The Sounds of a Meaningless Heritage: Rock's Seasonal Roundup

The slowly fading contours of Earworm (Grodno, Belarus)

The Belarusian town of Grodno is close to both the Polish and Lithuanian borders; it is also home to the self-designated "instrumental prog" outfit known as Earworm, whose most recent album––"Last Cocktail"––appeared late in 2016. That symbolism, especially from a professionally taciturn quartet, was telling. Four young men who have deliberately avoided language will only place greater emphasis upon an infrequent turn of phrase. Especially when they admit that their professional collaboration is coming to an end.

"This is the newest album from a [soon-to-be] defunct outfit. Earworm is ending its existence, but the music has remained. We really have followed our path all the way––to the very end; similarly, we hope your own path takes you just as far. Farewell, friends!" 

Enthusiastic supporters of Earworm on Russian-language torrent sites celebrate the band's high degree of "melancholy, nostalgia, and personal drama [in 2017]. Plus [on 'Last Cocktail'] there's an overarching sense of bidding farewell to the world––once and for all... This album is a final summary, just before that world––perhaps an entire universe, even!––is handed over to archivists for a very long time."

Everything has come full circle––and that has always been one of our favorite compositional schemes (Earworm)

And yet the end of one endeavor merely signals the start of another. "We can't yet tell what exactly our new project will be, but it's already showing some initial signs of life. One thing's for sure; it will definitely be worthy of your attention.…" At the very least, a name and public page have been already established: Morning Slide.

More important, however, is Earworm's immediate and positive spin placed upon an otherwise miserable occasion. Fans may fall to lazy assumptions of melancholy or some fatalistic nostalgia, but the musicians themselves are more included to view failure in terms of a superior, alternative trajectory. New options open up.

In the Belarusian press Earworm have been a little more forthcoming––and just as level-headed: "To be perfectly honest, we searched for [a survival strategy over] several years, but we never found the desired result. And that's why we decided to stop... We simply established a reasonable point where, without attracting undue attention, we could handle these matters [of conclusion or alleged demise] on our own terms. We decided to include two of our older works on the new LP––while reinterpreting them, too. In that way, Last Cocktail symbolizes a degree of continuity. The LP may end with Earworm's farewell composition, but it's also a reworking of our first published material!"

Sonic Death "Unreleased Album" (Saint Petersburg, January 2017)

"Everything has come full circle––and that has always been one of our favorite compositional schemes. Thanks for being with us––and good luck in your own endeavors!" 

O felix culpa.

A related series of natural, self-generating circles has perhaps defined the careers of both Padla Bear Outfit and Sonic Death, overseen by Arseny Morozov from his hometown of Saint Petersburg. In 2009, the former band appeared as a leading light in the Russian lo-fi scene, with amateurish and underfunded recordings that nonetheless proved widely influential. Morozov himself became a figurehead or poster-child for a modish, wantonly DIY generation of the 2000s that coincided with the ravages of Russian piracy. As the traditional recording industry fell apart, Morozov helped to inspire hundreds, if not thousands of artists who simply couldn't care less. The best response to institutional failure was indifference.

Circa 2012 Padla Bear Outfit also came to a slow, yet natural conclusion, amid accusations that an lo-fi aesthetic would allow for scant variety. Sounding bad could only get you so far. Morozov's response was the garage, dirty, and sometimes gothic register of Sonic Death, which operates to this day.

Not long ago, Morozov found himself listening to some of the older recordings from PBO and thinking: "You know what! That was a pretty good group! [That's why] we started learning the older songs again, since they were so simple. Nothing complicated. I just chose the most suitable tracks [from a back catalog], based on the kind of sounds I like nowadays. Matters turned out really nicely. We soon decided to put on a concert and I wasn't too worried by the fact it would be interpreted as a reunion. The main thing was I felt a desire to sing those songs again. Around 2011 PBO was moving in a sort of retro-direction..."  

Time to stop. Then start again. That growing sense of retrogression or redundancy led to a dismissal of band members. The same dismissal, five years later, would make a reunion something meaningful.

Padla Bear Outfit: "Christmas Issue" (December 2016)

The reason for these looping patterns, back to lo-fi or DIY enterprise––in and out of existence––has been defined by Morozov as an ongoing "yearning for freedom and self-realization. Every generation will have different tools at their disposal [to voice that same yearning]. Earlier bands wanted to be seen on MTV [in the 1980s and '90s]; nowadays it's whatever we see online that inspires us. Everybody [whatever the decade] discovers something they care about. Personally I think the most important thing of all is simply to distinguish yourself from the masses."

Both bands and media formats wax and wane; the desire for novel self-expression persists, but freedom of expression first demands that one jettison the status quo. Innovation needs a prior collapse.

Morozov recalls holding down twelve-hour shifts at a gas station, before naming Sonic Death his primary collective. At that time "a concert could feel like a breath of fresh air. Gradually I came to understand that my audiences were the same folks who'd started the lo-fi/garage movement." A community of both commiseration and creativity was formed. And then disbanded. And then reconstituted. 

We are coming to terms with our own, grand, and meaningless heritage (Sonic Death)

Since Russian normality has perhaps not improved since 2011, the sounds of poorly funded self-reliance would keep returning. For this reason, and playing upon a racial epithet used in Russia for anybody from Central Asia, Morozov calls himself a "musical Tajik." Central Asian workers, being so far from home on Moscow construction sites, say, are easy targets for Silk Road jokes in 2017. Morozov takes the terminology upon himself. "All I can do is keep plowing ahead and clearing the road." Part of that cleansing or purging comes from fidelity to an easy-going garage style. Sounding cheap is more important than sounding overtly rebellious. The benefits of indifference return.

"I know that I tend to look calm––and borderline gay, even! And that really irritates all the filthy, uptight, and tattooed gorillas [on Russia's underground scene]. I love irritating them." 

I Will Kill Chita (Moscow): "Cargo Cult" (December, 2016)

Another reference from Sonic Death to the past proves insightful, harking back to Russia's homemade music scene of the early web. It helps to establish what's most irritating to any establishment, be it an elitist underground or Moscow's overpaid mainstream artists. Digital culture, holds Morozov, helps to make snobbery and exclusiveness impossible. "The Russian bands of the 1990s hammered the last nail into the coffin of our 'endlessly progressive' [late Soviet] culture. So we––the kids of the 2000s––are still digging through that. We are coming to terms with our own, grand, and meaningless heritage." 

Impoverished amateurism can turn failure into creative growth, in ways that put an imperial collapse to shame.

In order to bestow grace upon our native land, we decided to erect a new idol (I Will Kill Chita)

Of all these swings backward, to a prior experience or era, the grandest example of late comes arguably from I Will Kill Chita, another post-rock instrumental outfit, this time based in Moscow. The band's most recent recording, issued last month, is called "Cargo Cult." It has emerged with a brief text in Russian that plays upon the LP's title, itself referring to a range of cultish activities often observed in underdeveloped societies as they encounter modernity––unexpectedly. That suddenness itself might come in the form of unrequested or violent colonization, with all the purported benefits of modern life thrust upon a distant and unsuspecting people.

Not knowing what to make of radios, televisions, the internet, guns, or airplanes, say, those same communities might begin to invest unfamiliar things with semi-religious significance. An airplane might be viewed as divine interaction––or a computer monitor as the portal to some parallel existence. These mythical misunderstandings then become cultish whenever an individual claims, with equal suddenness and bombast, to understand the "real" importance of mysterious technology. He then turns regular cargo dumps or mass-produced commodities into objects of misplaced religious desire.  

Lo-fi merchandise, so to speak, is given a suspiciously lofty importance. 

I Will Kill Chita 

And so, tongue in cheek, IWKC frame "Cargo Cult" as follows: "In order to bestow grace upon our native land, we decided to erect a new idol. Once that was done, we wrote down some instructions so the idol might survive on its own. Everything was transcribed using our standard tools of viola, keyboards. post-rock, symphonic punk... and that's all, really. After the instructions were documented, everybody broke into a dance. As would any aborigines! When our prog-punk dance was over, the aborigines sat down beside the fire and started telling awful jokes––all evening long––to the sound of some upbeat jazz. In the morning they got back to business and erected yet another new idol...."

The musicians then poke fun at their reputation as naive––even pointless––romantics: "Will these [simple] people be able to grab some forbidden pleasures from the settlers? The aborigines keep staring, full of hope, into the distance. They gaze at the horizon."

The aborigines keep staring, full of hope, into the distance. They gaze at the horizon (IWKC)

Both Arseny Morozov and IWKC use local prejudice and regionally specific cliche to mock their own status as aimless outsiders. In the same vein, they both speak of equally hackneyed or "savage" activity (making fires, staring at the sky...). If contemporary audiences expect young musicians to live as savages, then so be it. Contemporary mores offer little alternative, so playing the fool is almost an intelligent option; it's at least a guarantor of peace and creative quiet. Of self-renewal after a fall. 

Two more plays upon a musical past, civic dismissiveness, and degrees of self-determination come from The Jack Wood (Tomsk) and Moscow's Hellspin. The former band's most recent recording ("Ritual") transpired after a year's silence. Hellspin's newest LP, simply called "Void," appeared a full three years after its predecessor. Why the absence and/or a return?

The Jack Wood, working far from their native Siberia and now resident in Saint Petersburg, have admitted: "This time around, we spent substantially more time writing the tracks than we did recording them. Each song was first conceived and then pondered for a while––before we even began to discuss anything else. That's why everything dragged on for a year. We certainly didn't rush matters."

Lyudmila Shilova, front-woman of Moscow's Hellspin

The cliches surrounding any activity that's deemed "aboriginal" or "nomadic" have here attached themselves to uncleanliness; to something or someone disposable. "Previously folks would say that we're a lo-fi outfit––and that our sound was really 'dirty.' They thought we'd record our music on absolutely anything––in other words, indifferently. After that [offensive language], we just wanted to make a really dirty album! I reckon we could still ramp things up––so we'll sound dirtier than ever before!" Accusations of an unclear, unclean sound only prompt the performers to make a virtue of others' vindictiveness.

"Whenever some hater writes about us, we're always entertained! It's amazingly funny to see a handful of paragraphs dedicated to how 'primitive' we are. It really is an incredible kind of feedback; it gives you a genuine emotional rush. Serious praise and serious critique are equally fantastic. Whatever we read, it just needs to be serious, that's all! ..."

Whenever some hater writes about us, we're always entertained! (The Jack Wood)

And, if abuse is capable of ruining a career, then The Jack Wood simply accept that any commercial or critical failure can potentially open up another, unrealized, and superior option on the workplace. "There's always a process of conflict in art, be it private or public. Conflict makes you do something. If you read the biographies of great people, there's always some tension in there somewhere––with a parent, say. Or maybe somebody was deprived of something in their youth... We can imagine other hassles, too. But that's what generates the seed needed for anything bigger to grow." 

Progress needs failure, in order first to ascertain the limits of any current activity––and then step beyond them.

When asked whether such "capital" offense could have been avoided by staying in TomskThe Jack Wood reply swiftly and with conviction: "You mustn't fade away in some tiny village and then regret it! Tomsk is like a small bog––everybody gets stuck. That's why most of our friends have moved to Moscow. The only way of realizing themselves is to move away."

And that means both abuse and failure. Then growth.  

Looking for productive conflicts: The Jack Wood (Tomsk)

The webzine Sadwave heard some related views from Hellspin this month––who have also decided to bring their band to a mutually agreed-upon end. Front-woman Liusya begins: "It's hard for to me to talk about. I'm genuinely sad that things are winding up. On the other hand, Hellspin's finale is a logical one." Her colleagues talk of the band's entire purpose as something cathartic––and therefore destined for productive brevity. "We merely wanted the group to release all our pent-up energy and craziness. And our mission was accomplished…"

A colleague––Yura––agrees: "Hellspin was always supposed to be something primarily emotional and energetic. Perhaps even juvenile in some sense. Some folks were therefore attracted to us; others were put off. Sadly, those escalating emotions couldn't last forever... I don't think that our experiences will slip into the past, however; Hellspin will become a solid foundation for something new."

Hellspin will become a solid foundation for something new

Again the theme of lo-fi music emerges. Yura adds: "Personally I've always been kinda skeptical about the Russian lo-fi and garage scenes. We always preferred to call ourselves a punk or hard rock unit.... But, for a range of personal reasons, it's unlikely that we'll play together again in this line-up." 

Whatever the case, the generic terms encountered––or deliberately used––by Hellspin, The Jack WoodIWKCPadla Bear OutfitSonic Death, and Earworm all draw upon the paradoxical benefits of an outsider existence or meaninglessness, even. Their purported insignificance as Tajiks, nomads, or the embodiment of uncleanliness is always turned to creative benefit, along the lines sketched by The Jack Wood. Novelty comes unavoidably from difference; it comes even more from contrary or conflicted differences. If, therefore, one's sound is crudely dismissed as lo-fi, low quality, or fundamentally deficient, there is plenty to be gained.

At least until real life catches up, at which point a dalliance with metaphors of irrelevance can become a harsh encounter with social dismissal––far beyond the walls of any concert hall. "For a range of personal reasons." 

The Jack Wood (Tomsk): "Ritual"

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