel empathy. Desire opens a landscape across which "voices, texts, and logic all take second place relative to an ethereal atmosphere."

Speaking recently to Zvuki.Ru, Frankevich and his colleague Dasha Ksenofrontova together spoke about their current hopes and future plans. Frankevich looked back upon ten years of making music, both in S3P and Silence Kit. "Of course there have been tough times, when all that effort meant nothing to anybody except me. And ten years is indeed a pretty long time! I've been really lucky to have met Dasha, since she helps to keep me grounded... It would be great to somehow mark that tenth anniversary of S3P, together with all the people who've played in the group over the years." Endurance alone is cause for celebration.  

S3P (Moscow/Saint Petersburg): "Rastayal" ("Melted," 2014)

Zvuki.Ru ask about the day-to-day difficulties of being a musician in Russia. Ksenofrontova explains that the number of bands is actually growing in Saint Petersburg; affordable rehearsal space needs to be booked further and further ahead. Frankevich, addressing a related matter, then complains of growing costs for S3P's studio work. "Nowadays, almost all independent artists are obliged to hold down a second job. Personally, I don't know what lies ahead for us: the future looks pretty murky. Music seems to be undergoing yet another period of crisis..." He then proposes an intriguing theory that musical quantum leaps - away from of social and/or creative crises - tend historically to be simultaneous with the discovery or modishness of a new drug.

Sound, apparently, requires a related form of physical escape.

The future looks pretty murky. Music seems to be undergoing yet another period of crisis

He next documents a few more failings at home. "What's also missing in Moscow are large festivals - or events tied to a specific club. I mean events that have solid financial backing. We in S3P need concert venues that can handle fundamental technical requirements and a modest rider. More venues with varied lineups would be super; that would also allow people [in the capital] to experience not only Western bands, but also local groups. Sure, we might have summer festivals here that gravitate in the same general direction [towards inclusiveness], but there's nothing on the scale of European shows. Festivals in Moscow tend to offer people the same old lineups. Not only does that look bad; it soon starts to recall the conservative policy of some [erstwhile,] centralized Moscow publisher."

Socialist memories or parallels prove stubborn if the future (still) recalls the past. Nothing ever seems to change.

S3P, echoing the views of Empty Field last year, were glad to see lo-fi music on the rise. It appeared a suitable style. In Frankevich's mind, anything lo-fi will help to discourage the prior tendencies (in the early 2000s) to spend huge amounts of money away from home, specifically in British and American studios. The Ink Twins dream of emigration; S3P feel, conversely, that an escape to the airport will change nothing. 

"Nowadays you can record music wherever you want. You might collaborate in some [distant] English studio with a gifted [and very expensive] producer, but the quality of your message will not change in the slightest." The most adventurous flights of fancy have little to do with cash or geography, because both money and distance are genuine obstacles. The boldest themes look beyond actuality - and the inevitable workings thereof. In other words, young performers do all they can to avoid whatever might cut a fledgling career very short.

Career goals for 2015 sound very familiar - because daily life in 2014 throws up so many problems. S3P soon admit, in resigned tones: "Everybody [still] wants to publish new music, play concerts, and - if possible - tour around Russia. Maybe Slavic bands could even perform in Europe, although that's much harder to do. In essence, our plans remain fairly banal. We just want to play concerts and publish records." Banality - or basic, uncomplicated desires - remain out of reach. And so desire imagines itself flourishing elsewhere, either on distant Titan or some legendary Third Planet. 

Secrets of the Third Planet: E. Frankevich and D. Ksenofrontova

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